Donald Zillman is the Edward S. Godfrey Professor of Law at the University of Maine School of Law. His books include Strategic Legal Writing, and his areas of study include veterans in Congress.
Q: What can you tell us about the newly elected veterans in Congress? Do you see any particular patterns when you look at the numbers, particularly in terms of gender or party identification?
A: I located 13 legislators with prior or present military service who joined the Congress since the 2010 election. That dropped the total number of vets to about 100 (two elections still undecided as I write)—a loss of about eight in the total population in Congress over the last two years. That continues the consistent decline in veteran membership since I started keeping figures in 1992.
Two of the vets are women, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. That beats the prior record of one woman vet per Congress. Four of the new vets are Democrats, including both Reps. Gabbard and Duckworth. In fact, the split by party is much more than 2-1 for the GOP. For the entire Congress the split was 70 GOP and 29 Democrats. The split is more pronounced when the age of the members are considered. Veterans of the World War II and the early Cold War vintage are split about evenly by political party. The divide of vets born after 1955 (the products of the non-draft, all-volunteer military) was 30 GOP and 6 Dems. In brief, those veterans with a service experience in recent years are overwhelmingly Republican.
All of the new veterans also have substantial years of military service of one kind or another (active duty, reserves, National Guard). The common description might be an officer with 10 or more years of service, but with a considerable likelihood that some or most of that service is in a reserve or Guard capacity—very often in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns. They should bring some very useful perspectives to shaping legislative military policy.
Q: What has happened to the overall percentage of veterans serving in Congress in recent decades, and where do you see that trend going?
A: I suspect total veteran numbers will continue to decline. This election saw a good number of long-serving veterans leave Congress either by retirement or electoral defeat. Another 16 legislators are 75 years of age or older. By the next election we may have reduced the “Greatest Generation” vets to a handful. I will confess to a sense of loss when Sen. Dan Inouye (World War II combat hero and the only Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the Congress) ends his service.
Q: For politicians, how does service in Iraq and/or Afghanistan affect their campaigns and political careers? How does that compare that to previous generations' service in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam?
A: This election continues to suggest that honorable military service remains a positive credential in almost all elections. However, it is hardly a promise of victory against a non-veteran opponent in either a primary or general election. Numerous veteran candidates lost to non-veterans.
The challenge to keeping a useful number of veterans in Congress is to seek out good veterans who would make good legislators and give them financial and political encouragement. I and others have noted that a long-time active duty veteran would face a number of handicaps in seeking political office, including frequent military moves that would deprive the vet of a home base, limited chance to build a personal fortune, and proper military limitations on participation in political activity while on active duty. This election may suggest the model is the National Guard officer (often following service on full-time active duty) who builds or already has roots in a community and who is able to quietly build political support while doing his/her civilian career work between periods of activation.
This generation of vets won’t have the World War II benefits of fighting in a popular and victorious war and of having large numbers of their electorates sharing those experiences. However, they may not have any of the stigma that the Vietnam generation faced. Most current surveys continue to indicate that the military is the most admired employer/organization in American society. Congress could wish it was doing half as well. Which may leave many veterans wondering: “Why would I want to get into that….?”
Q: This presidential election was the first in the post-World War II period where neither of the two major-party candidates had served in the military. Is that trend likely to continue?
A: I think we are unlikely to see a presidential election in which both candidates are veterans. Two weeks ago, I might have thought General David Petraeus might provide one veteran on a presidential ticket. I’m not sure I see one plausible prospect now. But I’d welcome suggestions.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m having fun on two research and writing projects. The first examines the potentially explosive growth in oil and gas production from fracking and other techniques and the potential for carbon capture and storage underground to reduce the risks of climate change. Oxford University Press will publish this multi-author, international study in early 2014. The second continues my long fascination with the first hundred days of the 65th Congress in 1917. That group, many of whom were elected with Woodrow Wilson in the “he kept us out of war” campaign of 1916 suddenly faced a declaration of war, massive expenditure increases, the initiation of the military draft, and considerable restraints on free speech and other civil liberties. The decisions that they debated with great vigor and intelligence have impacts today.
Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also can be found on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.