September 4, 2013

Most members of Congress have little direct military experience

Veterans-and-Congress_2Only about a fifth of the members of Congress who are debating whether or not to authorize U.S. military action in Syria have any military experience themselves.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 to approve a resolution giving President Obama limited authority to attack Syria in response to its government’s reported use of chemical weapons against civilians. Public opinion, however, is leaning against airstrikes against Syria, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Twenty senators (20%) and 89 representatives (20.5%) are veterans, according to the authoritative Vital Statistics on Congress, published by The Brookings Institution. Among the Senate’s notable veterans: Republicans John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), both strong supporters of taking action against Syria; Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, both of whom have expressed skepticism or outright opposition; and Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, who voted “present” on the Syria resolution Wednesday.

Veterans-and-Congress_3Not all that long ago, military service was practically a requirement for serving in Congress. The high point in recent decades was the 95th Congress (1977-78) when, following an influx of Vietnam-era veterans, a combined 77% of the House and Senate had served in the armed forces. But as World War II veterans have retired and relatively few Americans enlist in the all-volunteer armed forces, veterans account for a smaller and smaller share of Congress.

Veterans-and-Congress_1That reflects the wider trend in U.S. society. According to Census figures, veterans currently make up about 7% of the overall population, down from 13.7% in 1970 — when the Vietnam War was raging and the draft was still in place. As a 2011 Pew Research Center report noted, the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by a historically small U.S. military; this has contributed to a distance between the military and civilian society. While Americans overwhelmingly say they feel proud of those who’ve served and appreciate their sacrifices, 71% say most Americans know little or nothing about the problems faced by military personnel; about as many (74%) oppose reinstating a draft.

Topics: Congress, Military and Veterans

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Richard Vaux1 year ago

    americans are concerned about alot of important things……why arent they concened about this…..who is going to defend this country if this trend continues

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    I served 8 years in the service with 19 months in the 3 and 4 corps as a river rats. I had the honor of figating along side the bravest and most honorable men I have ever know or will know. I would not allow my son to serve because I didn’t want him to know the anger at the media,Congress, and the general American population how they hated us and screwed us over.

  3. Howard2 years ago

    I think military service should be mandatory for all U.S citizens especially politicians. To send men and when into combat without support and with Marquess of queensbury rules is wrong when enemies don’t have any(rules). Protecting The USA should a responsibility for all who call themselves U.S. Citizens.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      U really think everyone in our free country should b forced into killing cause we need to protect America? So rite off the bat u vote against human rights and personal freedom. Do u know how many hundreds of other counties have US military bases? How is that protecting our country. And how many wars have bin fought by good American soldiers, many loosing their lives for sometimes no more then a personal grudge from some old rich guy who cares less about u, me, and soldiers. Only his bank account. Sure if we lived in a perfect world u may b warm but only children believe in fairy tales. If someone attacks my home best believe ill fight for my family, home and honor, probably how middle eastern men my age feel when there kids and wives are being blown up. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful, innocent, human beings who have more in common w u and I compared to the power hungry, hateful ppl who u would blindly die for. But we r going around the world to their country and asked to kill. How isnthat protecting the US? No human being should have to go to war. It’s ugly, and will destroy ur soul. Some ppl are born to be soldiers and many are not. So why should we force all of them? Not to mention now we need to constantly be at war w someone now just so r military can keep getting funding. All we r to them is money. Don’t fool yourself. None of the powerful care the least for u or anyone we know.

    2. Anonymous1 year ago

      Came across this article when I asked myself the question on how we can avoid unnecessary wars and politically inspired military ventures. I didn’t realize the numbers of veterans in Congress was so low. But what’s even worse is only a handful of members of Congress and Senators have children serving.

      The only answer I think of is to reintroduce the draft, expand it to females, and have NO DEFERMENTS for any reason. The draft as it was in the 60-70s was too easy for the rich and powerful to get out of.

      It’s a lot easier to vote to go to war if you idolize and fetishize the military with no personal experience of what it’s like, and even easier if you’re sending other people’s children off to war.

  4. bill crumley2 years ago

    I find it very interesting and even more depressing that the comments listed do not (at least in the most recent comments) relate war to the economy. War is very profitable to those who make bombs, drones, planes and other war related equipment. Our military today is being replaced by a paramilitary which is not controlled by our elected officials. If we include wars against Native Americans which really are wars – wars of conquest, there are less than 30 years (out of 240 years) when our nation was not at war. There are several years when there was more than one war The result of all this “national security” is banks and other multinational corporations are controlling more and more of the wealth, more and more Americans are on welfare, and we are 18 trillion dollars in debt. When will we start asking the right questions: Why do we have to “protect” the world for the benefit of large banks and corporations? When will the needs and interests of our ordinary citizens become more important than the profits of banks and multinational corporations
    bill crumley

    To Pew Research Team If you are interested, the points made here have been documented in a book I wrote entitled: “Why We Are Always Broke: things we need to know about the economy”. The book is the result of several years of research. Most of the material was taken from proxy statements of corporations and government documents. The book is available through CreateSpace William Crumley as well as through Amazon Books William Crumley
    Thank You

  5. Mark White2 years ago

    i am interested in knowing if more republicans or democrats in congress (both houses) have military service?

  6. Ernesto Romero2 years ago

    Hi, I am interested in knowing how many members in the Senate and House have lost a limb while fighting in our military. How about those not loosing a limb but were hit by a rife bullet while being pinned down by enemy fire? How about those not hit be a bullet, but were firing their rife at the enemy? I am no war hero, but I said yes to my country when asked some 52 years ago. I served my country well in the Army while fighting in Viet Nam in the 56th Transportation Unit as a draftee.

    1. Dkel2 years ago

      Thank you for your sacrifice and your service.

  7. Fred3 years ago

    There are more aspects of having a draft than can be counted.
    One aspect I would like others to consider is the societal attitudes and values that make a draft possible. Without those attitudes and values were are in trouble.

    The draft reflects a societal attitude of cooperation and mutual sense of responsibilities. When the draft died in 1973 it was the result of our national change in attitude that we were no longer all in this together. In theory the draft was classless. We were all considered mutually responsible for the defense of out country. Even Elvis was drafted.

    Without the values and attitudes behind the draft and the assumption that we are all in this together comes the assumption that not all of us have a responsibility to do our share in regard to the welfare of others. That not all of us are responsible to others to the point we need to disrupt our lives and risk our lives and our futures for everybody else; that a cooperative spirit is not of value. It’s the cooperative spirit that used to give great strength to this society. Without the cooperative spirit little of societal substance or progress gets done.

    One last point: I’m guessing that if a primary question our legislators has to answer yes to, before voting to go to war, was Are you going to war yourself, or sending your loved ones?, we wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq in the first place.
    More important than anything else, we need to redevelop as sense of mutual responsibility and cooperation; which would ultimately result in a draft.

    From a practical perspective, without personal military experience our legislators don’t understand how the military works, it’s problems, or it’s capabilities. They sure don’t understand the consequences related to military service. The don’t “know the score.”

    During the Vietnam War one aspect of the draft that I’ve never heard discussed was that it moderated our military. Because of the draft, the majority of the militaries’ members were not dependent on forging a career in the military, not dependent upon it to add to their status, not worried about staying in in order to retire from it, or in need of rationalizing its flaws. Many more members of the military of the time were in it with civilian values. They were less about winning and more about doing what was right; which has been a traditional American value.

    The draft is far more the result of intangibles than tangibles. We need to get back to valuing those intangibles

  8. Ralph3 years ago

    I Don’t support reinstating the draft. As a 1968 draftee, who did not support the Vietnam war, I felt like an American without the freedom to voice my opinion. At the age of 18, I was definitely not mentally ready to depart from my family and face an enemy I didn’t know. I was not ready to be placed in a war zone to kill or be kill. I fought the draft for five years and when the second draft notice came in the mail, although afraid of what was planned for me, I was more mature and accepted my American responsibility. Today, I am proud of having served my country honorably and respectfully. I am proud of being a veteran.

    My experience taught me that the draft is not what we need, and the all volunteer army is not the answer. What we should consider is incorporating military service with our higher education. Just as sports can be a major part of our education system, so can military service. The following is a possible breakdown of the educational program:

    Part One: Elementary School Kindergarten – 5th grade (6 years not military)
    Part Two: Middle School 6th – 8th grade (3 years not military)
    Part Three: High School 9th -12th grade (4 years not military)

    Part Four should give each student one year of college credits accepted in any college and all veteran’s benefits.
    Part Four: Military Ed. Basic Training (2months)
    Job/MOS Training (4months)
    Military Service (1 year)
    If you agree, send it to President Obama.

    1. cyndy2 years ago

      I support the draft being reinstated for one reason, to stop these wars that have zero to do with the security of the US and everything to do with controlling the resources of another country for the multinational corporations ie. the 1%. As long as the majority of Americans are not personally affected, the majority of Americans are overjoyed to sit back waving their flags, quoting the latest prowar propaganda they heard on TV, celebrating the destruction of another country and the deaths of it’s citizens, while telling anyone that dare speak out against sending our kids to murder other people’s kids in their own country to not only go to hell, but leave the US ! If the draft is reinstated, these same prowar Americans will raise so much hell because their kid was drafted and came by injured or dead, the wars would end within 2 years.
      Regardless of the non stop propaganda singing the praises of the American people’s compassion and great love of freedom, democracy, human and equal rights for everyone, one only needs to honestly open their eyes to see the reality of just how little compassion much less understanding, most Americans have for anyone they deem to be ‘the other”. Even many of the Christian churches have turned into halls of prowar pep rallys not only cheering the current wars but praying for and cheering for the US government to bomb and terrorize the people of yet another country or two !
      The fact is, for the most part Americans are a very self centered selfish people who honestly believe their government knows what is best for the other people of the world and has the rights to the resources that belong to those Americans consider ‘others’. (so much for the capitalism myth) Only when war starts taking from these people these people their own children by forcing them to enlist will they then decide to stop the wars.

      1. Aaron2 years ago

        I have a question, if you, your husband or spouse, or even your kids were drafted would you be ok with that? I have many views about the draft but I have to say if I as an American was ordered to defend the US as an institution, I would defend my country, whether the was was something I agreed with that could be different.

  9. michael calhoun3 years ago

    The U.S. is one of only just a few Industrialized nations that doesn’t require military service. The folks that are against instituting mandatory service have never served and probably doesn’t have a family member servicing. You can never know the sacrifices of military families if you’ve never served.

    Trust me, enlisted men and women aren’t getting a free ride. Politicians talk a good game because their sons and daughters aren’t serving. I’m 100% sure if one of Mitt Romey’s five sons was serving, he wouldn’t be so hell bent on going into Iran, North Korea and where ever else his so called military dodgeing adviser recommend.

    American are quick to support military but aren’t quick to serve or have their son and daughters serve. That’s the disconnect. If you haven’t served or willing to serve, your opinion doesn’t matter.

    1. Mike O’Shea3 years ago

      Well said !

    2. Dennis3 years ago

      I am serving in the military and have been since 1995.

      No, the active military does not want the draft. You may find a few that do, but no one in the military that has a clue would. Drafts create HUGE discipline problems, degrade readiness through having short term members who are no with a unit long enough to be useful but take spots away from those who will be, consume resources that are scarce as it is (repair part cost increase as poorly experienced and poorly disciplined troops break more things, fuel costs to increase total number of vehicles and movement, barracks spacing – after the countless BRACS the military infrastructure within the country is EXTREMELY low and taxed just supporting the structure we have now, and so on), and cause more casualties in wars. The professionalism and skill of todays military FAR exceeds what has ever been seen in this country or the world really. Adding a draft will wreck the ability of the current military to conduct its missions where small wars all over the globe require disciplined professional forces.

  10. TomC3 years ago

    ..just curious to know how many of our past congressmen who were veterans were in the service because they were drafted….?Any ideasI….

  11. Asmith3 years ago

    Mr. Lovejoy a couple of comments on your logic. Vietnam was a war fought by draftees, it was not a short war, by any stretch of the immagination, in fact it lasted from December 1956 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. this was just short of 20 years. It was the longest war in our history, aside from the American Indian wars which lasted from 1622–1924 (intermittently). So when you say that wars will be shorter, I am not clear how you correlate the length of a war with either the all volunteer military or a drafted military? Statistics show you have no idea what you are talking about. Along these same lines, you believe if we had a drafted military we would not end up in places like Afganistan or Iraq? I guess my question would be how was Vietnam much more significant to US interests? After loosing that war, I did not note any world collapse or any significant change in anything? Another significant fact, comparing the losses of 55 thousand Americans in Vietnam to 4.5 thousand in Iraq and 2322 in Afghanistan. While both of these wars were just under 10 years, they are no where near the casualties of Vietnam. There are many ways one can interpret these numbers, but the bottom line, the all volunteer military is one of the most effective military machines. I joined the service shortly after vietnam, Greneda, Panama, Desert Storm, Somolia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been successful interventions of some type, executed by an all volunteer force, understanding that training and funding have been key to those successes. How do I measure success, we did not loose and we did not exfil out. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Dustin M2 years ago

      With all due respect, I must disagree, on the statement that the war was waged solely by draftees. There were MANY regular Army soldiers, several Marine Regiments, and a virtual Navy Flotilla I the gulf of Thailand My uncles were in the “Fighting Chickens” (101st) in September at An khe. They were not drafted. The communist aggression started against the French in 1956, sure, but we didn’t really get involved until 1965. We are still in Afghanistan – so isn’t this the longest “war” even though I’m not totally sure that Congress has declared either??

  12. Stephen Lovejoy3 years ago

    Correction: I seem to have left a key piece out of my first sentence. I meant to say that if the United States reinstituted the draft, there would be fewer instances of the United States being involved in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And if we were, with the draft, the wars would certainly be much shorter.

    1. james morrell3 years ago

      how right you are sir! and veterans would get better benefits and health care.

  13. Stephen Lovejoy3 years ago

    I would be willing to bet you that there would be fewer instances of United States involvement in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I would further bet there would be no talk at all about military involvement in places like Syria if there was a universal draft in the United States. Reinstitute the draft and every draft age man and woman had to serve at least two (2) years. If you are a conscientious objector, then you serve your two years in the Peace Corps or some other humanitarian, non-combat position. I spent two years in Vietnam and while there an uncle who served in the Army Combat Engineers and participated in most of the campaigns in Italy wrote and told me that “in World War II when the military took a piece of land, they held onto it”. Vietnam seemed to reflect a change in philosophy ie. Hamburger Hill in North Vietnam. How many times were US troops asked to take that hill? How many times was that hill abandoned? How many lives were lost each time we had to retake that hill? What a moronic and senseless philosophy? Gotta love the politics. And now, you have a bunch of ideologues in Congress who have never been in the military sending our troops into places like Iraq and Afghanistan for 3–4–or 5 tours of duty which creates untold physical and mental damage to the soldier and their families. And then on top of that, these morons reduce benefits and funding for the benefits and medical services needed for these veterans. The sad part is, the collective ‘we’ keep reelecting these idiots!!! But then again, there is an increasingly higher percentage of the ‘collective we’ who never served in the military and have no clue what sacrafices are demanded of the men and women in uniform and how the physical and psychological damage to the veteran impacts the family.

  14. charlotte ames4 years ago

    any one running for any political office should have had to serve in the military, should have to live on social security for at least a year and given nothening else, if they dictate to us on what we have to live on then they need to know what it is like, do as we do and live how we have to live, I don’t understand why they have no rules, we have rules they give us but they have never had to live like us, poverty is so sad , so live it for a while. see how your children feel.

    1. cyndy2 years ago

      Also, anyone holding office should be required to only hold one citizenship, the US. No more duel citizenships like we have in DC now. Just as a person can not serve 2 Gods, a person can not be a citizen of two countries. They can only be loyal to one.

  15. ron clayman4 years ago

    and people cry about paying taxes! I think everyone should serve in one way or the other. Its good for you! i did it, anybody can. There was a time, if you werent a veteran, you couldnt get elected.

    1. James E. Jones3 years ago

      Here’s the bottom line. There are a lot of voices calling for the President to put American soliders in harms by sending them back to war after fighting a war for over 11 years. It’s easy to suggest putting boots on the ground when ou are not the one who has to leave their family and face the possbility of not returning home. If you have never been through it; I can tell you from personal accounts. One of many reason affects the livelyhood and Physiological outcome of a solider and or miltrary spouse and children. So don’t be so fast to push our young men and women into battle. Remember they have to come home and live out the rest of their lives with the wounds of war.

  16. Geoff4 years ago

    THANK YOU Congress for back stabbing the military family who gave up so much to defend this country. I just asked you CONGRESS to re-think all the budget cuts that will be coming in the near future; First and foremost look into your own budget and retire plans. START THERE! Not the military pay or benefits. It seems like an easy solution to always take away from the military. For the 20% of Senators and 20.5% of Representatives who are veterans, you should ashamed of yourselves!

    1. charlotte ames4 years ago

      you are so right, my husband had 24 years air force, died 8 years after retireing with a rare cancer, he taught chemical warfare, and also painted all the military trucks and equipment out side with out any protective gear, shorts a a tshirt, he came home with paint up his nose and in his ears, toxic paint, I have pictures of him doing it. they had no paint booth there, I have a letter thanking him for doing that. when I contacted the military about his cancer there responce was I could not prove it.he died a horrible death, then they give you 55% of his retirement, they have no Ideal what his family suffered, and don’t care.

    2. Brent3 years ago

      It is shameful what goes on. My sympathy for you and your family. God bless you and yours.

  17. Mac4 years ago

    It’s everybody’s country, everybody should serve.

  18. LeslieD4 years ago

    Past the experience of WWII, the civilian population with military experience was halved, those serving in Congress with military experience was reduced to a third.

    This nation cannot be lead by a Congress from business, finance and law schools alone. Those people live in a world of paper cuts and “wounds” from words.

    A much larger portion of Congress must come from people who live, work and die in a world of duty and acts, not just ideas and words.

    Above everything else, military experience teaches how to avoid mistakes and never repeat them, what principle and duty are, and the long term consequence of actions are.

    Our Congress is content with ignoring or denying mistakes. Winning or losing an election has no lesson of consequence – for anyone who claims they “serve” this nation, or understand duty.

  19. Robert4 years ago

    I would be interested in knowing how many congresspersons who blithely send other people’s kids off to war have children of their own in the military.

  20. Leonard Norberg4 years ago

    I agree wholeheartedly with commenter Edward Evanko. Our constantly being at war (Iraq, Afghanistan) is destroying our economy. These wars are unnecessary and unwinnable. I served in Viet Nam (an unnecessary, unwinnable war) and oppose our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and any potential conflict in Syria. Our young men and women in the military are dying or coming back physically and mentally maimed for no good reason. Politicians full of bluster spout nonsense about American exceptionalism and challenge anyone who opposes war as unpatriotic, yet few of them served or would have their children serve in the military.
    The cost of these wars will go on well after they end, if they ever end. Money that could be spent on improving the lives of Americans such as rebuilding our infrastructure and putting people back to work is instead spent on the war machine. It is no wonder our recovery from the recession has been so slow when our priorities have been so skewed.

  21. Edward Evanko4 years ago

    Our economy is going down hill, Government plans on reducing benefits for seniors, also planning to reduce insurance on 171,000 military retirees, we have millions without insurance, our government took our young military to war against Iraq by lying whereby thousands of civilians were killed and many of our own military died or maimed. Yet, we have politicians in Wash who are in favor of war and to me,
    they are warmongers. Our government violates International law, our Constitution and attacks countries that haven’t attacked America!. Our politicians are doing everything to insure safety of a mid-eastern
    country by giving millions of dollars and this is ridiculous while we are reducing food stamps and other
    products to the needy people in America!