Few acts of Congress carry greater consequences than taking the nation to war, yet few acts are so far removed from the comprehension of the typical member of Congress. Forty-five years ago, nearly three out of every four members of Congress were veterans, but since then the number has declined precipitously. In the current Congress, fewer than one out of every five members has served, and less than a third of those veterans has seen combat.
Veterans groups have long sought to place more of their own in Congress, but this has proved difficult. Incumbency plays a much greater role in winning elections than veteran status. In recent elections, no more than one of every five veterans running against an incumbent has won.
There is an easy way to rectify this situation: If we can’t elect veterans to office, let’s make veterans out of the leaders we do elect. Why not ask those members of Congress who have never served to pledge that if they cast a vote to take the nation to war, they will themselves serve alongside the troops on the field of battle?
I’m not proposing that members of Congress take up full-time military service. Instead, special tours of duty could take place during congressional recess, with perhaps a week of training and then three weeks on the battlefield, representing just one month out of the three months of recess time Congress typically enjoys each year.
This simple act of courage would both demonstrate a sense of honor and improve our lawmakers’ understanding of military service and the weighty decision of whether to take the nation to war. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran, was quoted in The New York Times on Feb. 17, 2015, saying she wondered whether “the leaders of our country and those in positions of making these decisions really understand what the impacts of their decisions were.”
Military roles for members of Congress would obviously need to be carefully chosen. Lawmakers lack the time to become as fully trained as regular troops, and many are older than the typical soldier. But they could play a variety of roles, such as medics, drivers, technicians or simply observers – anything that puts them on the field of battle.
This pledge would apply to any vote that takes the nation to war, whether a formal declaration of war, a resolution supporting military action or an authorization of funding.
Would this pledge place an excessive burden on the troops? No more than the accepted practice of embedding reporters. Would a member of Congress be an attractive target, thereby increasing the danger to the troops? That risk could be minimized by requiring congressional military service to be made public only after it is completed.
The fact is that the conduct of war by a democratic nation involves trade-offs. For example, the constitutional right to a free press, with its attendant reporting on U.S. military operations, might be argued to increase the risks to our troops. But we accept those risks as one of the costs of a free society.
Similarly, I would argue that any greater risks to our armed forces would be outweighed by the benefit of having elected leaders who understand the impacts of their decisions. What’s more, I believe our military servicepeople would feel honored to have their elected leaders stand by their side, even if it means greater risk.
Since 2001, our nation has been embroiled in harsh, prolonged warfare overseas. Yet because so much of the fighting has been done by a small fraction of the American people – often outside of public view – we have lacked a sense of shared sacrifice. This pledge by members of Congress to join our troops on the field of battle would send a powerful message of national unity, not only to our nation, but to the world as well. And those members of Congress willing to put their own safety on the line might bring a newfound sense of courage to the halls of Congress, where it is so desperately needed.
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