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 the Pew Research Center.

Leave a Comment

Or

All comments must follow the Pew Research comment policy and will be moderated before posting.

19 Comments

  1. Ralph1 month 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)

    NEW
    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.

    Reply
  2. michael calhoun2 months 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.

    Reply
    1. Mike O’Shea1 month ago

      Well said !

      Reply
  3. TomC4 months ago

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

    Reply
  4. Asmith5 months 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.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Lovejoy8 months 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.

    Reply
    1. james morrell6 months ago

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

      Reply
  6. Stephen Lovejoy8 months 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.

    Reply
  7. charlotte ames10 months 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.

    Reply
  8. ron clayman11 months 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.

    Reply
    1. James E. Jones1 month 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.

      Reply
  9. Geoff11 months 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!

    Reply
    1. charlotte ames10 months 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.

      Reply
    2. Brent7 months ago

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

      Reply
  10. Mac12 months ago

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

    Reply
  11. LeslieD1 year 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.

    Reply
  12. Robert1 year 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.

    Reply
  13. Leonard Norberg1 year 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.

    Reply
  14. Edward Evanko1 year 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!

    Reply