Will More Veterans in Politics Make Politics Better?

With Honor team: from left, Rye Barcott, John Mahony (COO), Ellen Zeng (Political Director), Marjorie Eastman (Advisor), Lori Campbell (Administrative Manager). (With Honor)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week I wrote about With Honor, a non-partisan PAC that is supporting “young veterans” — generally people age 45 and below who have served in the post-9/11 “long wars” — as candidates for political office. The occasion for writing about them was a $10 million donation from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos for this cycle’s Congressional elections.

My argument in the piece was that this effort was worthwhile, because the U.S. “will be better off with a broader draw of future leaders who understand service-above-self as more than an abstraction.” You can read the full case here. For now, reader response, pro and con.

First, on the relevance of John McCain’s example of veteran-leadership:

Your comment, “McCain himself was an imperfect example of the spirit of reasonable compromise...” reflects two key points:

1) perfection is the enemy of good enough,

2) good enough is the father of reasonable compromise…

With the craziness now (continuing) to descend on (within) D.C., it is "imperfect reasonableness" that we desperately need.

Next,  from someone who supports With Honor but would like them to do more with their “pledge” for reasonable-minded consensus-building work:

I admire the effort of With Honor and appreciate the attention you are giving to it.

I would have two wishes to strengthen the effort a bit.

  1. That the pledge would add a condition similar to the Air Academy's Honor Code:  "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." Too often, partisanship appears to limit the observation or reaction to corruption.
  2. That With Honor and those it endorses would pledge to make a response to any candidate for national elective office who makes false claims about their own service or attacks the service record of another veteran.
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On the pluses and minuses of veterans in public office:

I  concur that veterans make better political leaders, other things being equal.  I am one, US Army 1970 - 1976, only the first 2 years active duty, no combat.

The other day some politician indirectly insulted Tammy Duckworth in a most unseemly fashion.  He opined something about McCain being the most badly injured veteran in Congress and about McCain’s  singular heroism.  Duckworth’s combat injuries are far more severe and debilitating than McCain’s and her heroism in combat fully equal to McCain’s.  

McCain seemed to be an outsized heroic figure to non-veterans because of his own PR machine and the general ignorance of non-veterans [about the military]….

There were two other Hanoi Hilton prisoners whose combat valor was rewarded with Medals of Honor, Stockdale and Day.  Each was a better man than McCain.

But, McCain was a good Senator.  He turned out to be a better Senator than he was a Naval officer or pilot.

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From our friend and experienced political writer Mike Lofgren, on the mixed role of veterans in politics:

During the 1990s there were sporadic laments about the decline in number of military veterans in Congress: the World War II generation was dying off, and even the Korean war vets were thinning out. There were, of course, some Vietnam vets still around, like John McCain, Sam Johnson, Bob Kerrey, and Chuck Hagel. But the trend was definitely downward.

Now we are getting a new crop of veterans from GWOT. The question is not whether their service in the military is admirable, but whether they bring, as a group, some distinctive perspective that alters the political dynamic on Capitol Hill and the institution's civic reputation.

From what I have seen, I'd have to say no.

In line with the predominant trend of the last decade, they tend to become representatives of the partisan agenda of whichever party they belong to. This is not to criticize them for it: they have no more "obligation" to be independent than a former banker or lawyer or house painter. But outsiders should not overly valorize military service to the unrealistic point that it is assumed vets will behave markedly differently than any other class of people once they enter politics. In a way, this should be reassuring: they are not some praetorian guard with a special ethos, but an American cross section with broadly the same views as the rest of us.

I am not sure that Scott Taylor's present imbroglio in Virginia's second district meets the principles of civic service that communitarians want, nor do Duncan Hunter, Junior's shenanigans represent the kind of wisdom we are looking for in a legislator. As for being able to see beyond petty partisan bickering, neither Tom Cotton nor former representative Allen West appear to have anything distinctively different to offer.

It was ever thus: for every Bob Dole or JFK, we had a Strom Thurmond or a Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy.

The notion that a different class of legislator will save representative democracy in America may be a form of emotional escapism. The current partisan political culture is so all-enveloping that it is probably a wish-dream to assume that one occupational class is immune to it.

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And finally for now, in similar spirit, about the different generational effects of service in uniform:

I sure hope the “neutrality” you describe in your comments about returning military running for office are true.  My observations of some Vietnam-era vets has been that they are almost to a man decidedly right of center.

My husband is a Vietnam vet and also a staunch progressive, therefore Democrat.  His buddies with whom he has occasional contact are quite the opposite.  Some of their comments, which I have read, were disturbing and distasteful (from mostly naval officers).

Maybe the younger vets have more open minds - I pray that be so.