With the Republican primary constantly in the news, and with the Presidential election rapidly approaching, I thought I would open a debate about military and public service. When looking at the President, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, only Ron Paul served in the military (briefly and as a doctor). Moreover, none of them are combat veterans. That said, there are still a handful of World War II and Vietnam veterans serving in Congress. There are also a handful of veterans of the War on Terror serving in the House of Representatives. Notably, several of them are combat veterans (including Representatives Duncan Hunter, Christopher Gibson, and Allen West to name a few).
I have been trained and employed as both an Army officer and a lawyer. When I compare my education and experiences in each of these positions, I see the legal profession exhibiting very little leadership. In contrast, I feel like the Army taught me how to be a leader and a decision-maker. Furthermore, the Army taught me how to work as a team, and how to put the needs of my subordinates before my own. Another important concept I learned as an Army officer was to choose “the harder right.” This concept means that the correct decision is not always the easiest or most popular one. Today, as our leaders in Washington deal with serious fiscal issues, it seems our politicians could learn from military officers about choosing “the harder right”. The “harder right” may not always help a politician secure a job after leaving office or it may not lead to reelection. But, it could help the country.
Our politicians can also learn about teamwork from military officers. As Sean could attest, as Army officers, we did not always have to like the people we worked with or agree with their ideas regarding tactical decisions. Nevertheless, we worked with them knowing that fostering teamwork was essential to mission accomplishment. Today, our elected leaders seem to be less willing to work with each other than ever. Perhaps a spirit of teamwork and cooperation would make Washington run more smoothly and be of great benefit to the rest of the country.
Another characteristic of Army officers is that we never expect our subordinates to do something we would not do. In Afghanistan, I was on the ground with my men during nearly every mission. In contrast with this model of leadership by example, our politicians are generally immune to the difficulties faced by the average American. Our political class is financially set for life because of the contacts and friends they have made while serving. For instance, the average citizen is very much interested in the outcome of the current healthcare debate at the Supreme Court. However, it matters little to our politicians who will likely receive first-class healthcare coverage for life.
All of this makes me wonder why more people with military backgrounds are not members of Congress. Support for the military is very high, but the number of elected leaders with military backgrounds remains quite low. Are military values not conducive to serving in Congress? Has the military become so small that average Americans do not understand what military officers do? Is it too difficult for former officers to become part of the local political machinery? Do former military officers have little interest in serving in Congress because of the political atmosphere of today?
I do not know why we have so few veterans in Congress. However, I can speak with confidence that the country would benefit if we had more veterans in Congress and fewer lawyers.
“Has the military become so small that average Americans do not understand what military officers do?”
“Do former military officers have little interest in serving in Congress because of the political atmosphere of today?”
I think you hit on two very good reasons why there aren’t more veterans in Congress. I agree with you that we need to elect more people with military experience. Not only for the leadership reasons that you described, but because Congress has the power to declare war, and the President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. How can our elected officials make knowledgeable decisions about when and where to deploy troops if they have no practical combat experience or a knowledge of military culture?
I would like to think that a President who has seen combat would be more cautious about starting a war. Not only do very few of our political leaders serve, very few of their children serve. So, our political leaders are rarely sending their own children off to war.
I think it’s probably irrelevant what ones’ profession was, and I’m sure people could fault military training. Leadership is “easier” when there is a proscribed hierarchy, set of rules, clear structure and the like. Someone like Eisenhower exemplified the best of all worlds, using hierarchy in his decision making, but understanding the politics and personalities as well. On the other hand, you also get people like Oliver North who I wouldn’t trust running a lemonade stand! Whereas Ike correctly understood the danger of the “military industrial complex” (he wanted to label it the ‘military industrial congressional complex’ but his aids thought that too provocative), others like, say, Curtis Lemay had a militarist mindset that you would not want to see making decisions. Those are high ranking folk, not what you’re really talking about, but in general the point is that any profession has a mix. I think I’d look first and foremost at the person and not the profession.
I think it is a common misconception that leadership in the military is easier. It is true that there is an obligation to follow orders, but if your soldiers do not respect you and trust your ability to make sound decisions, they will only do the minimum that is required of them. In addition, non-commissioned officers will stand up to an officer and advise against certain actions or decisions. If an officer continuously makes poor decisions, that officer will become marginalized and the NCO’s will run the show.
I agree that every profession has a mix, and I have met officers who I would not want in political office. But, I know military officers are exposed to the values I mentioned in my post. I am not sure other professions are exposed to those values.
Kevin, I’m curious about your comment. Do you think it is wrong for an officer to confer with his senior NCO’s? Many times they have more practical knowledge than the officers over them. Especially if they are very young. I have a very good personal reason for standing up for the NCOs 🙂
No, not at all. I have a great deal of respect for NCOs. My post was not meant to seem disparaging to NCOs. As junior officers, we all lean heavily on our NCOs. When I mention that NCOs will stand up to officers, I agree with the decision to do that when the officer is not doing his or her job.
Good article. I too wish that more veterans were in Congress. We might well have a much better system running up there!
My default, as an atty, is to agree with you in general. Tho it doesn’t hurt for the folks who write laws to have legal training. But didn’t a 1990s study show that more vets in Congress led to fewer wars approved?
I wonder if this gets at something that really could be the fundamental characteristic of our political and cultural moment– the division b/w elites and the rest of America.
Am typimg on a weird device, so please read my comment with maximum charity.
Things that are true today but weren’t 20-30 yrs ago: To get into Congress, you pretty much have to be wealthy. And the military doesn’t make you wealthy. And with an AVF, elites are less likely to pass thru the military.
You don’t need military training to learn to do the right thing, even when no one seems to be watching or able to hold you accountable. Character still works for the ultimate good.
Yes, Washington is sorely lacking in people of noble character, those who would be willing to do the right thing even if it meant giving up power, prestige, or re-election.
While it is true that you don’t need to come from a military background to learn how to have integrity,( the first classroom for this should be in the home) you should have good leadership skills to be elected to Congress or the Presidency. This is where military training excels over many other professions.
Yes, character and streetwise, as through armed forces personnel etc., is very important. The UK, more than the US maybe?, suffers from elitism and lack of normality in its leaders – Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are so privileged it is a wonder they have a clue of needs and wants of ordinary hard working folk. And as in the US no recent political leader has fought in a war or trained in the armed forces. I think if a leader wants to send the troops in he must spend time on the front line, after all he is just as replaceable [I don’t mean that as harsh as it seems] as the other men and women killed in the line of duty. If that had to be the case then most political numpties would not start their rhetoric without knowing the consequences.
What do you think of San Diego Mayoral Candidate and ex-Marine Nathan Fletcher leaving the Republican Party to run as an Independent?
Sounds like your theory on veterans being turned off by the current political climate is spot on in this case…
“as our leaders in Washington deal with serious fiscal issues, it seems our politicians could learn from military officers about choosing “the harder right”.”
But our government today is more of a “coalition of the willing corporations” than the theoretical government you have assumed in your article. If we took out the influence corporate money has on our politicians, then I may lean your way.
The make-up of our government seems to be more mafia style than military style. I wonder if that’s why we see the honest people steering clear of politics.