In 1946, one of Wisconsin’s candidates for Senate was a 38-year-old combat veteran. The young warrior-turned-politician had volunteered for a vicious war and come home unscathed, when too many others were not as lucky. Now, cloaking himself as a returning hero, he’d won the respect of a public eager to honor the troops. “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy won his seat handily and headed to Washington.
McCarthy was only one of many veterans who took off their uniform after World War II to enter another form of service. By 1967, 75% of House members had served; and by 1975, 81% of the Senate were military veterans. Unlike McCarthy, the majority of these, including figures such as John F. Kennedy, Daniel Inouye, Robert Dole and George H.W. Bush, served with skill, honor and commendable dedication. More recently, the nation paused to remember John McCain’s life of service, starting in the Vietnam War and carrying through 35 years in Congress.
Today, only 19% of our national legislators are veterans. With the end of conscription in 1973 came changing assumptions about military service as a threshold for public service. Officeholders today are much more likely to be career politicians.
Some believe that the lack of veterans in office is one reason for the deterioration of our civic discourse. If more veterans were serving in Congress, this thinking goes, the institution would be more functional and bipartisan. Groups such as New Politics and With Honor have worked to recruit veterans for elected office and have helped to spur a dramatic uptick in candidacies. In the 2018 midterms, some 400 veterans ran in primaries for the House of Representatives. About half of them won and will be standing for election in November.
The proportion of veterans in the country as a whole has declined as well, from 18% of all Americans in 1980 to only 7% today. As a result, fewer people have any sense of what military service is about, so the public is more likely to be dazzled by a uniform. It’s no surprise, then, that today’s veteran candidates are getting attention. A Google search for “military veterans running for office” turns up stories from just about every major national media outlet in 2018.
Veterans certainly can make for attractive candidates. They’re usually fit, well-spoken and unafraid of playing up their military service in campaign ads. Many veterans are genuine heroes—courageous beyond description and selfless to the core. Yet the reality is that, as with most large groups of Americans, the vast majority of veterans are neither heroic nor craven but somewhere in between.
The uniform looks great, but in the end, it’s just that—a set of clothes, representing a willingness to sacrifice but worn by people who may or may not serve honorably when they put away their camouflage and enter elected office.
Veterans feature in some of the most embarrassing political scandals of the last few years. With few exceptions, as the country has grown more partisan, so have its veterans serving in the national legislature. The record shows that veterans elected as Republicans generally vote like Republicans, just as veterans elected as Democrats vote like Democrats.
Every candidate running for office highlights what is most impressive in their previous career, and veterans are no different. When it comes to the experiences that make for better leadership, our nation’s veterans (along with its teachers, AmeriCorps alumni, foreign service officers and other former public servants) may indeed offer something uniquely valuable, especially given our tumultuous political times.
For those thinking of voting for a veteran, here’s some advice—a few suggestions for making it likelier that you’ll be electing the next Kennedy, Inouye, Dole or Bush, as opposed to another McCarthy.
First, look for someone whose service made him or her more humble about the world, rather than more certain. Though not all who served can claim feats of valor, many emerge more thoughtful from the experience—mindful of the tragic impact of death and life-altering injuries to body and mind. Having seen war for what it is, they more clearly see humanity for what it is not. They learn that while stereotyping the enemy as subhuman simplifies the soldier’s decision to kill, blind hatred or even casual disdain for those we oppose is a two-edged sword. They know that even as war is often promoted and justified in stark terms of black and white, it is fought on a battlefield colored in shades of gray.
Also search for evidence that the candidate you’re thinking of supporting would reach across the aisle. Thoughtful soldiers, like our nation’s best leaders, develop a quiet respect for foes that bridges the divide of even passionately held beliefs. Voters and media alike might test this by asking candidates to name an issue where they disagree with the prevailing sentiment of their own party.
Finally, seek veteran candidates who run not on the general patriotism implied by military service but on specific, hard-earned values that shape their policy priorities. Military service does not speak for itself. What did they learn in the crucible of war, and from their brothers- and sisters-in arms, about sacrifice, service, diversity and other values? Voters should force veterans to articulate how the lessons of their time in uniform would carry over into a new and very different job in Congress.
We live in an era when social media snippets and “gotcha” moments drive the campaign season. It’s easier than it should be for veterans to fit into a meme of “heroic leader.” Don’t hesitate to give your support to veterans, but as with any other candidate, don’t just give them your vote—make them earn it.
—Gen. McChrystal is a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. This essay is adapted from his book with fellow veterans Messrs. Eggers and Mangone, “Leaders: Myth and Reality,” to be published on Oct. 23 by Portfolio.