The Red Badge of Courage

A Congressional Pledge Of Honor: "If I vote for war I will go to war, joining our troops on the field of battle.”

Few acts of Congress carry weightier consequences than taking the nation to war, yet few acts are so far removed from the typical member of Congress’s comprehension. No more than one out of every five members of the current Congress has served in the military and few of them have ever been on the front lines. It is time we ask our leaders to show the same courage that our military servicemen and women show day in and day out. It is time they experience first-hand the consequences of their decisions. If we, as a nation, are to go to war, shouldn’t our leaders be standing alongside the troops?

This pledge of honor is not a call for members of Congress to take up full-time military service, but rather to undertake special tours of duty, up to several weeks in length, during congressional recess. War would no longer be just an abstract notion within a policy debate; it would be made real for Congress, just as it is for those who do the fighting. When the members of Congress start putting their own safety on the line, their decisions will be based on more than just political motives. They will, for once, have some “skin in the game.”

How can we expect our leaders to make wise decisions about going to war if they don’t have an understanding of it? Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), an Iraq war veteran, was quoted in a New York Times article (February 17, 2015) as saying that she wondered whether “the leaders of our country and those in positions of making these decisions really understand what the impacts of their decisions were…One of the reasons I ran for Congress was to make sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, of going into war without a clear strategy.”

Let me be clear: this is neither an anti-war nor a pro-war issue. It is a call for our leaders to “walk the talk.” It is a call to bring a renewed sense of heroism, honor, and shared sacrifice to Congress.

Educating Congress

[He tried to] prove to himself that he would not run from a battle. Previously, he had never felt obliged to wrestle too seriously with this question…But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.

__ Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

The time was when every American schoolchild read The Red Badge of Courage, the classic Civil War novel following 18-year-old Henry Fleming’s journey as a Union soldier. Doubt, cowardice and shame dog the young soldier and in his first taste of combat he turns and runs. But eventually his experiences on the field of battle bring about a change, a maturing, a sense of greater purpose. By the novel’s end, he emerges a hero. Moved to save his fellow soldiers, he displays courage unknown even to himself. Unarmed, he carries the flag into battle, earning his redemption.

More than 150 years later, America’s brave soldiers continue to put their lives on the line, far from view and far too little noticed. From the halls of Congress to our own living rooms, we have become complacent about the dangers our soldiers face in distant corners of the globe. At the same time, our leaders are shocked when one of them is threatened with violence here at home. Not long ago, our nation witnessed the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a young Congresswoman from Arizona. Representative Giffords survived, but six other victims lost their lives. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), was quoted as saying: “We all enter this life of public service and being elected officials. We don't enter it believing that it's a life and death situation.”

Mr. Grijalva may have been voicing a sentiment shared by many in elected office: that while public service may entail hardships, the risk of physical harm is not one of them. Yet every enlistee entering military service does just what Mr. Grijalva rejects for himself—entering into a life or death situation. Surely it’s not asking too much of our leaders—who hold the power to place our brave soldiers in harm’s way—to stand alongside them, if even for just a short while.

A friend of mine—a college teacher—related to me how one of her students, returning from combat in Iraq, was struggling with re-entry into civilian life. “The thing is” the student said, “that no one here knows what it’s like to be willing to take a bullet for your fellow soldiers.” How true. So few of us, here at home, truly understand the selflessness of America’s soldiers.

And what of our leaders? In what ways are they willing to “take a bullet” for America? What would that look like, in the halls of Congress? Would it be a vote for a bill that moves America forward, but that comes at political cost? Speaking up for constituencies whose voices are silenced? Crossing the aisle to engage with one’s so-called “opponents”? A member of Congress who’s faced danger on the battlefield—who’s known fear and risen above it—is the type of man or woman who will have the courage, here at home, to take a bullet for America.

What’s more, by asking members of Congress to stand alongside our troops, we are not just asking them to do the right thing for our country, we are offering them a precious gift: the opportunity to discover a courage they may not have known lay within. And they will return that gift to us, carrying their newfound sense of bravery back to the halls of Congress. Courage awakened in the face of danger does not fall easily back asleep.

The Vanishing Veteran

In the current Congress, roughly one in five members has served in the military. Just twenty years ago at least half had served, and thirty years ago, three out of every four members of Congress were veterans. So, in just three decades, Congress’s military makeup has been entirely turned upside down: in 1980 most congressional members were veterans, today most have no military experience at all. Possibly no other aspect of the makeup of Congress has ever changed so dramatically in such a short period—not race, nor religion, nor gender.

The number of veterans in Congress only keeps decreasing, even with an influx of new members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 101 veterans in the current 114th Congress is 7 fewer than in the 113th Congress (108 veterans) and 17 fewer than in the 112th Congress (118 members).

What’s more, amongst the veterans in Congress today, few have experienced combat. No more than four Senators, out of the one hundred in office, claim to be combat veterans (and two of those Senators’ claims are disputed). In the House of Representatives, barely a third of the 81 members with military service are combat veterans. So, among the 535 voting members of Congress, few have directly experienced the nature of war.

The same trend can be seen in the U.S. presidency. In the 2012 presidential race, for the first time in nearly seven decades, neither major-party candidate had performed military service. The two major-party presidential candidates in the current 2016 continue that trend. What does it mean for our country to have a Congress making decisions about war, when the vast majority of its members have no direct experience of it, and a president, as Commander-in-Chief, with a similar lack of understanding of the realities of the waging of war?

The decreasing number of veterans in Washington mirrors the trend in the overall population. The percentage of Americans performing military service has steadily declined since the draft was eliminated in 1973. At the height of World War II, nearly one in ten Americans was on active duty, whereas in the decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, that number was one in two hundred. From 2000 to 2010 the number of U.S. veterans dropped from approximately 26 million to less than 23 million and is expected to decrease to less than 16 million by 2035.

In recent years, some have called for a reinstatement of the draft, not only to ensure sufficient enlistment, but also to sharpen the focus of our elected leaders when making decisions about going to war. In 2006, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) said "There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way."

Veterans groups have long sought to place more of their own in office as a means of creating a Congress more in touch with the realities of war. That has proved to be a tough battle. Incumbency plays a much stronger role in winning election than veteran status. In the 2014 elections, more than 80% of veterans running against incumbents lost. So if we want our leaders to be able to make better-informed decisions about war, then instead of seeking to elect more veterans, we must make veterans out of the leaders we elect.

How It Would Work

Members of Congress would not just drop everything and march off to the battlefield. We need them to perform their legislative duties. That’s why we elected them to office. There is ample time, however, for them to fulfill their legislative responsibilities and also perform a “congressional tour of duty.” Over the course of a year Congress is typically out of session for anywhere from four to six months. If congressional military service were to involve a week of training “in-country” and then three weeks on the battlefield, that represents only one month out of the generous recess time Congress enjoys.

The military roles that members of Congress would perform would need to be carefully selected. Lawmakers do not have the time to become as fully trained as regular troops. What’s more, many are older than the typical soldier. But they can still play a variety of roles supporting the troops in the field of combat: medics, drivers, technicians, or simply observers. Almost any activity would suffice, as long as it is not a cushy job in a protected zone far from the front lines. These missions should be acts of courage, not comfort.

This pledge would apply to any vote in support of military action, not just a declaration of war. The last war declared by the U.S. Congress was World War II, but since then we have engaged in military conflicts in places like Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In many of those cases, Congress played a decision-making role by passing resolutions in support of the military action or by authorizing funding.

Even a handful of members of Congress taking this pledge could transform the whole Congress. Imagine the moral high ground they would occupy. If just one out of every 10 members of Congress—44 Representatives and 10 Senators—were to take this pledge, those 54 men and women would set a standard of honor and accountability for the other 481 members of Congress to look up to.

Honor, Courage And Integrity

I acknowledge that this proposed act of courage raises important questions. Its consequences are greater than many of the other acts in this book. Would this act place an excessive burden on the troops? No more so, I would argue, than the well-accepted practice of embedding reporters with the troops. At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, an estimated 570 to 750 reporters were in such roles.

It might also be argued that a member of Congress in a combat zone would be an attractive target, thereby increasing the danger to the troops. That concern could be minimized by requiring congressional military service to be done discretely. It need only be announced after it is completed.

The fact is that the conduct of war by a free democratic nation always involves trade-offs. For example, the First Amendment guarantee of a free press and the attendant reporting on U.S. military operations could be argued to increase the risk, at times, to our troops. But we accept that possible increased risk because a free press is so central to American values. Similarly, military codes of ethics balance the goal of military victory against America’s commitment to basic human rights.

In the same way, the burden and risks of this proposed pledge of congressional honor must be weighed against the benefits of national unity and of having elected leaders who understand the decisions they are making. The nation will gain much value from leaders with a personal—not just political—stake in those decisions. I believe that the men and women of our military would not resent any additional burden or risk, but rather, would feel honored by the presence of public servants with the courage to be by their side.

In the years since the tragic events of 9/11, our nation has been embroiled in harsh prolonged warfare overseas. Yet because so much of the fighting has been done by a small fraction of the American people—often outside of the public view—our nation has lacked a true sense of shared sacrifice. This pledge by members of Congress to stand alongside our brave soldiers could be a step toward building that sense of national unity.

What’s more, in today’s world, military success increasingly depends on winning the hearts and minds of foreign populations. This pledge’s demonstration of honor and sacrifice at the highest levels of our government would provide our military with a tool that few other countries possess. Let us not underestimate the respect that America would gain when our leaders show themselves to be men and women of courage, honor, and integrity. That’s the American way. That can be the American future.