This NYT op-ed by Allison Jaslow muddles the issue of veterans in politics. After World War II being a veteran was a necessary, but not sufficient condition to being a politician. You almost could not be a politician at any level — local, state or national — unless you were a veteran. You just couldn’t get elected. But the fact that you were a veteran did not mean that you were a good politician or that you would get elected. There were so many veterans after that war that there were many to choose from. The percentage of veterans in Congress grew as veterans from Korea and Vietnam became politicians. In the 1970s about 73% of the Congress were veterans. In 1970 veterans made up almost 14% of the population. Today veterans make up 20% of Congress and about 7% of the population.
In addition, because of the draft, World War II veterans were a genuine cross section of America — rich, poor, educated, uneducated. Today, the rich and educated make up a very small proportion of the military. Thus, there are fewer well qualified veterans to serve in political office. Thus, if you simply increase the number of veterans in political office, you are likely to get more bad politicians. Education and wealth are not necessary to be a good politician, but they help.
Being a veteran should be a plus on a politician’s resume, but there are other factors that may be more important, intelligence and character, for example. Electing a stupid veteran over a wise non-veteran would be a poor choice.
So, in essence I agree with the op-ed, but I think it grates on me as a Vietnam veteran. Vietnam veterans returned to such hatred and contempt from the population that did not serve, that I find it odd that now simply serving is somehow a wonderful thing that makes you a leader in the community. Her column implies that today the populace belives that simply being a veteran is a sufficient condition to serve in high office. It is not. Today being a veteran is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to serve in office, and it should not be.
If in the future, we find the United States’ continued existence threatened by war, then military service may again be a necessary condition. Decent men should all rise to defend the country. Today, however, the US does not face an existential military threat; so, service in not a necessary qualification for political leadership.