The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Asking military service of so few takes a toll on our democracy

The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 10. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

We rely on fewer and fewer of our fellow Americans to bear the burdens of war.

Nowhere is this narrowing of the responsibilities of military service more obvious than in the halls of Congress. Half a century ago, roughly three-quarters of the members of the House and Senate had served in the military. Today, veterans account for less than a fifth of Congress.

This is, in part, a natural outcome of the end of the draft. But that does not reduce our national obligation to make Veterans Day more than a one-off occasion for gratitude.

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We need to take stock of the burdens that 20 years of war have imposed on a remarkably limited share of American families.

And we need to consider what it means that a large proportion of our nation’s leadership has never known what it is like to face combat. Its members have never had to risk their lives carrying out decisions made far away. They do not have to bear the physical and emotional scars of battle long after the wars end.

Perhaps because they are a self-chosen few, military veterans in Congress feel a special responsibility — to other vets, to the nation and to each other. Twenty-five veterans from both parties formed the For Country Caucus, with the goal of “a less polarized Congress.”

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In these divided times, the caucus’s statement of purpose feels more aspirational than realistic, but Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), an Air Force veteran who grew up in a military family, said the group is a kind of beachhead. “There is a certain amount of civility and decorum and respect afforded to somebody who has also worn the uniform,” she said.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) agreed: “You’ll never find us calling each other unpatriotic or questioning … what the other person is trying to achieve.” Crow, who served in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan, noted: “Because once you do that, there is no going back and you can’t have a discussion with somebody — you just can’t.”

One of the reasons he ran for Congress, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told me, was as a response to its declining share of former service members. “We’re at a record low in terms of veterans in Congress,” he said. “I think that is a big part of explaining the record amount of dysfunction. I really do.” When 70 to 80 percent of members had been in the military, he said, “you just had that commonality of service.”

Crow is passionate about the health care, education benefits and other basic support owed to veterans and their families. But he is most animated about something larger and harder to execute: a “radical change in our society in the way that we distribute the burdens of conflict.”

It begins, Crow said, with facing up to what it means to “ask a very small number of people to bear that burden for everybody else.” The nation requires “a more honest running conversation about the costs of asking these young men and women to go off and do very, very challenging, sometimes very troubling things, on our behalf.”

“People that are going into our military are coming from a smaller and smaller subset of the country,” he added. “You have fewer counties contributing a larger percentage of our military. That’s not good for our country. That’s not good for our military, either.”

Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), a 30-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserve, insisted that his non-veteran colleagues are “no less patriotic” than those who have served. But having fewer members with military experience makes debates on war and national security “more conceptual and abstract.”

Debates over the “numbers of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent” often “don’t have a whole lot of stories behind” them, Brown said.

His love for the military, Brown added, is what pushed him to engage on issues related to “diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on promotions, fighting extremism in the military ranks,” and reforming how the military deals with sexual assault.

Houlahan sees the shortage of veterans in Congress as owing in part to “how we elect people.” Most veterans, she said, “don't have a very deep bank of people that they know who might have the resources that they need to be able to communicate.”

This is part of the larger question looming over us this Veterans Day. Yes, we should thank vets for their service. Yes, we should, as Houlahan, Crow and others argue, create a far more robust system of national civilian service. But we should also recognize the costs to a democracy of asking so much of such a small share of our people.