The problem of sexual assault in the military, which reached crisis proportions more than a decade ago, is finally having its moment. The Senate Armed Services Committee is hearing testimony Tuesday from all six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the heads of the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, on how to combat staggering figures like the 26,000 service members, mostly women, who were assaulted in 2012 alone. A lot of credit for making sex abuse a political priority goes to a small force of female senators. Although Senator Barbara Boxer has been raising alarms about the issue since she first joined the Senate more than 20 years ago, it took a glut of hearings and a legislative push from senators like Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, Susan Collins, and Kelly Ayotte to actually give the issue political legs.
Why in the world did this take so long? Yesterday’s news that Senator Frank Lautenberg had passed away holds part of the answer. When the New Jersey Democrat died Monday at the age of 89, the Senate lost its last World War II veteran. His death conforms to a larger trend: a declining number of military veterans in Congress. The 113th Congress, when it convened in January, included the smallest number of veterans, 85, of any class since World War II.1 Without Lautenberg, there are only 16 in the Senate. Facts like these are reliably construed as a crisis of institutional knowledge. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, predicting that the number will shrink even further in the future, gravely proclaimed, “Sending American men and women to war is the most serious decision a Congress can make. Fewer and fewer people making those decisions in the future will be able to speak from a position of experience and authority on the subject.”
The academic world has been in agreement for some time that this simply isn’t true—specifically, that a military veteran in Congress does not legislate very differently than one who hasn’t served. William Bianco, a professor at Penn State, published a massive analysis of voting patterns in 2000 that turned up no evidence that military experience affected legislators’ yeas or nays on military issues. Duke researchers Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn, in a study published in 2001, found that veterans in Congress weren’t any more likely to be active on military legislation than their peers. (To wit, the most memorable contribution that Lautenberg made to the Iraq war debate, by the reckoning of his Washington Post obituary, involved toting a giant poster of a cartoon chicken to the Senate floor to illustrate that Dick Cheney was a “chicken hawk”—not exactly the august invocation of his service years Cillizza might have imagined.) Yet broadly, the press and public, and even other members of Congress, still place measurably more trust in Congress’s veterans than their civilian peers when it comes to military issues.
A 2007 study by Michele Swers of Georgetown University concluded that these attitudes present huge obstacles to one group of legislators in particular: women. Swers found that the traction that female lawmakers' military-related legislation gets, the attention that the media pays to their opinions on foreign policy, and voter confidence in their abilities to handle defense and the military issues were all markedly less when compared with their male colleagues. (Swers focused on the Senate, since its makeup allows members to address virtually any issue they please.) Military veterans in particular, who are almost invariably male, far outstripped women in measures of exposure and voter confidence—not to mention that if a male, veteran lawmaker were to introduce defense- or military-related legislation, his reputation would carry the bill farther along in the legislative process than one of his female colleagues’ defense bills.
Specifically to compensate for our biases, she found, women in Congress often spend magnitudes more time on defense and military policies than their male and veteran counterparts. Women were more likely to co-sponsor the post-9/11 homeland security bills that appeared in Congress. Campaign managers for female candidates whom Swers interviewed were plainly more desperate for the endorsements of veterans’ groups than their male colleagues. Some, like Senator Mary Landrieu, turned blindly hawkish. Striving to build a reputation as “Military Mary,” one anonymous staffer told Swers, “She needs to be more pro-military and guns than the military.” Landrieu’s 2002 reelection campaign mocked up “Military Mary” camo-print bumper stickers. Similarly, McCaskill, in her 2012 reelection contest against Todd Akin, made her relentless prosecution of military waste and fraud a significant subtext of her campaign. A television ad featuring her mother touted McCaskill’s father’s military service and her efforts to correct mismarked graves in Arlington National Cemetery.
In spite of their doggedness, female lawmakers who take up military issues continue to face skepticism, especially from the press. Swers’s analysis of one year of the Sunday-morning talk shows found that leaders like Senator Susan Collins, a long-serving members of the Armed Forces Committee, were absent entirely from discussions on defense. Senator Debbie Stabenow complained about this to National Journal in 2005, saying, “After 9/11, it really pained me that Mary Landrieu, who, at the time, chaired the Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, was not interviewed on television. ... Look at the Sunday-morning talk shows—very rarely are women acknowledged as authorities on a topic.” By contrast, Swers wrote, when it comes to attracting media attention for their defense policy ideas, leaders with military careers have it easy. Consider that a watershed moment for the debate over the Iraq war was the “Murthquake”—when the late Rep. Joe Murtha, a pro-guns Democrat who happened to be a Vietnam veteran, called for the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq within six months. Murtha notched reams of media coverage and, in the prevailing wisdom of his obituaries, “gave his Democratic colleagues the cover they needed to express their own reservations about the war,” even though other Democrats had been clamoring for withdrawal for months.
Given all of this evidence, it’s difficult to overstate just how momentous it is that a group of non-veteran women lawmakers have commanded so much attention for military sex abuse. Nonetheless, it is still troubling to lose the veterans who serve in Congress. Many of our politicians would benefit from the humbling self-sacrifice of serving your country. (Have you read about how the late Sen. Daniel Inouye earned his Medal of Honor? It’s completely badass.) And certainly, there are policy issues for which a service background offers a unique perspective. Because he was tortured as a POW, Senator John McCain, quite fairly, is regarded as one of the most credible critics of the U.S.’s use of torture on its detainees. The fact of veterans being overwhelmingly male may also diminish as time goes on, as more women serve in combat roles—like Representative Tammy Duckworth, a freshman from Illinois who lost both her legs after a rocket-propelled grenade struck a helicopter she was piloting in Iraq.
But there are good reasons to hope that the chattering class will treat this moment, when there are fewer veterans in Congress than any other time in recent memory, as an opportunity to decouple military service from policy prowess. If not, we’ll be neglecting all the tools that a record number of female lawmakers bring to overseeing our military—like, say, McCaskill’s background as an auditor and prosecutor, which qualifies her to combat military waste and sexual assault as much, or more, than serving in Iraq might have. (Even Duckworth, a consistent voice on veterans’ issues, is drawing on her experience as a Veterans Affairs official, and not just a vet.) The way we concentrate the power to question or affect military policy among a preselected few is frankly alarming—as demonstrated by how long it took for the problem of military sexual assault to finally attract notice, without the likes of Murtha or McCain to raise hackles. A staffer for a senior Democratic senator, in defending veteran primacy on all things military, said to Swers about his boss: “It is his classmates at West Point that are running the war. This is the ‘Old Boy Network.’ They have known each other for 20 years and they will have honest discussions with him about things.” That same "Old Boy Network" let things get to the shameful point where they are today—a scrum of high-ranking officers being called on to explain why servicewomen are being sexually abused in horrifying numbers. It’s time for an "Old Girl Network."
Molly Redden is a staff writer for the New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.
20 percent of Congress has served, versus a high in the 1970s of about 70 percent.