The Draft and Bipartisanship


Dana Milbank, the vastly overrated columnist for the Washington Post, makes one of the dumbest political arguments I’ve ever encountered. He claims that we would not be in such a hyper-partisan situation in Congress if there were more veterans on Capitol Hill. And that’s why we should reinstate the draft.

As I make my rounds each day in the capital, chronicling our leaders’ plentiful foibles, failings, screw-ups, inanities, outrages and overall dysfunction, I’m often asked if there’s anything that could clean up the mess…

But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. The idea is radical, unlikely and impractical — but it just might work.

There is no better explanation for what has gone wrong in Washington in recent years than the tabulation done every two years of how many members of Congress served in the military.

A Congressional Quarterly count of the current Congress finds that just 86 of the 435 members of the House are veterans, as are only 17 of 100 senators, which puts the overall rate at 19 percent. This is the lowest percentage of veterans in Congress since World War II, down from a high of 77 percent in 1977-78, according to the American Legion. For the past 21 years, the presidency has been occupied by men who didn’t serve or, in the case of George W. Bush, served in a capacity designed to avoid combat.

It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9 percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago.

Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a “cause greater than self,” and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they’ve turned politics into war.

Uh, yeah. James Joyner brings us an important message from reality:

But the notion that having worn a military uniform somehow makes one immune from partisanship and foolishness is absurd…

ff the top of my head, it’s not even obvious that current Members of Congress who are veterans are more willing to “make compromises for the good of the country” than their non-veteran peers. Certainly, recently-departed Representative Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel allowed to retire after escaping conviction for war crimes, didn’t fit that bill. Nor did Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, who served in the Army Reserve.
Looking at a slightly dated list of veterans in the House and Senate, one sees plenty of firebrands. Spencer Bachus. John Conyers. John Dingell. Louie Gohmert. Duncan Hunter. Darrell Issa. Peter King. Charlie Rangel. Bobby Rush. Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Jim Inhofe.

Not exactly a list of bipartisan moderates from either party, and some of them are among the most extreme in either party. As Joyner points out, there are many good reasons to want more veterans in the military, but this sure as hell isn’t one of them.

Comments

  1. inquisitiveraven says

    More veterans in the military? Surely you mean more veterans in Congress, right?

    Anyway, you missed John McCain, who, when he isn’t running for President, is one of the sanest Republicans in the Senate. Of course, that “when he isn’t running for President” is an important caveat given that we all saw what happened when he was running for President.

  2. keithb says

    I don’t know if it was McCain running for president, or just that he became a crochety old man. He is no longer “the sane one”.

    Maybe we should do like Starhip Troopers. No draft, but only veterans get to vote and run for office.

  3. Wylann says

    keithb, that would be even worse. At least, given the ample evidence that military service doesn’t make one any better qualified to govern/lead in any kind of effective way.

    It might be interesting though, since so much of the military is currently made up of the lower income classes.

  4. D. C. Sessions says

    It might be interesting though, since so much of the military is currently made up of the lower income classes.

    Those who fail to learn the lessons of Vietnam are doomed to repeat it.

    If the children of Senators (fortunate sons!) have to do a stint in the military to inherit their fathers’ political careers, you can bet that they will. You can also bet that for unfathomable reasons, they’ll spend their entire time in the Service assigned to places like Hawaii, San Diego, and the Pentagon.

  5. otrame says

    Ha, LightningRose, I was thinking the same thing. I prefer to pretend the movie never happened, though.

    I’ve always loved the book. Yes, yes, I know. I know as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal I am not supposed to like it. I know. Chalk it up to reading it the first time when I was 8, okay?

    And seriously, I sometimes think that some kind of National Service (not military) as a requirement for all young people after high school is not a bad idea. Not for the nonsense about automatically developing a better sense of community and certainly not as a requirement for citizenship, because that is just bullshit. No, I think of it more as a place for young people to go that is away from their home and parents and forces them to meet a whole bunch of people who are from different places/ethnicities, etc. (my ex liked to say that basic training gave him a great opportunity to meet a blithering idiot from every state in the union). Perhaps more importantly, it would give them something to do while they finish growing up. Then, with some sort of education fund, and/or cash payout they leave after a couple of years and get on with their lives.

  6. naturalcynic says

    It might be interesting though, since so much of the military is currently made up of the lower income classes.

    Not qute true, Wylann. At present, most of the military are from the middle class, but soon to be lower class.

  7. inquisitiveraven says

    Keithb@3: My impression is that after he lost the election, McCain found at least some of his lost marbles. Also, do keep in mind that “one of the sanest Republicans” is a remarkably low bar to clear.

  8. says

    Maybe we should do like Starhip Troopers. No draft, but only veterans get to vote and run for office.

    Starship Troopers was about life in a totalitarian regime that had turned everyone into war-slaves. Is that your idea of a good time?

  9. colnago80 says

    Re D. C. Sessions @ #5

    In the 2008 election, 3 of the 4, (Biden, Palin, and McCain) had sons serving in the military in Iraq. Obviously, Obama’s daughters were too young. One thing I think has some merit, those who have served in the military, particularly in combat positions, tend to be rather less eager to have the US military engage in foreign adventures then those who have not.

  10. colnago80 says

    Re D. C. Sessions @ #5

    I think it is noteworthy that few of the neo-cons who are so gung ho for military adventures have ever served.

  11. naturalcynic says

    With the idea of “universal service”, there will be some serious lobbying against it by every big time college with a strong athletic department and alumni association. They will sorely miss their 19 year old Johnny Footballs. The Olympic Committee and supporters will lobby for making universal service a development camp for the best athletes. The music industry will want up and coming musicians to be put together.

    It may be a good idea for the majority, but it will be a major disruption for the exceptional talent.
    I suppose the best illustration of a fixed period of universal service at the present time is BYU. Is that what you want?

  12. colnago80 says

    Dana Milbank, the vastly overrated columnist for the Washington Post, makes one of the dumbest political arguments I’ve ever encountered.

    I know it’s a low bar but Milbank is certainly better then the likes of George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Cohen, Robert Samuelson, Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, etc.

  13. says

    The all-volunteer force allows the sons and daughters of the wealthy and powerful to avoid the burden of fighting our wars.

    Yeah, because the wealthy and powerful never found ways of getting their kids out of service when we had the draft.

    I’m actually quite sure that a draft would result in way too many potential enlistees, making it even easier for the rich and powerful to skimp out than it was in decades past.

  14. says

    “As Joyner points out, there are many good reasons to want more veterans in the military Congress…”

    I’m afraid I didn’t see any. This veteran worship really needs to stop.

    This is the sum total of what Joyner says:

    That few in Congress have served in the military is lamentable for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that it not only makes them less intimately familiar with the demands of combat but also tends to undermine civil-military relations by making our civilian leaders afraid to challenge our military brass.

    When it comes to point #1, who cares? Combat experience has fuck-all to do with serving in Congress. Maybe it makes someone less likely to send others into combat, but you know what? There is no shortage of people who have never served in the military that don’t want to start wars. You just have to stop electing the wrong people.

    As for point #2, is there any evidence that non-veterans get bullied by the brass? Why would they? Even if this happens, which I doubt, a far better solution is to jettison our culture’s obsession with “honoring” the military, so that senior military leaders are regarded as no more important or morally worthy than any other accomplished professional.

  15. Synfandel says

    Mr. Milbank’s logic is unassailable:
    Reinstating the draft means more soldiers.
    More soldiers might (?) lead to more veterans on Capitol Hill.
    More veterans means more PTSD and suicide.
    More suicide among Congressmen “could clean up this mess”.
    QED

  16. Brandon says

    As Joyner points out, there are many good reasons to want more veterans in [Congress]

    There are? Like what? I see nothing to suggest that veterans are more capable, conscientious, honest, or educated than a random sampling of civilians. If anything, I’d be inclined to think that their biases would be towards an ever larger, “more capable” military, which I do not see as a good thing.

  17. otrame says

    Marcus Ranum,

    Actually no, that is not what Starship Troopers was about. That is what the MOVIE was about. In the book, service, not necessarily military service, was required to gain the right to vote or run for an elective position, but the system was not totalitarian. Heinlein’s thesis that such service, especially military service, creates better citizens is, of course, bullshit.

  18. colnago80 says

    Re area man @ #15

    Yeah, because the wealthy and powerful never found ways of getting their kids out of service when we had the draft.

    Well George H. W. Bush served as a pilot in WW 2 (and was shot down by the way). Both Joe Kennedy Jr. and John F. Kennedy served in WW 2, the former dying in action, the latter suffering back injuries the plagued him the rest of his life.

  19. colnago80 says

    Re Brandon @ #18

    I provided a reason in comment #10 that folks who have served in combat tend to be rather less eager to engage in foreign adventures then those who have not.

  20. steve84 says

    All part of the sick militarism and military worship permeating American society these days. Just because someone is a veteran doesn’t mean that they are automatically good at everything else or deserve preferential treatment. If someone has spent a long time in the military, they actually often have a very narrow perspective on life and society, because of the conformity the military encourages. Anyone who goes against the stream is weeded out. And given how extremely conservative the military is, recruiting politicians from it is just a bad idea.

  21. steve84 says

    @16
    >”As for point #2, is there any evidence that non-veterans get bullied by the brass?”

    Actually, there is almost complete deference to the military, both by the justice system and politicians. Whenever a change in the military is proposed, the generals raise a big stink and the politicians fall over themselves to to do whatever they want. Civilian control of the military is little more than a charade.

    Just look at DADT or the current attempt to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the direct chain of command. Something is threatening the generals’ undeserved power and immediately they invent wild fantasies about the horrid consequences using their usual, overused and meaningless catchphrases about “good order and discipline”. And just as immediately, most of politicians cave in to their demands.

  22. keithb says

    Marcus:
    As was pointed out, the book is clearly not a totalitarian regime, other than the one high school class that had to be taught by a veteran, the government does not seem to be particularly important or involved with people’s lives. Heinlein also ret-conned things by making non-military service an option. In the book it was never presented that way.

  23. says

    But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18.

    Authoritarian bullshit. And the first sentence needs a citation.

    I work with a lot of ex-military people and the arrogance quotient tends to be high with that crowd. It would be sweet if some of them were as good of employees as they make themselves out to be.

    The ex-military managers and bosses I have to deal with are, more often than not, insufferably conceited, hardly the *special snowflakes* that we need to run the world.

  24. says

    Re area man @ #15

    “Yeah, because the wealthy and powerful never found ways of getting their kids out of service when we had the draft.”

    Well George H. W. Bush served as a pilot in WW 2 (and was shot down by the way). Both Joe Kennedy Jr. and John F. Kennedy served in WW 2, the former dying in action, the latter suffering back injuries the plagued him the rest of his life.

    These things are not mutually exclusive. Some wealthy scions serve in the military by choice. Others, like George W. Bush or Dan Quayle, have their fathers pull strings to get them cushy gigs in the National Guard.

    The point is that the draft won’t make the sons of the rich and powerful serve. They will always have the option of getting out of it. That’s what it means to be powerful.

  25. says

    @16
    >”As for point #2, is there any evidence that non-veterans get bullied by the brass?”

    Actually, there is almost complete deference to the military, both by the justice system and politicians. Whenever a change in the military is proposed, the generals raise a big stink and the politicians fall over themselves to to do whatever they want.

    Let me be more specific: Is there any evidence that non-veterans get bullied by the brass more so than veterans? In other words, why would having more veterans make any difference?

    I agree that our political culture is totally obsequious to the military. That shit needs to end. Pretending that veterans would automatically make superior Congressmen is emblematic of the whole problem.

  26. says

    “agree that our political culture is totally obsequious to the military. That shit needs to end.”

    Well, I remember a time, from say 1975 till about 1990 when a veteran was as likely to be considered a psychotic killer or druggie (and there were a fair number of both amongst the veterans of the Vietnam conflict). I suspect that once we get most of our troops back to the CONUS Zone that the same fucking dickheads in congress that have been cheerleading the foreign adventurism will find reasons to defund the VA and anything else that they can weasel out of paying for.

    Catbutler @14 beat me to it. Anybody who has never worn a uniform and calls for “universal military service” is a piece-of-shit.

  27. sugarfrosted says

    @19 yeah and if you’re a cripple like me, you aren’t eligible to serve so you’ll never be able to vote. Sounds like a fair system to me. Restricting voting like that leads to a group being totally being unrepresented, which often leads to oppression.

  28. marcus says

    Really, I have too many more pleasant ways to lower my IQ to spend any time on that crap. I was a volunteer in the Army in 1977. I wouldn’t wish that stupid shit on my worst fucking enemy.

  29. whheydt says

    Re: Sugarfrosted @ #31:

    Go *read* Heinlein’s _ST_. And if you have read it, read it again, only this time pay attention what he actually wrote.

    (And, generally, there is an interesting sub-text to ST_. Heinlein is criticizing the US military, and specifically the US Navy–he was a graduate of Annapolis–over their slotting all Filipinos as Stewards.)

  30. francesc says

    Milbank’s argument, re-written
    1.- Everytime in the past was better
    2.- Correlation implies causation

  31. Nick Gotts says

    One thing I think has some merit, those who have served in the military, particularly in combat positions, tend to be rather less eager to have the US military engage in foreign adventures then those who have not. – genocidal scumbag@10

    Yep, just consider the famous “Pacifist Axis” of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, who succeessfully prevented a “Second World War” breaking out, because their service in combat had convinced them of the horror and futility of war.

  32. says

    @34:

    Getting off on a tangent, here.

    It’s been years since I read “Starship Troopers”. It read a lot like Doc Smith’s Sci-fi, “Lensman” series from an earlier period*. Race of inhuman creatures invades OUR space and starts grabbin’ up OUR planets and we will, BY GOD, blow them right the fuck outta their socks or tentacle sheaths or whatever. Jingoism, xenophobia, despicable alien interlopers and impossibly heroic white people–the only thing’s missing are tri-corner hats, Gadsden flags and misspelt signs.

    Earlier in his career, Heinlein was a great writer. By the time I was in HS I think that Heinlein had developed OCD, writing about his sexual fantasies at every opportunity and then, a few years later, he got into Oedipal sexual fantasies. Kinda sad.

    It’s hard to know where he was at on the continuum of political thought when he wrote “Starship Troopers” but he moved from being a fairly ardent socialist in the late 30’s to being a McCarthy apologist in the 50’s. Liberal would not be an accurate label, imo, in his later years.

    As for the movie following the tone of the book. Well, there’s a way to ensure that happens. It’s called having an enforceable contract–which his estate’s attorney(s) certainly should have had a say in writing–with the filmmaker.

    @35:

    Shorter Milbank:

    “I’m smart, look at me! LOOK AT ME!!”.

    A smart HS freshman could make better arguments than that putz.

    * Yeah, Orson Card, I’m lookin’ at you, too.

  33. says

    Hitler was a wartime combat soldier. Mussolini and Tojo were both in the army. Mussolini served as a condition of his pardon by the Italian authoriites. Tojo doesn’t seem to have served as a combat soldier.

    Hitler was a fucking lunatic. I think Colnago80 was thinking of more your average sort of soldier–but I’m sure that he will clear that up if he has any interest in doing so.

  34. caseloweraz says

    And now for something completely different.

    The idea that serving in the military makes one a better person is widespread, perhaps even universal, among Americans. Hollywood movies from the WW II era no doubt have a great deal to do with this. But WW II itself has even more to do with it.

    Our involvement in WW II was the most recent time when most Americans perceived war as an existential threat, and the most recent war in which the majority of those who served experienced wartime conditions — if not actual combat, then the chaos and privation attendant to it as support troops. Privation came home to the civilian population too.

    So I suggest that what makes veterans (some veterans, to be more accurate) better persons is that war forces them to rub up against a different reality than they’re used to; it is, in a word, challenging. As others have pointed out here, there is no guarantee of this happening in war. In fact, as we move along the timeline (see below) it has become less likely to happen to a large portion of Americans.

    Indeed, I could argue that the need to assign dramatic names to many of our later engagements reflects the relative lack of urgency in the actual situations. I don’t mean these were not justified (although some were not), but that relatively few Americans met the transformative challenges to their habits or moral precepts that so many experienced in WW II.

    My point is that we need to apply that transformative power to as many citizens as possible. Could education do the job? I think so, if it were the right kind of education, the challenging kind. But that seems increasingly rare here at home.

    Some recent American conflicts:

    Korean War (1950-53)
    Vietnam War (1964-75)
    Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada, 1983)
    Operation Earnest Will (1987-88)
    Operation Just Cause (Panama, 1989)
    Desert Storm (1990-91)
    Operation Restore Hope (Somalia, 1992-94)
    Operation Uphold Democracy (Haiti, 1994-95)
    Operation Infinite Reach (1998)
    War in Kosovo (1999)
    War in Afghanistan (2001-now)
    Operation Iraqi Freedom (2010)

    (Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States)

  35. says

    Someone pointed out awhile back that veterans in Congress and the Senate were less likely to have voted for war authorizations than non-veterans. But I doubt this means anything, since war authorizations take place very rarely, and we’re probably talking about votes that took place during entirely different generations.

    If you take a look at the authorization of the Iraq War, for example, the best predictors for how someone voted were their political party and ideology. If your goal is to prevent foolish wars, then you shouldn’t care who is or isn’t a veteran, you should do your best to get rid of conservative Republicans. But Very Serious People like Milbank will twist themselves in knots to avoid that obvious conclusion.

  36. colnago80 says

    Re democommie @ #39

    I had in mind US military veterans. I think it is a fair statement that most such veterans who served in wartime, particularly in the infantry, have a hands on understand of just how horrible war is. To quote General Sherman, “War is all hell. There is no glory in war.”

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