Putting Armed Veterans Into Schools Is Madness

Politicians need to stop turning to the military to solve every problem.

Veterans standing beneath a raised American flag
Win McNamee / Getty

About the author: Andrew Exum is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

Stop trying to draft veterans to solve your problems. We’re busy.

Last week, faced with rising gun violence that senators insist has been caused by everything other than the historic proliferation of small arms in our society, they started discussing whether we should employ armed military veterans to patrol the hallways of our nation’s schools.

This is a serious proposal, we are told, and one entertained by senators from both parties.

It is madness. Let me explain why.

For those of you who are not yourselves veterans or who do not work in the U.S. government or at a major American corporation, let me assure you that the entire hiring process in both the private sector and the public sector is geared toward hiring military veterans.

And why should it not be? We work hard, are used to carrying out orders that do not add up, and generally have a well-developed sense of humor about life and our own mortality.

Corporations fall over themselves to hire veterans, and the federal government explicitly favors military veterans in its hiring. So in a country with an overall unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, just how many of us do you think are unemployed?

I drop my kids off at school most mornings, but I also have a job. I do not have the time to run inside and clear all of their classrooms with a firearm—although I am sure my kids and their friends would think it hilarious to watch me doing so with my trusty 28-gauge shotgun, saving them from any hostile quail found lurking under their desks.

The only veterans who have the time to do this, then, are those veterans who are mentally or physically disabled from their service, or veterans who have otherwise failed to transition back to “civilian life” and find gainful employment. Many, I would respectfully argue, are the very last people you want walking around schools with firearms.

But this isn’t the only instance where a policy maker has seen a difficult problem and decided to throw some veterans at it like spaghetti against the wall, seeing if they will stick. Last week, Representative Ro Khanna suggested that we employ the National Guard to fix the backlogs in our ports on the West Coast by helping offload cargo.

The unemployment rate in the state of California is 4.6 percent. Those National Guard members? They all have other jobs. They are teachers, welders, truck drivers, lawyers, nurses, and maybe even school security guards. So we would be asking them to put down tools in one area of the economy to fix a problem that is well outside of their core competencies. Not ideal.

Last year, meanwhile, the Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt suggested that Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin should solve a brewing problem in his state’s schools by—you guessed it!—taking over the schools and having veterans and National Guard members teach Virginia’s students. “Teaching is hard,” Hewitt blithely reasoned, “but it’s not magic.”

This one is doubly maddening. Everything that is wrong with using National Guard members to offload container ships applies here too. But beyond that, if you have watched the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades, what exactly gives you confidence that military veterans excel at building and running civic institutions? Did you look at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and think that was a huge success? If so, I guess I understand why, uh, we veterans should be running your kid’s kindergarten class.

What the hell is going on here? Why do these bad ideas keep coming up?

On guns, surely, the reason is that we do not want to face up to the fact that our national love affair with firearms has violent consequences. But there’s something more.

I suspect that when a lot of policy makers think of veterans, they think of us like John Rambo from the movie First Blood, or Caine from the television show Kung Fu, wandering the country aimlessly. They think of us as lost, and as victims.

Put bluntly, though, most of us veterans have our crap together. We’re husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, Little League coaches and church elders.

And yes, we’re more likely to be employed than the rest of you.

So stop suggesting that we solve problems that aren’t in our job jar. When we look back on our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we look back with a fair amount of humility about what we can and cannot do.

Maybe it’s time that policy makers do the same?