Armchair generals lament disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, as fewer veterans sit in Congress – The South Dakota Standard
The recently completed US military withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years marked the depressing conclusion of our longest war. Begun with strong public support during the period of national unity immediately following 9/11, most of the conflict was an afterthought for Americans with no personal connection to the military fighting on their behalf.
While a solid majority of Americans support an end to the US military presence, the disarray in the withdrawal process has turned many members of Congress into outspoken armchair generals. Why are they so vocal about the failed withdrawal, however, when it is the culmination of two decades of poorly managed war under their direct supervision with their full support? After all, the Constitution gives Congress broad authority and responsibility for military oversight.
Ninety-one of the current 535 members of Congress are military veterans. This group, 17% of its membership, reflects the lowest level of veterans involvement in the legislature since the start of World War II. Some may see these facts and think Congress would be better off without the participation of veterans.
Indeed, the Constitution requires civilian control of the army. Such sentiment raises the question of what, if anything, is lost when political “leaders” have never served our nation in uniform?
In 1980, 18% of the adult American population had served while today it is about 7% and declining. South Dakota’s adult population comprises 10% of veterans, most of whom are over 65. The adoption in 1973 of fully voluntary force eliminated military conscription, effectively relieving Americans of the most demanding responsibility of citizenship in our republic. This dramatically reduced the number of veterans in the general population, resulting in a corresponding drop in veterans in Congress.
Veteran participation peaked at 75% for the House of Representatives in 1967 and 81% for the Senate in 1975. South Dakota is currently one of 12 states without veterans in our congressional delegation.
An attribute of veterans in Congress is somewhat counterintuitive, but it helps explain the recent emergence of chair generals in Congress. The concept of civilian control relies on legislators who are shrewd enough to recognize the limits of military power and the political courage to push back against overly optimistic estimates.
Unfortunately, in fulfilling their oversight responsibilities, lawmakers with no military experience are statistically less likely to challenge the claims and demands of military leaders. This deference serves desirable goals for the politician – to build popular support while simultaneously avoiding accountability. None of these goals, however, are particularly beneficial to the voters or our nation, as the conflict in Afghanistan illustrates.
Members of Congress who are veterans are certainly not immune to the temptation of total deference to the military. Indeed, many are more adamant in favor of military force than non-veterans.
Personal military experience, however, instills a heightened bond and a sense of obligation for the well-being of former comrades in arms. In addition, military experience provides a better understanding of national defense issues and the human and financial costs associated with the use of US military power.
True public service involves sacrifices for the common good. The public perception that the military are dedicated public servants translates into a high level of support and trust in the military as an institution. This explains why our military is always held in much higher esteem than Congress, where sacrifice is something to be avoided.
The lasting popularity of the military is valuable political capital, which makes it risky for any politician, especially one with no military experience, to question the recommendations of senior military leaders. Campaigning for re-election with full (unconditional) support is a much safer bet.
When our military achieves important goals, politicians claim some credit for their sacrifices. Conversely, when things are not going well, politicians shirk responsibility for the failure of surveillance by invoking complete trust in the “best military advice”.
The warrior ethic of the US military is best articulated by the military: “I will always put the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never give up and I will never let a fallen comrade. The selfless aspiration of this individual and institutional conviction exemplifies the highest ideals of true service.
This is why any mission entrusted by our elected officials is pursued relentlessly to its end. Such altruistic willingness to stay in the fight, however, must be tempered by an objective analysis of whether it truly serves the best interests of our republic – precisely the function Congress is supposed to perform.
Over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, Congressional deference to warrior ethics has cost US taxpayers an estimated $ 2.26 trillion (so far), plus 2,500 dead and 20,000 wounded servicemen. The congressional armchair generals exasperated by the chaotic withdrawal are certainly justified in asking questions and holding them to account.
Yet they seem oblivious or unaccustomed to the idea of blame for Congress’ failure to ask tough questions about the nature, scope, and purpose of U.S. military operations over the decades. The opportunities for such reflection were numerous, as in 2008, when the Taliban first reappeared, in 2011 after the death of Osama bin Laden, or in 2017, when President Trump took office after having done so. campaign to pledge to withdraw quickly.
In addition to a less respectful approach to military oversight, Congressional veterans also possess a distinct understanding of leadership instilled by military education on leadership theory and the personal attributes necessary to accomplish warrior ethics.
The essence of military leadership is fundamentally different from what is demonstrated by most members of Congress. To the extent that our elected officials are supposed to be leaders, wouldn’t they at least benefit from a basic understanding of the concept?
Military doctrine recognizes three distinct components of leadership: authority, responsibility and accountability. Authority is the official and recognized power of an individual or organization to perform a specific duty or obligation.
For example, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “to provide for the common defense… to declare war… to raise and sustain armies… to provide and maintain a navy… to establish rules for government and regulation of land and naval forces. And a few other military powers.
The attributions of authority impose an individual and collective responsibility for the accomplishment of the associated obligations, as well as an obligation to answer for the action / inaction in the accomplishment of the responsibility. Responsibility is the credit or blame for the result of action / inaction in fulfilling responsibility. In particular, military leaders learn that responsibility can be delegated or shared, but that responsibility rests with the individual or organization that created the authority.
This aspect of leadership is what armchair generals are only too happy to ignore.
President Eisenhower, a retired Army general, described effective leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want to do because they want to do it, not because your position of power may compel him to do so, or your position of authority. ”In accordance with this definition, some key attributes instilled in the military as essential for a successful leader include moral courage and the strength of character enabling membership consistent with fundamental principles and fostering unity and cohesion by treating everyone with dignity and respect.
In the dysfunctional disaster that is Congress, more members with these attributes would go a long way in remedying the dysfunction. Far too many politicians have a distorted concept of leadership focused on gaining power or authority to compel action and unfortunately few statesmen embody true leadership.
The last person to board the last evacuation plane out of Afghanistan was Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was the latter because the tradition of military leadership dictates that a commander must ensure the well-being of those for whom he is responsible before ensuring his own comfort and safety.
What then is lost when most of the political “leaders” have never served our nation in uniform? The answer is perspective. Veterans possess a broad knowledge of military policies coupled with the moral authority to volunteer for sacrifices of service, hence their increased willingness and ability to ask astute questions as part of oversight responsibility.
Perhaps most important in this age of hyper-partisanship, they know the importance of leadership and have the inherent ability to be the kind of leaders our republic desperately needs.
Brian L. Bengs is a US Navy veteran and retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. He has lived and worked across the United States and around the world, but now resides in Aberdeen. Previously, he taught a range of legal and political subjects at the faculty of the US Air Force Academy, the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, the NATO School in Oberammergau, and Northern State University.