Veterans of the Long Wars: ‘Of course it’s a good thing we’ve begun entering politics.’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
William Henry Harrison was a veteran-politician. Should we have more? (A.S. Southworth and J.J. Hawes, at Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia)

One more round, on whether in this Chickenhawk era—when the United States is always at war, but 99% of its population is not directly touched by the physical or even financial consequences of combat—having more “young veterans” in politics would improve  politics and policy.

These responses follow this item on a new PAC devoted to supporting young-veteran campaigns; these two rounds of previous reader comment; and my original Chickenhawk Nation piece from three years ago.

First, from a veteran of the recent Long Wars. He writes:

I was surprised by some of the blowback you have received. Yes of course being a veteran shouldn’t be a pre-req for civil service, and yes of course not all veterans are decent and as seen by the veterans in Charlottesville, some are downright un-American.

But most service members are forced to move to small towns all around the country and world and work with people of varying backgrounds and beliefs. We’ve seen American diversity up close and personally, in a stressful and patriotic environment, and worked with people we bitterly disagree with politically because we believed in an American ideal that is greater than Democrat or Republican.

Recently a veteran-turned-CIA-security-contractor threatened that he’d like to strangle Obama because of Benghazi. There’s a lot wrong with that, but it grinds my gears that a veteran-turned-mercenary is a normal thing now. If he still wore the uniform he’d be reprimanded for talking so foolishly (I guess unless he’s Tom Cotton). But mercenaries do what they want. And Erik Prince wants to be the Viceroy of Afghanistan.

This is a problem that only those of us who are part of the 1% have really engaged with, and as long as only 1% serve in the Long Wars, it will continue. ‘Of course our perspective is important, and of course it’s a good thing we’ve begun entering politics.’


Next, from a no-longer-so-young veteran, of the Vietnam era:

I echo the point of a vet that we are a slice of America (at least we were when I volunteered in 1965-67 and among the vets I know now).

The one advantage vets may bring to politics is, if like me, they had been in school for 18 years and had never known working class folks.

My 2 years in the Army were a profound education in class, especially in learning how radically different the life horizons of kids just waiting to get back on "the block" were from mine.

Oh, and I also learned that officers could lack principles and lie just like everyone else.


Last for today, a recent-era veteran, with a previous elite-college background, on a related piece of conventional wisdom on the right background for people seeking political leadership:

The drum that folks like Seth Moulton keep beating, and that groups like With Honor march to, has to do with an idea of military veterans being more prone to bipartisanship, to selfless service, etc. -- in some sense more morally or temperamentally suited to government service.

I don't really know how I feel about that idea one way or another. But, for sure, one lesson of the Trump era is that it's time to put this "businessmen ought to run the government" crap to bed once and for all.

Certainly in the Trump Cabinet the folks whose "qualification" for office was their success in nongovernmental pursuits -- Tillerson, Cohn, DeVos, Carson, and the C-in-C himself the most high-profile -- have been spectacular failures — thwarted in their aims by a complete inability to understand how government functions, who continually make pronouncements about their intent and direction that are rendered comical by their complete obliviousness as to the concrete steps needed to implement a policy.

On the other hand the folks with prior government experience -- Mattis, Kelly, Sessions, Perry, Purdue -- have been, for good or evil, quite able to run their departments (to the extent Kelly can't run the CoS mission smoothly, well, c'mon)….

I think we can all sensibly agree that to be good at government takes experience with government.  Note that all the Presidents before Trump, in recent memory, did have some of that. [JF note: All of the first 44 presidents, Washington through Obama, had experience either as elected officials (most of them); military commanders (eg Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower); or judges or cabinet officials (like Taft and Hoover). Trump is the first person to take office with absolutely no elected, administrative, judicial, or military public-service experience.]

On _that_ score, veterans are great!  In my time in uniform, and since then working in the intelligence and military communities, I've had to spend a whole lot of time thinking about the Federal Acquisition Regulations and government personnel policies, and doing interdepartmental coordination of various kinds, and so on.

It's a bit off-message because I think groups like With Honor are drawing your attention to the mission-driven, dedicated, all-for-one spirit of the forward patrol in Kandahar, and here I am telling you: No, the special thing is that they navigated the Godawful predeployment paperwork maze and box-checking to get there and then then the postdeployment hell--and then when they weren't in Fallujah they were pushing paper to send taskers via a SecState contractor or to shepherd fielding of new body armor or to fill out an SF0-86 RIGHT for cryin' out loud or to hire (or fire) a staffer. But there it is.

If you want a guy who already gets the government but for whatever reason are averse to voting for "politicians," then, sure, you can't really do better than a vet.  Hell, I was never a logistics officer but I bet any one of those guys anywhere -- especially the warrants -- could be put in the Oval Office tomorrow and at least keep the lights on everywhere.