Company, Left

There's something different about the latest crop of military veterans running for Congress

Command Sergeant Major Tim Walz is a twenty-four-year veteran of the Army National Guard, now retired but still on active duty when a visit from President George W. Bush shortly before the 2004 election coincided with Walz's homecoming to Mankato, Minnesota. A high school teacher and football coach, he had left to serve overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom. Southern Minnesota is home to a large Guard contingent that includes Walz's unit, the First 125th Field Artillery Battalion, so the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are naturally a pressing local concern—particularly to high school students headed into the armed services.

The president's visit struck Walz as a teachable moment, and he and two students boarded a Bush campaign bus that took them to a quarry where the president was to speak. But after they had passed through a metal detector and their tickets and IDs were checked, they were denied admittance and ordered back onto the bus. One of the boys had a John Kerry sticker on his wallet.

Indignant, Walz refused. "As a soldier, I told them I had a right to see my commander-in-chief," the normally jovial forty-one-year-old recently explained to a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party dinner in the small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.

His challenge prompted a KGB-style interrogation that was sadly characteristic of Bush campaign events. Do you support the president? Walz refused to answer. Do you oppose the president? Walz replied that it was no one's business but his own. (He later learned that his wife was informed that the Secret Service might arrest him.) Walz thought for a moment and asked the Bush staffers if they really wanted to arrest a command sergeant major who'd just returned from fighting the war on terrorism.

They did not.

Instead Walz was told to behave himself and permitted to attend the speech, albeit under heavy scrutiny. His students were not: they were sent home. Shortly after this Walz retired from the Guard. Then he did something that until recently was highly unusual for a military man. He announced he was running for Congress—as a Democrat.

Walz personifies two of this year's most interesting political trends, both of which appear to emanate from the country's growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the party most responsible for it. The midterm elections this fall will be the first in which a sizable number of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq run for Congress. At least fourteen have declared so far. But in an era when military and national-security issues have long been the province of the Republican Party—indeed, are thought to have strengthened the GOP's grip on the White House and Congress in the past two elections—the bigger surprise is under whose banner these veterans are choosing to run. Like Walz, nearly every one of them is a Democrat.

One reason for the surge of Democratic veterans on the campaign trail is the example of Paul Hackett, a forty-three-year-old major in the Marine Corps who returned from Iraq and became the Democratic candidate in a special election last August for Ohio's second-district congressional seat. In a staunchly conservative district Hackett campaigned as an unabashed critic of the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq War at a time when few elected Democrats were so bold, and he fell just a few thousand votes short of an upset victory. He became a media star in the process, and is now running to unseat Ohio's embattled senior senator, the Republican Mike DeWine, this fall.

The subsequent group of veterans very much resembles Hackett: they are generally young (most in their thirties and forties), new to electoral politics, and, with varying degrees of intensity, critics of the administration. At a time when the public's opinion of lawmakers in both parties is abysmal, these veterans are running on the attractively civic-minded notion that service in Congress is a patriotic extension of service in the military. They are spread throughout the country but concentrated in military-heavy states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Texas, where the war and its effects are most keenly felt.

This fact was driven home on the day I arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to meet Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tim Dunn, a lawyer and a veteran of the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict. Dunn recently returned from a tour in Iraq, where he helped the Iraqi Special Tribunal investigate and prosecute former high officials of the regime, including Saddam Hussein himself. He is a Democratic candidate for the state's eighth congressional district, home to the Army's Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. Just before we were to meet, Dunn was called away to attend a tragically familiar ritual around Fayetteville: a memorial service for an Army Special Forces soldier killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

When we did meet, the next day, Dunn described local concerns that echoed what I'd already heard around town and also in Minnesota and Texas districts with high concentrations of military personnel—concerns about families left behind and about health care and economic assistance for returning veterans. Above all there was a diffuse and mounting frustration with Washington, most often summed up in military idiom as a "crisis of leadership."

"I pledge to be someone who will not only vote his convictions but voice his convictions," Dunn said. With his wraparound sunglasses and hair cut high and tight, he looked as if he had just hopped off a tank. "What's needed in Congress today is a dose of honor, courage, and commitment." This same sentiment is voiced, though possibly for different reasons, by the lone Republican veteran seeking a House seat: Van Taylor, a thirty-three-year-old Marine captain who is hoping to oust the incumbent Democrat in Texas's seventeenth district. "People want a congressman who's a proven leader in the war on terror," Taylor says.

That sort of raw authenticity—experience in combat—has declined steadily over the past three decades. According to research conducted by William Bianco, a professor at Penn State University who has studied the civilian-military divide, the number of veterans in the House reached its zenith in 1971, when more than 72 percent of congressmen had served. With the retirement of World War II veterans and the under-representation of veterans of later wars, that number has slipped below 20 percent. Experts attribute this decline to the paucity of large-scale combat operations, the shrinking of the armed services overall, and the change in 1975 to an all-volunteer military, which created a higher percentage of career-minded soldiers, less likely to take an interest in running for office. That could change. "What you're looking at now is fairly unusual," says Richard Kohn, a history professor and the chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina. "This is the first time post-1975 that you're seeing a group emerge that specifically wants to get involved in politics."

Every significant war produces a generation of politicians, and each generation reflects the war that forged it. Bill Clinton, a consummate student of politics, used to joke to his White House staff, with no small bit of truth, that "if you were a Civil War general from Ohio in the late nineteenth century, you stood a fifty percent chance of becoming president." World War II yielded a bountiful crop of politicians, including seven presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) and dozens of congressmen; ninety-two veterans were elected to the first Congress after the war's end. In contrast, seven years after the United States left Vietnam, only four Vietnam veterans were in Congress. Even these few, though, have made their presence felt: the first to be elected was John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who set off a storm in November when he called on the Bush administration to withdraw troops from Iraq.

What sort of impact might Iraq War veterans have on Congress? Raw numbers aside, it stands to reason that veterans of unpopular wars like Vietnam and Iraq can have a greater immediate effect in Washington than those of popular wars like World War II. Although veterans of any war tend to be held in high esteem, only wars that voters perceive the United States to be losing awaken the type of anti-Washington sentiment that is suddenly so widespread.

And yet that did little to put Vietnam veterans in office three decades ago. What's different about this war is how veterans perceive, and in turn are perceived by, the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement during Vietnam (and by extension the Democratic Party) was heavily anti-GI as well. But even the most strident antiwar faction of today's party is unquestionably pro-soldier. "An Iraq veteran doesn't carry the baggage that a Vietnam veteran carried in liberal circles," says Charles Moskos, a sociologist specializing in military issues. Judging by the willingness of today's veterans to run as Democrats, the feeling is mutual.

Rightly or wrongly, the current crop of veterans seems to be inoculated against the standard criticism of Democrats as weak on national security. And most of the voters I encountered appeared to look at service in Iraq or Afghanistan as not just a desirable credential but one that confers unchallengeable moral standing—no small thing at a time when ethical transgressions promise to be central to the fall elections.

It seems too neat to be mere coincidence—though it must be—that a few of the current Democratic veterans are pitted against some notorious Republican grotesques. In Pennsylvania's tenth district Don Sherwood, a sixty-four-year-old married Republican incumbent, made headlines last year for allegedly beating his twenty-nine-year-old mistress. (The case was settled.) He faces a challenge from Chris Carney, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves who at the time was coordinating counterintelligence activities in the Middle East. In North Carolina, Tim Dunn is running against the incumbent Republican Robin Hayes, who managed the considerable feat of making John Kerry look Churchillian when he publicly vowed to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which would hurt the district's manufacturing sector, and then knuckled under to last-minute pressure from the administration. The most arresting example of a heroic veteran could be a Democratic candidate for the race in Illinois's sixth district, Tammy Duckworth, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Iraq War who lost both legs and shattered an arm when she was shot down.

Of course, veterans are no more immune than anyone else from the quotidian demands of a congressional challenge. Given their straitlaced demeanor and the service-and-sacrifice nature of their career, the ones I met seemed particularly ill at ease asking for money. Still, they have cause for hope. In the final hour Paul Hackett's Ohio campaign caught fire as Democrats across the country learned of his campaign and, with the aide of activist blogs and Web sites, pumped in nearly half a million dollars. The ability of his successors to repeat that performance will go a long way toward determining if this latest charge of candidate veterans is a skirmish or the first wave on the beach.