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Military veterans and the shaping of American politics.
More than 150,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac, of the Tennessee, and of Georgia undulated up Pennsylvania Avenue May 23, 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln’s murder. Flanked by admiring civilians who had hastened to the capital city for the event, a remnant of the Union’s core troops marched in Grand Review before legislators and dignitaries over the course of two days. Newspapers, the Philadelphia North American and the New York Tribune included, asserted that the event was the greatest tribute possible to free government—that only under democratic institutions could such a mass of armed men be trusted in a capital city.
It was meant to be a national pageant; it was also a convenience, of marching those troops through Washington who had to return from Virginia and the Carolinas by way of the capital to be mustered out. Within the next six months alone, the government would retire to civilian status more than 800,000 soldiers. And as they were discharged, the Union Soldiers were greeted by variations of a message that streamed on that May day from the Capitol, proclaiming: “The only national debt we can never pay is the debt we owe the victorious Union Soldiers.”
To the public, the Grand Review was an unforgettable revelation of national muscle, of its manhood under arms. Other civilian populations in other countries throughout history might have been made anxious at war’s end by large amounts of suddenly unoccupied soldiers, but Americans did not doubt that their soldiers would reintegrate as citizens into peacetime society. Turning citizens into soldiers and soldiers back into citizens had been a democratic experiment, championed by General Washington, which on the whole the young nation had successfully managed following its first, Revolutionary War. Neither the larger numbers of combatants nor the scale—in both territory and violence—of the Civil War had upset Americans’ conviction about the citizen-veteran.
What Americans were less certain about was how to materialize the debt owed to citizen-soldiers who had defended their collective rights and property. The nation was equally undecided about what concrete payment gratitude and a democratic justice demanded for military veterans. The core tenants of a liberal democracy complicate such questions, since military service is not simply the ultimate expression of civic virtue but is also the highest duty of citizenship, one the country has a right to invoke in its times of need. Whether volunteered virtue should trump conscripted duty from the standpoint of the federal ledger books, or vice-versa, is not obvious.
With every major military conflict involving Americans the nation has reevaluated its relationship with the veteran, partly in consequence of the demands each specific war required it to lay upon the soldier in the first place. The changing face of industrialized society and the technologies of war as well as political thought have influenced each generation’s consensus, reflected just in the range of pension legislation alone: The early practice of granting only disability pensions to war veterans grew to include service pensions after the War of 1812, to professional or vocational training after World War I, to college tuition assistance and low-interest home loans after World War II, and finally to all who have served in uniform, whether during war or peacetime. The new dynamics of an all-volunteer military, established in 1973, have further affected national attitudes toward the citizen-soldier turned citizen-veteran, although perhaps less visibly given that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population now serves in the armed forces—even during wartime.
How veterans themselves have responded to their new status as citizen-soldiers turned soldier-citizens has traditionally reflected national attitudes. Beyond any affects of combat, the equation of individual civic duty and civic virtue and the nation’s reciprocal duty and virtue has influenced—although not dictated—veterans’ social and political behavior. Aside from the significant role citizen-soldiers fill in defending the country, citizen-veterans have played a defining role in the shaping of American political culture that has not been widely appreciated. The combined circumstances of the polarized electorate and the estimated already 2.6 million soldiers of the post-9/11 wars who have returned to civilian status recently—in private ceremonies on guarded bases far away from the public eye—highlight the value of a modest conceptual review of veterans and politics in America.
In Democracy in America, a thoughtful Alexis de Tocqueville cautions that nothing is so dangerous as an army in the heart of a democratic nation. In a democracy, the entire army “in the end makes up a separate little nation in which intelligence is less extensive and habits coarser” than in the general public, he notes; a difference exacerbated by the general habit of the wealthy, the educated, and the skilled not to engage in military careers. But by that same token, Tocqueville also speculates that the democratic nation tempers such danger because it is forced to conscript citizens for its defense. Though democracies will always have some citizens naturally attracted to military life and its accouterments, the majority will most likely think of military service as a passing obligation, and will rather reserve their passions and ambitions for civilian life than for martial grandeur.
They bow to their military duties, but their souls remain attached to the interests and desires they were filled with in civil life; they therefore do not take up the spirit of the army; rather, they bring the spirit of society within the army and preserve it there. In democratic peoples it is the plain soldiers who most remain citizens; it is over them that national habits keep the best hold and public opinion has the most powers. It is through the soldiers above all that one can pride oneself on having a democratic army pervaded by the love of freedom and the respect for rights that one was able to inspire in the people themselves.
Tocqueville, anticipating the findings of 20th-century social science, concludes that the citizen-soldier in the democratic nation brings to bear his influence on the military institution, and not the other way around—that the new democratic, or American, soldier will inevitably display “a faithful image of the nation.” Leaned forward, Tocqueville’s point does not merely make safe the potential exercise of force for democracy, but calms distrust about militarized individuals’ ability to reintegrate into civil society. Because soldiers in an American-styled democracy are civilians first and last, they are not doomed to become an isolated society unto themselves, an alien faction with interests to pursue counter to the good of society at large.
George Washington’s generation had understood the heart of Tocqueville’s later formulations, reflecting the General’s frequently voiced conviction on the matter. In 1776, John Adams had made the case that the Revolutionary War went beyond a professional military conflict; it was the people’s war, requiring “all [to] be soldiers.” The truly democratic character required the quality of assertiveness in addition to restraint. Explicit service in uniform was among a republican citizen’s highest duties; fighting in the cause of liberty was its predominant long-term reward. Although this did not mean that the Continental Congress expected its uniforms to fight for nothing, it occasionally needed General Washington to remind them of the fact.
To keep especially his officers in the field, Washington knew that some financial inducement was necessarily to nourish even patriotic fervor: “We must take the passions of men as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide, which are generally the rule of action,” he wrote a congressional delegate. Although he did not discount the strength of patriotism, he “venture[d] to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone…. For a time it may, of itself, push men to action to bear much, to encounter difficulties;” but it would not endure unassisted by interest, such as receiving a financial reward for extended service. The Congress eventually agreed to award officers who remained in the service until the war’s end half-pay pensions for life. When the Congress discharged its already financially depleted army with only promissory notes in 1783, however, the Treasury had long been empty. General Washington rued how inauspicious the moment was to test the theory of the citizen-soldier turned citizen veteran.
In his Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States, Washington accordingly took care to recommend to his veterans to take “the most conciliating dispositions” with them on their return to civilian living, since they were sure to encounter some neglectful, ungrateful, or envious citizens. He suggested that they funnel their energies as soon as possible into the pursuits of farming, commerce, fishing, or settling the West, and “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they [were] persevering and victorious as soldiers.” Their future wellbeing would depend on their own efforts: as the lack of labor bureau statistics and minimal press comment for the era corroborate, the soon-to-be-veterans could only expect public consensus to see the able-bodied veteran’s daily search for bread no differently from the stay-at-home civilian’s. With all respect to the former, it was an individual rather than sociological problem. Tasked with striking a balance between the contending duties of providing fair consideration and payment to individuals with meritorious legal claims, and of maintaining control over the allocation of limited public revenues among competing public needs, in ensuing years the congressional Committee on Claims was in character with the times when it replied to petitioning veterans: “Congress cannot undertake the support of paupers merely because they may have been at some period of their lives engaged in the public service.”
Washington was right to anticipate a rocky reentry into civilian life for his troops. As Dixon Wecter has noted in his seminal account of American demobilization, in a pattern that has been repeated after major armed conflicts involving American forces, a combination of soldierly impatience, civil fickleness, and murky economic problems complicated the Continental’s return to civilian life. But return to civilian life they did, even the officers—thanks in part to the newly-formed Society of the Cincinnati.
When the Continental troops disbanded in 1783, future Secretary of War Henry Knox and 2,000 of the officer corps had honorary badges for proof of “having fought in defense of their liberties,” designed by L’Enfant and bestowed through the new society. Named in honor of the Roman Cincinnatus, the society was meant to bridge the space between military camp and veteran life for the officer corps, who pledged to follow their namesake’s example “by returning to their citizenship.” The Cincinnati was a hereditary society, whose ostensible purpose was the perpetuation of friendships made during the war. With George Washington among its first presiding officers, the Cincinnati was a success immediately and a controversy soon afterwards, due to its suspicious marks of aristocracy and the unpopularity of the officers’ bonus in the years following the war.
Pension demands from the Revolutionary army officers naturally attracted more attention than did the common soldier’s in the democratically hypersensitive period after the war. Despite the Congress’ pledge of half pay life pensions for its officers in 1780, it had been clear at the war’s close neither Congress nor the states could fulfill its promise. Alarmed by the saber-rattling of the Newburgh Conspiracy, in 1783 Congress voted the officers more immediate relief by commuting the pension to a lump sum of five years’ full pay in the form of six percent certificates. Civilians tired of taxes reacted viscerally. An honorary, hereditary society of officers made for an easy mark.
The Cincinnati recalibrated their constitution in the upheaval. Though it did not become a national level veterans’ organization with the political presence that later organizations would take on, the Cincinnati were instrumental to the success of the young American nation in two distinct ways. After Shays’ Rebellion, Henry Knox wrote Washington that the insurrection had failed chiefly because officers of the late army had joined to quell it on the strength of their Cincinnati ties. And soon afterwards, a group of former army officers who, as members of the Cincinnati, had formed the Ohio Company for western land settlement and speculation, saw their first band of settlers depart for the banks of the Ohio river in the newly opened territory.
The officers’ actions vindicated Washington’s belief in the feasibility of citizen-soldiers turned citizen-veterans. And in fighting and wining a second war against the British, Americans, it seems, accepted this also. Their soldiers were indeed their fellow citizens—people whom they knew. The veterans in their midst were their family members, their tradesmen and townspeople, their farmers. They were not the social and moral dregs of society, nor suspicious actors of the state, but were a true cross-section of society.
By the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the War of 1812, popular imagination was fired by the image of the “suffering soldier” while consciences felt the demands of gratitude for the patriotic virtues and sacrifices of the Revolutionary troops. The national sentiment agreed that only providing disability pensions to veterans permanently injured during wartime was an insufficient repayment of the nation’s debt. In his First Annual Message to Congress, (Revolutionary War veteran) President Monroe drew special attention
to the surviving officers and soldiers of our Revolutionary army, who so eminently contributed by their services to lay its foundation. Most of those very meritorious citizens have paid the debt of nature and gone to repose. It is believed that among the survivors there are some not provided for by existing laws, who are reduced to indigence and even to real distress. These men have a claim on the gratitude of their country, and it will do honor to their country to provide for them.
To satisfy this claim and the public sentiment, Monroe signed into law the 1818 Revolutionary War Pension Act, reversing thereby the nearly forty years of opposition to the creation of a pension establishment within America (as creating a permanent class, for instance). The act stated that any officer, soldier, mariner, or marine who served for at least nine months in a Continental line or served until the war ended and was in “reduced circumstances” was eligible for the pension. A court of record had to certify a testimony of service and an oath of indigency, after which the court submitted the claimant’s application to the War Department for service verification only. Upon approval, ordinary soldiers would receive $96 and officers $240 annually.
Such service pensions for eligible veterans were the first Federal entitlements to cash income assistance, and anticipated the starring role that veterans’ benefits have frequently played in the development of American government and national administration. By fusing the service pension concept to the concept of public assistance for the aged poor, this act of federal domestic policymaking established the precedent from which the system of American military service-related benefits directly evolved. At the same time, the government-created systems meant to enact the policies supporting veterans have been consistently plagued by corruption and controversy. Within six months of Monroe’s signing the Pension Act into law, fraud, mal-administration, and scandal threatened its survival.
To protect the military veteran from the errors and neglect of bureaucracy and put oomph behind advocacy for his needs, veterans’ organizations emerged and have flourished after wars, bringing visible weight to bear on the legislative process. Veterans’ organizations have played so substantive—though often so controversial—a role in American politics that attempting to understand how veterans have come to view and participate in the political community without acknowledging their presence is at best an artificial exercise. But it would be a mistake simply to equate the veteran’s political behavior with that of veterans’ organizations. This, especially in the era of the All-Volunteer Force, when the nation is statistically unaware of the less than 1 percent of the population who serve or the 7 percent of the civic body who are veterans, and when membership in associations or civic groups is minimal across society as a whole.
The veteran organizes
No truly national veterans’ organization took shape until after the Civil War, when a group of Union veterans, pining for the camaraderie of camp and motivated by the plight of fellow veterans, established the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1866. The national GAR monument in Washington, in which its founder Dr. Stephenson gazes upon tableaux of its three founding principles—Fraternity (a soldier receiving succor on the battlefield), Charity (a widow and orphans), and Loyalty (a soldier and a sailor with a flag)—captures this legendary origins story. But in the definitive work on the subject, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR, Mary Dearing reveals a story more complex and compelling. Companionship, solidarity, and charity were GAR ends for sure, but so was politics. The struggle among Radicals, conservative Republicans, and Democrats over the Reconstruction issue formed the background for the founding of the Grand Army, while the ambitions of several Illinois politicians (General John A. Logan and Governor Richard Oglesby in particular) ushered it into existence. By keeping in view a very tangible legislative purpose—cash benefits for veterans—over several decades, it maintained a considerable political presence until President Benjamin Harrison signed the generous 1890 pension law into effect.
Nationally, the courtship of the veteran began in the congressional elections of 1866, with both the Republican and the Democratic parties calling special conventions of ex-soldiers. This was an outgrowth of the 1864 election contest between Lincoln and General McClellan, when the soldier’s influence upon elections had begun to be considered. With the War Department estimating that 2.2 million men had served in the Union Army alone, the “soldier vote” was sure to have significant influence in American politics. And over the latter part of the 19thcentury the GAR would be instrumental in electing five Civil War veterans and GAR members to the presidency—Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, in addition to Civil War veteran (but non-GAR member) Chester Arthur. One-third of the members of Congress during the 49th Congress (1885–87) were veterans from northern and border states. According to the Senate Historical Office, all told, 87 Union veterans would eventually serve in the U.S. Senate, joined by 72 ex-Confederates.
In 1871, the GAR reported 30,024 members. Coinciding with pension legislation signed by Harrison in 1890, the GAR reported its maximum membership of 409,489. Though it steadily declined from that point, expiring with its last member in 1956, the GAR made an indelible mark on the American political nation through its veteran pension advocacy. Culminating in the Dependent Pension Act, the logic and demands of pension legislation had expanded from the assumption (behind the 1862 pension act) that the federal government, having contracted for the services of soldiers, was liable only for injuries they sustained while in its employ. Mere service as a Union veteran did not entitle a man to any special consideration, even if he happened to be sick, jobless, or destitute. But by the 1880s, advocates insisted that the nation owed the ex-soldier support, and not just if he had ailments linked to military service. Denying that there could be an easy metamorphosis of veteran into civilian, they believed that ex-soldiers should be treated as a special class. In the Dependent Pension Act, these arguments materialized in the removal of the “pauper clause”—the section requiring applicants to prove dependence. The result was a law that granted a pension to every honorably discharged soldier of ninety days’ service who suffered from any disability that incapacitated him for manual labor, no matter what his financial situation or the circumstances of the disability. Administrators, applying a liberal construction, interpreted age as a pensionable disability.
The partisan and pension politics of the GAR were of course only part of its story. Reflecting the diversity of its members, the GAR was also a fraternal lodge, a charitable society, a special-interest lobby, a patriotic group, a political club. After 1900, the GAR served largely as an organization for the promotion of patriotism and the commemoration of Memorial Day. As it dwindled in numbers and importance, the veterans of World War I emerged, determined to have a voice in the public arena. And through membership in two often competing organizations, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, as well as in a bonus policy advocacy that lead to the Bonus March, World War I veterans found occasion to exercise that voice unmistakably.
Some four million American servicemen had been demobilized within a year of the November 1918 Armistice. Of the total, 50 percent were volunteers; approximately two million had served oversees, with 1.9 million serving stateside. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1919, the disabled veteran was eligible to receive federal payment of tuition, fees, books, and a subsistence allowance of $90–$145 a month for rehabilitated or professional training. A total of 329,969 World War I veterans would eventually register for vocational training. But President Wilson had originally swelled the ranks of the Allied Expeditionary Force through conscription, and, in the eyes of citizen-soldiers at least, conscription established a social contract between the citizen-soldier and the federal government for the lifetime of the war generation. As citizen-veterans, they turned to inducing the federal government to meet its responsibility to distribute the burdens of fighting a total war evenly throughout the population.
Ultimately, this generation of veterans settled on adjusted compensation as a prime postwar cause. In recent scholarship, Stephen Ortiz builds upon Jennifer Keene’s work in Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America to challenge conventional narratives of the Bonus March as a spontaneous social protest movement of veterans, sparked by the Great Depression yet unsupported by the major veteran organizations. Ortiz argues that the VFW’s demands—and organized political action—between 1929–32 for full and immediate cash payment of the deferred Soldiers’ Bonus (not payable until 1945), in the face of the Legion’s opposition to the measure, set in motion the protest movement known as the Bonus March.
In the summer of 1932, more than 20,000 World War I veterans descended on Washington, DC, to lobby Congress for immediate payment on their adjusted service certificates, called the Bonus. After weeks of mounting tension and congressional defeat of the Bonus, under Douglas MacArthur’s directions the U.S. Army evicted the Bonus Marchers and their families from makeshift encampments on the Anacostia River. It cemented the Hoover Administration’s perceived image of disregard for the suffering of the common American, and, as Franklin D. Roosevelt predicted, won FDR the presidency in the ensuing election. While veterans enjoyed immense popularity afterward, it took until 1936 and another presidential election contest for them to receive the full amount of their Bonus, after Congress twice overrode FDR’s dramatic Bonus Bill vetoes.
In 1930, there were 15 Senators, 63 Members of Congress, and multiple Cabinet members who had served in the Great War. By 1944, World War I veterans in these posts combined with the now seasoned veteran pension policy advocates in the VFW and the American Legion had worked a sea-change in the Roosevelt Administration in favor of liberal veterans’ welfare legislation. Noting that the “long hard fight of the veterans of World War I for decent treatment has formed the foundation of this piece of veterans’ legislation,” Representative Chet Holifield from California celebrated the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights, or the GI Bill. The GI Bill is rarely remembered as the Great War’s ultimate legacy to the American political nation, but it is shortsighted to ignore how World War I veterans’ authorship of the most comprehensive piece of social welfare legislation in the United States deliberately made wartime military service the stepping-stone to a better life. Thanks to the GI Bill, 16 million World War II veterans gained access to federally funded vocational training and educational benefits; generous unemployment stipends; and low-interest home, farm, and business loans.
In the closest vote of his four campaigns, FDR carried the 1944 election over Thomas Dewey after the passage of the GI Bill. The evidence on the soldier’s vote (there were special wartime federal soldiers’ ballots) suggests that it aided Roosevelt’s victory: In New York City’s separate tabulation, for instance, 72 percent of GI ballots were in favor of FDR, 12 percent above the civilian vote. Overall, the margin for FDR was 59.3 percent among soldiers and 51.5 percent in the civilian population. And while the GI Bill boosted FDR in 1944, it entrenched the VFW and the American Legion as the twin pillars of the American veterans’ lobby. By absorbing the new cohort of World War II veterans, both emerged from the war with greater muscle and prestige than at any previous point. Citing congressional sources, the New York Times predicted that the American Legion would be a lobbying force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
The GI Bill did reshape America. Overall, 51 percent of veterans used the educational and vocational benefits—some 5.6 million veterans used vocational training, while the 2.2 million veterans who attended colleges and universities accounted for 49 percent of college enrollments in 1947. That same year, the Veterans’ Administration approved 640,298 low-interest home, farm, and business loans. Editors at the New Republic grasped the opportunity and urged liberals to embrace veterans’ welfare for ideological as well as practical political reasons:
Progressives may ignore…the question of whether men who have served their country in uniform are entitled to special economic consideration in the name of patriotism. They cannot afford to ignore the fact that the fate of a generation is at stake and that the settling-up of a wide and socially constructive system of benefits is of the deepest significance to the future of the democratic philosophy.
Veterans’ benefits, in short, argued the New Republic, were the kinds of benefits in embryo a rational state ought to consider for all of its citizens. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined a legislative agenda that would commit the federal government to deep intervention at the level of the individual, to end poverty, feed the hungry, provide care for the elderly, knock down racial barriers, improve education, and promote civic culture. For, said LBJ, “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” Within such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that, with the GI Bill of 1966, Congress outright rejected the 1956 Bradley Commission’s conclusion that military service “was an obligation of citizenship and not a basis for government benefits” and extended for the first time benefits to all veterans, those who served during war and those during peacetime, injured or healthy.
The 1966 Bill greatly expanded the federal benefits system in the United States; millions of veterans and their dependents could now have access to education, health care, and a host of other benefits without the expectation of having to serve during a time of war for such. By 2008, when, amid an unfolding economic disaster, President George W. Bush signed the latest version of the GI Bill for the veterans of the all-volunteer forces serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, veterans’ benefits legislation was of a piece with the larger legislative picture now expected by the public at large. Today, the federal government is assumed to hold responsibility for the social and economic security of all citizens.
Veterans’ politics has had little impact on the contours of the Obama agenda. Nor are they likely to shape that of the successful 2016 presidential candidate, due largely to the now bipartisan embrace of liberal veteran benefits and public support for government deficit spending during economic recession. But the military veteran will not be absent from the campaign stage. Nor will his political influence disappear. This is not due to the might of contemporary veterans’ organizations. Nor is it due to a contemporary “soldier’s vote”—the American warriors of today do not vote uniformly, reflecting the diversity of views of the population at large. Rather, it appears to have something to do with the surprising dynamics of the All-Volunteer Force and the rise of the ex-soldier as a persuasive symbol of everyday workingman experience combined with pre-political leadership qualities that stand in relief against our politically polarized age.
The AVF, the 9/11 veteran, and the ballot box
Early republicans are not atypical in American history in fearing that overly generous benefits to military veterans (beyond disability for those injured by their military service) would create a class of specially privileged individuals set apart from the rest of society. Such arguments, moderated somewhat by time and political development, oddly took center-stage again in the optimistic days of the Great Society programs. Debates in the House and Senate prior to the passage of the 1966 Cold War GI Bill reflected earlier concerns about veteran benefits creating an increasingly isolated class of citizens directly tied to the state through special grants. By the same token, such debates necessarily became broader arguments about the meaning of civic virtue, citizenship, and the contours of civic duty—the expressed fear, echoed by the New York Times in 1968, of granting generous post-service benefits to each person who donned a uniform, being the potential that military service would become less a matter of civic duty and more a negotiated economic relationship between the citizen and the state. But can military service be a matter of civic pride when the promise of post-service benefits seems only to encourage mercenary attitudes?
With the creation of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, such concerns intensified. Benefits became, and continue to be, an essential part of the military’s efforts to attract new recruits. And for their part, in survey after survey majorities of enlistees frequently cite the government’s provision of post-service benefits as a primary reason for entering the military. As though to confirm those earlier critics’ fears, a Department of Veterans’ Affairs profile of surveyed female post-9/11 veterans released in summer 2015 showed that a full 82 percent had joined for the post-service educational benefits.
But in this supposed entitlement age of mercenary soldiers, empirical evidence and scientific data reveal a surprising but compelling second narrative. The Pew Research Center’s 2011 survey of the military after a decade of the War on Terror, “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era”, found that 58 percent of post 9/11 veterans say that the terrorist attacks were an important reason why they volunteered. In “After the Wars: Survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Active Duty Soldiers and Veterans,” conducted in 2013 by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family foundation, 89 percent of respondents declared that if they had the chance to make the decision again, they would choose to join the military, even considering everything they now know about military service. (This is significant, given that this veteran cohort has not served in a peacetime military.) The comprehensive 2014 Annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey released by Blue Star Families showed 91 percent of its respondents believed in the importance of serving in the military or other national service. When asked directly about their motivation for having joined, 95 percent of service members answered “to serve my country,” while 74 percent colored that answer by responding that “they also joined to receive educational benefits,” with 63 percent joining also “to learn skills for civilian jobs.”
Given the ethos of our time, perhaps we ought to take such answers with a grain of cynicism. And yet, in tandem with the failure of purely mercenary reasons dictating who does or does not join the AVF is the failure of the veteran population to become government’s indentured voting block. Veterans of all cohorts, but especially post-9/11 veterans, do not make up a pro-government party, meaning that, despite their positive views of government-granted benefits for veterans, veterans do not as a whole support the token projects of “big government.” Rather, although veterans as a whole have statistically higher rates of civic engagement and political participation, they are more likely to be seen as conservative leaning, even Republican-affiliated, and not just about foreign policy issues involving the use of force.
In reality, the modern veteran’s political attitudes, behavior, and policy preferences are a complex story. Side by side with his non-veteran civilian counterpart, his views for the most part hardly stand out. There are several reasons for this, one of which relates to a sentiment Tocqueville long ago voiced: When it comes to the military, Americans think of themselves first as citizens and are shaped more definitively by the experiences and attitudes they entered with and which they keep their eye on for post-military life than they are by their military experience per se. Beginning with University of Chicago sociology professor Samuel Stouffer’s massive American Soldier project at the conclusion of World War II (Stouffer studied approximately half a million soldiers), studies have consistently shown that the number of other characteristics and experiences bearing upon servicemen before, during, and after their period of service obscures the effect military service has on later attitudes and behavior. Race, gender, religion, family make-up, martial status, and other demographics—but educational attainment above all—exert influence on a person, not to mention branch of service, rank (enlisted or officer), and public opinion.
Moreover, veterans studied from World War II up until the current cohort of post-9/11 veterans, including Vietnam veterans, have shown only whiffs of difference, if any, from their civilian non-veteran counterparts, according to the now-standard research. Veterans have not been found to favor authoritarian attitudes more than civilians; they mirror civilians on the isolationist-interventionist scale; maybe prefer slightly more federal spending on arms; are slightly more favorable to the Vietnam War than the general public, though demonstrably more favorable to the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and even (among Vietnam-era veterans) have been slightly more liberal on a few domestic social issues than their non-veteran peers. Most counterintuitively, at least among elites in the realm of foreign policy, veterans tend to be more dovish than non-veterans, believing that force ought only to be used in particularly threatening situations, though once committed, used in greater amplitude and decisively.
The majority of these studies do share a weakness, however—most do not or cannot distinguish between those drafted, those influenced by fear of the draft to volunteer, and those who freely volunteered for military service. Additionally, there has been a surprising lack of interest in veterans’ political opinions that has resulted in an equal lack of available data, especially about the latest cohort of AVF veterans. Until quite recently, no major national political survey has asked respondents about veteran status, so those interested in such data have had to make use of census data or narrow specialized surveys on pinpointed issues. Spurred by this lack of substance especially about AVF veterans, this summer J. Tyson Chatagnier and Jonathan D. Klingler conducted an extensive survey of veterans through the Ipsos polling firm. They sought to discover whether veterans who volunteered post 1973 exhibited the same characteristics of earlier veteran cohorts in mirroring the non-veteran civilian population; and, if they did not, whether the difference was traceable to the socializing effects of military service or characteristics that had driven the individuals to volunteer for military service in the first place.
Chatagnier and Klingler’s preliminary data from the 2015 Survey of American Veterans (SAVe) tells an arresting story that is strengthened by results of the 2012 and 2014 elections. Going beyond self-reported measures of ideology and party affiliation, Chatagnier and Klingler had survey respondents indicate their position on individual positions grouped under social, economic, military and defense, and law and order headings. On average, they find that the youngest cohort of veterans, volunteer veterans, not only report being more conservative and more Republican than the other groups of veterans on average but that they also have more conservative preferences than the electorate on specific issues.
As a social issue, AVF veterans are most supportive of school vouchers and less of Title IX than those who have never served. On economic issues such as income redistribution, spending cuts, and Obamacare, they are consistently more fiscally conservative than their non-veteran peers. On military issues and foreign policy, AVF veterans are more “hawkish” than non-veterans (though civilians are by far more likely to support the use of force to support the UN), and show no difference in attitude at all from non-veterans and the total electorate about using the military to promote democracy. Regarding matters of law and justice, the survey authors found that volunteer veterans prefer order more strongly than do civilians—as an example, nearly three-fifths of those with military experience agreed that the United States would be justified in torturing terrorists if it could prevent an attack, compared to the less than half of civilians who answered similarly.
Chatagnier and Klingler conclude that significant statistical support exists for the claim that participation in the AVF increases the probability of a rightward lean and of identifying as a Republican later in life, though the same does not hold true of participating in military service in general. And while public opinion has long held that individuals who serve or have served in the military are typically conservatives and Republicans, statistical analysis of even aggregate poll results have indicated a more multifaceted picture—considering, for instance, that in the case of veterans, they are disproportionately older, white, and male, proxy factors that are typically associated with GOP support.
What the SAVe survey appears to show, therefore, ought to catch the eyes of those scanning the political horizons. It gives substance to the 2014 national network exit polls as reported by the Washington Post, which showed that, in House races at least, the 17 percent of the population who voted and were veterans picked Republicans over Democrat by a 20 percentage-point margin. This followed on the heels of the 20 percentage-point margin veterans gave Mitt Romney in 2012, compared to the 2004 election, when veterans voted for Vietnam-era veteran John McCain over non-veteran Barack Obama by 16 points. Also in 2012, the youngest veterans were twice as likely to have voted for Romney as for Obama, with the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election study further indicating that the youngest cohort of self-reporting veterans exhibited the strongest effects in favor of identifying with the Republican Party.
Numbers, of course, are rarely the whole of a story, but these most recent election numbers, when combined with the SAVe data, present the argument that conservative-leaning young individuals are more frequently self-selecting for service in America’s All-Volunteer Force. But if, as the Pew Center has said, political polarization is indeed the defining feature of early 21st-century American politics, then such results need to be considered also within the framework of polarization. Over the past two decades the overall share of American who express consistently conservative or liberal opinions has doubled, from 10 to 21 percent. Meanwhile, those with mixed ideological views—those “in the center”—are diminishing in numbers, from 49 to 39 percent, although many within even this grouping may express beyond-moderate opinions, depending on the specific issue. It seems possible that the AVF veterans find themselves squarely within this landscape.
Today’s veteran population stands somewhere near 21.3 million, meaning that they take up 9 percent of the adult population and just barely 7 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Within the veteran population, the youngest cohorts of Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans are on track to be the largest contingent, meeting or even overtaking this year the role the Vietnam-era veteran has played. These veterans were not conscripted or reluctant enlistees of America’s fighting forces, even though the increasing majority will have joined during a time of war, not peace. Though they can be assured that some package of benefits will await their mustering out of the service, they have not volunteered their time, talents, and life for those benefits but report a powerful sense of civic pride and duty. This they carry back with them into civilian life, where they are more likely to maintain a civic presence through volunteering, voting, and even running for public office. Although their numbers are not what they once were in the halls of Congress, the 20 percent of Senators, the 18 percent of U.S. Representatives, and the 13 percent of State Senators with military experience make up a larger presence among elected officials than they do in the general population.
Candidates for office increasingly are seeking out public endorsements from ex-military members, in addition to the usual photo ops. This appears to be wise, from a public image standpoint—out of all institutions, the U.S. military is currently the most trusted government institution in America. Given the well-documented history of veterans banding together as a type of interest group to advocate for particular policies, this trust is a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics that suggests at least two things for us to ponder. In pursuing policies favorable to them, citizen-soldiers turned citizen-veterans have operated in the distinctly American fashion of forming an interest group that has behaved similarly to Madison’s famous prediction of counteracting factions in Federalist 10. Veterans’ organizations historically have mirrored the wishes, desires, and behavior of the electorate as a whole, in competition with other national concerns yes, but hardly in domination. And as those needs have been met, veterans’ organizations have remained as civic communities and support groups for their members.
The Founding generation’s gamble on an army of citizen-soldiers, and General Washington’s belief in citizen-veterans, is the second dish for thought. Washington argued that it was neither reasonable nor just to expect that one set of men should sacrifice their property, domestic ease, and happiness to encounter the vicissitudes of war “to obtain those blessings which every citizen will enjoy, in common with them without some adequate compensation.” This, even though he also believed that military service is a civic virtue and a duty of democratic citizenship, and that “motives of public virtue” could animate many to defend their lives, their liberties, and their national honor. Washington trusted that citizen-veterans would strengthen the nation outside of the military sphere, as being active participants in its civic life. The history of the veteran in America appears to bear out his trust. As reflections of Americans at large, the citizen-soldier turned citizen-veteran has endured not as a threat to the American democratic nation, but perhaps as its greatest tribute.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 3, Ch. 22 & 23.
2. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. VI (1777–78).
3. “Petition of John Montgomery,” Records of the United States House of Representatives: Records of the Committee on Pensions and Revolutionary Claims, Folder 71, RG 233, NA
4. Dixon Wecter, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1944).
5. John Resch’s detailed study of enlistment rolls and other period records of towns in New Hampshire and throughout New England confirms this. See John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
6. This is not to argue that no pension legislation existed until 1818. In fact, the First U.S. Congress had established minimal disability pensions for veterans. Congress established a standing Committee of Claims in 1794 to process and help adjudicate the individual petitions veterans sent to Congress, which it might or might not grant through private legislative acts. However, compensation in the form of one-time enlistment bounties or wages paid to military personnel, or pensions provided to men disabled while in the military remained conceptually distinct from pensions granted merely as a consequence of service, especially when granted after the fact. See Laura Jensen, Patriots, Settlers, and the Origins of American Social Policy, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2003).
7. Ortiz, Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era(New York University Press, 2010).
8. New Republic, “The Progressive and the Veteran,” October 22, 1945.
9. Ortiz, ed. Veterans’ Policies, Veterans’ Politics: New Perspectives on Veterans in the Modern United States, (University of Florida Press, 2010).
10. Chatagnier and Klingler, “Would You Like to Know More? Selection, Socialization, and the Political Attitudes of Military Veterans,” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, (San Francisco, 2015).
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