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May 25th, 2009
07:22 PM ET

The decline of veterans in Washington

Gerald F. Seib
Capitol Journal, Wall Street Journal

The long Memorial Day weekend may be as good a time as any to ponder the question of whether the gap is widening between those who serve in the military and those in the political sector who help determine what the military does.

Certainly the number of Washington decision-makers with military experience continues to decline. In its profile of the Congress that convened at the beginning of the year, the Congressional Research Service notes that it continues a long-term slide in the number of lawmakers in Washington who have served in the military:

“In the 111th Congress there are 121 Members who have served in the military, five less than in the 110th Congress. The House has 96 veterans (including two Delegates); the Senate 25. These Members served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War,Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, as well as during times of peace. Some have served in the Reserves and the National Guard. Several Members are still serving as Reservists. As noted above, one Senator is a former Secretary of the Navy.

“The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th Congress (1979-1981); and 398 veterans (329 Representatives, 69 Senators) in the 91st Congress (1969-1971).”

In addition, the current president isn’t a veteran. His national security adviser and his defense secretary are, but most of his top advisers aren’t. And it’s certainly a safe bet that veterans are a distinct minority among the Washington press corps.

The question of military service at least seems more relevant at a time when U.S. forces are active in Iraq, Afghanistan and, to some extent, Pakistan. But does it really matter? Would policies be any different if the percentage of veterans in Congress were higher? The U.S. lurched into the Vietnam War when the percentage of veterans in Congress was far higher than it is today, but was that a factor in any way?

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Filed under: Memorial Day • Military • Veterans
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    Military service is indeed the great equalizer. More than any other profession, except maybe the clergy, no one cares where you come from, just how you do your job. When you have to rely on your fellow soldiers or sailors for your very life, it creates bonds that last a lifetime. Those who have never served will never appreciate the challenges faced by those who have. To me it seems inconceivable that our Constitution allows those who never served to be Commander-in-Chief. If you are going to give orders which could send thousands to their deaths, you need to have some sense of what it means. Unfortunately the declining trend of veterans in Congress means that they will pass legislation that is more and more based on political considerations than the real needs of the military. If you haven't 'been there, done that' how can you wear the T-shirt?

    May 26, 2009 at 11:09 am |
  2. Rosa Wallace

    My husband fought in Viet Nam. More than 50,000 soldiers died in that war. The men that served in Viet Nam came back Physically and mentally crippled. My husband is one of the few men that returned that did well. There are so many mentally ill and homeless soldiers from that era. We should really think about the men returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The help they are going to need. Or we will have another rush of mentally and physically ill and also homeless veterans.

    May 26, 2009 at 2:00 am |
  3. Bill H

    My opinion is that without the draft, and WITH 'don't ask don't tell' and the expulsion of so many gays, there are fewer candidates for enlistment in the military service. Therefore, more and more people are not going to be veterans of war or peace-time military service.
    Are there more options for employment now? No. So why aren't more men and women joining the military. Maybe it's the lack of respect that service members get from the average civilian. Maybe a leftover from the Vietnam war when so many opposed it and vilivied the service members who fought in that war. The percieved heroes are the ones who went to Canada to avoid the draft and got away with it. What's the solution? I wish I had a good one, but the only thing that comes to mind is more publicity for all the various services and the benefits to be had from enlisting.
    Thank you.

    May 26, 2009 at 12:11 am |
  4. Annie Kate

    I'm not sure that military service reflects much on the haves and have nots of society but I do see where military service is a great asset to have for the President and the Cabinet members. FDR could concentrate his first 8 years on the economy because his defense people were so experienced in the military that they could take care of the military and ensure that it operated smoothly during that time and that when WW2 became a war we knew we would have to fight they effectively built our military into an effective fighting force to defeat Hitler and Japan. FDR had a choice of who he wanted in each arm of the military, tell them the ultimate goal and what he would like to see, and then let them loose to accomplish it because they had the experience to enable them to accomplish what he wanted. They took care of the details while FDR took care of the larger international interests and US's place in them. I hope Obama will have this sort of experience behind him so he can maximize what he has to do.

    May 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm |