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General News    H3'ed 7/13/20

Tomgram: Nan Levinson, The Vet Conundrum and America's Wars

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here's one thing you can say about America's "war on terror," which has morphed into a set of forever wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa: those conflicts falter, they flop, they fade (only to resurge), but they never truly seem to end. In the case of the Afghan War, for instance, the Bush administration invaded that country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 to "liberate" it from the Taliban. This October, that conflict will be 19 years old and, despite massive "surges" and endless corners "turned," the Taliban remains, if not victorious, then increasingly successful. Yet, with a president in the White House who has long claimed he planned to end America's role there, possibly before the November election, think again. The latest news: a tentative White House/Pentagon agreement to leave at least 4,000 U.S. troops (and god knows how many private contractors) in that country indefinitely. Otherwise, of course, Donald Trump might go down as the man who "lost" Afghanistan and anyone who knows American history can't doubt that being the prexy who "lost" an American war has always been considered political poison.

Oh, and lest you have any hopes that Congress might intervene (as it's once again trying to do when it comes to American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, despite a successful presidential veto of its last attempt), think again. As Glenn Greenwald reported recently, in the House of Representatives, Colorado Democrat (and Iraq War veteran) Jason Crow and Wyoming Republican (and daughter of the vice president who helped oversee the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) Liz Cheney are co-sponsoring an amendment to the upcoming "defense" bill ($740 billion to the Pentagon!) to prohibit "the expenditure of monies to reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan below 8,000 without a series of conditions first being met" -- and the conditions are not modest.

So it goes almost two decades later. As TomDispatch regular Nan Levinson, author of War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built, reports today, despite the way American veterans have generally turned against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress hasn't, nor essentially have the veterans in that Congress, which, when you think about it, couldn't be stranger. Tom

Veterans Go to Washington
So What?
By Nan Levinson

If you still follow the mainstream media, you're probably part of the 38% of registered voters who knew something about the op-ed Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) published in the New York Times early in June, exhorting the president to use the Insurrection Act to "restore order to our streets." This was in response to what he called "anarchy" but others saw as peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. And yet that op-ed was actually less incendiary than an earlier tweet of Cotton's demanding "no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters" or his Fox News call to send the 101st Airborne onto the streets of America.


Anger at the decision to run that op-ed exploded at the Times. While there are certainly grounds for umbrage over giving Cotton's screed such blue-chip journalistic real estate, the take-away for me was that a senator and military veteran who had sworn to uphold the Constitution in both capacities was demanding that soldiers patrol American streets in that protest moment. I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose. Cotton doesn't seem to have met a fight he doesn't relish. Still, it got me thinking about what difference, if any, veterans make in Congress when it comes to whether (and how) the U.S. military is sent into battle.

The answer matters now, as many veterans will be on the ballot in November, including the challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And veterans, we were told, are just what the doctor ordered. Back in 2018, in a Baltimore Sun op-ed promoting the idea of veterans running for Congress, retired four-star Army General Wesley Clark wrote that, because veterans "know the same sense of duty, commitment to results, and the integrity and discipline they have been trained to live by," they are "uniquely well-positioned to fix" a broken Washington.

High on the list of brokens is American war-making, so I'd like to think that veteran-legislators, when in a position to do something about it, would use those qualities Clark extols to push Congress -- and the White House -- toward a less belligerent foreign policy. Veterans bring with them the authority of having been there. They know what it means to live with the consequences of congressional actions. They know the costs of war, especially the senseless wars of this century. And, increasingly, they're fed up. Yet Congress, including its veteran-members, has allowed the U.S. military to stay mired in those conflicts, which continue largely off-stage as if propelled by some mysterious force everyone is powerless to stop.

What, then, has been the actual influence of the veterans now in Congress on this country's war policy? For the twenty-first century, remarkably enough, the simple answer is: not much. It hasn't always been this way, though, and could change again. Predicting history in the making is a fool's errand.

The Veteran Effect

For much of our history, a stint in the military, preferably as an officer, was a useful, even necessary, starting point for a political career. Mitch McConnell, for instance, has acknowledged that he joined the Army Reserve early in his career because "it was smart politically." (He lasted five weeks before being discharged for an eye condition and possibly thanks to political pull.)

In the military, young men, and more recently young women, practiced leadership skills, engaged in public service, made common cause with people of different backgrounds, and burnished their patriotic re'sume's, all of which was assumed to prepare them well for political life. That's changed in recent years as the number of veterans in Congress has fallen significantly, but a change back may be coming as increasing numbers of Americans who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan run for office, while the opinions of veterans more generally have taken a distinctly negative turn on America's forever wars.

While voters don't elect veterans just because they're veterans, polls consistently find that the public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution. Not everyone who's been in that military thinks the same way, of course, and veteran status is but one determinant in a politician's point of view. But a military usually has a powerful influence on its members, shaping their political, social, and decision-making attitudes and their ideas about the use of force as a means of achieving foreign-policy goals. Or so argue political scientists Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi who, in their influential book Choosing Your Battles, examined the impact of military experience on this country's use of force abroad between 1816 and 1992, finding that it made a difference, sometimes a profound one. They concluded that the greater the proportion of veterans in the federal legislative and executive branches -- what they termed "the policymaking elite" -- the less likely the United States was to initiate wars of aggression. This "veteran effect," however, was anything but straightforward. While civilian elites were more likely to go to war for ideological, imperial, or moral imperatives, military elites leaned more toward pragmatism and a clearer examination of the situation on the ground as reasons for sending the military into battle.

Both groups, however, were convinced that force works and that the United States goes to war only when provoked (never by being provocative). Moreover, the authors found that, once a war started, the more veterans in leadership roles, the bloodier and longer the use of force, while civilian elites were more willing to place constraints on how the military was used. No surprise there: no military likes civilians telling it how to fight "its" wars, a tension that has appeared in the conflicts launched or supported by every recent administration.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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