In a 1997 essay in these pages, I reported on the fact that a declining number of senators and members of the House of Representatives were veterans of military service. At the height of the Vietnam War, roughly 70% of the members of Congress were veterans. By 1991, the Congress that approved the use of force against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm had only slightly more veterans than non-veterans. Three Congresses later, the percentage of veterans had dropped to 32%. The explanation for the decline is almost certainly not that the American voter no longer likes to elect veterans to serve in Congress. On balance, a period of honorable military service is a plus on any candidate's resume. The primary reason for the decline in congressional veterans is the change in the likelihood that a prospective candidate for Congress would have seen military service. Legislators who came of age during World War II were highly likely to have served in America's largest mobilization for foreign war. Legislators who came of age during the early Cold War (including the Korean Conflict) and faced the military draft during a period of shortage of young men of draft age were quite likely to have served in the armed forces. Congressmen who faced the draft during the Vietnam War era (birth dates 1939-1955), however, were three times as likely not to have served in the armed forces as to have served. Lastly, the growing numbers of Congressmen and women who reached maturity after the end of the military draft (birth dates after 1956) were almost certain not to have military experience. Those were the numbers as of the elections of 1996. Given the changing demographics of veterans in the general population, they were not surprising. The numbers also offered the easy prediction that the number of veterans in Congress would further decline as the World War II and Cold War generations left Congress to be replaced by members who came of age during the Volunteer Era. The amount of military experience in Congress provides a framework from which to examine aspects of civilian-military relations in 2006. I want to discuss three questions and offer some tentative answers. First, have the workings of the all-volunteer military exempted many of the privileged in society (and Congress is certainly a bastion of privilege) from any responsibility for military service and any connection with the military? Second, do these and other factors suggest the need to return to military conscription-the draft? Third, has a precept of healthy military- civilian relations-the politically neutral or "above politics" status of the military-been altered? My goal is not to draw precise causal connections between the number of veteran members of Congress and military policies or the connections of civilian society to the military. Fifty more or fifty fewer legislators with military service might not change congressional votes or congressional attitudes. What the steady decline in members of Congress with military service does reflect is a unique confluence in American history. We have had periods when serious military challenges faced the country and the military and civilian society (including civilian elites) joined in the common effort. The Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II and the Cold War are the examples. We have also had periods of our history when the military was insignificant in size and mission and when its concerns were remote from most of civilian society. The early days of the Republic, the pre-Civil War period, the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, and the 1920s and '30s are examples. What we now have is an era in which military matters are highly important to America and in which a significant portion of the American population (and a large portion of some of its elites) are largely disconnected from the military.
Donald N. Zillman,
Where Have All the Soldiers Gone II: Military Veterans in Congress and the State of Civil-Military Relations,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol58/iss1/7