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.