We Need More Military Veterans in Congress Who Oppose the “Forever Wars”

Congress desperately needs more representatives from working-class backgrounds, including those who are military veterans. Unfortunately, most veterans currently serving in Congress are foreign policy hawks who want to keep the war machine running.

Right-wing Arkansas senator Tom Cotton — a veteran — flashes a "V sign" at a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on the US Army's Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2023 on May 5, 2022. (Tom Brenner / Getty Images)

At the beginning of this midterm election year, we received an urgent fundraising appeal from US representative Jake Auchincloss, a centrist Democrat from Massachusetts. The email message informed us that, as a former Marine officer in Afghanistan, Auchincloss “saw firsthand the futility of the Forever Wars.”

All good so far. But then, on behalf of a Democratic Party–funded group called VoteVets, Auchincloss bemoaned the fact that what’s missing in electoral politics today “is people who have seen these conflicts firsthand.” As a result, he noted, “we are at an all-time low of veterans serving in Congress since World War II.” According to Auchincloss, “this trend hurts all of us, not just our troops — because veterans offer a unique perspective in Congress and are able to work together to get things done while sticking to our principles.”

“Our nation is at a critical impasse,” Auchincloss warned. “We have to decide who leads. Those who will defend our democracy above all else or Trump sycophants who have never served anything beside their own self-interest their entire lives.”

We could certainly do with more veterans in Congress “who saw firsthand the futility of the Forever Wars.” The halls of power in the United States are shockingly devoid of representatives from working-class backgrounds, many of whom are veterans. But as the 2022 election cycle reaches its final stage, it’s time for a reality check on Auchincloss’s fanciful account of how veterans inherently function on Capitol Hill — and for a reminder that some of the best-known “Trump sycophants” running for office this fall are ex-military officers who did “see conflicts firsthand,” but are now campaigning under the MAGA flag.

Defenders of Democracy?

As we document in our new book about veterans’ affairs, military laurels are no guarantee that so-called “service candidates,” once elected, will be any more effective or trustworthy than other politicians who never enlisted. Wearing a uniform and swearing allegiance to the Constitution in the past are no reliable gauge of a veteran’s current commitment to “defend our democracy.”

For incumbent members of Congress, “working together to get things done” primarily takes the form of rubber-stamping ever-bigger Pentagon budgets, backing US military intervention abroad, and favoring privatization of veterans’ health care — a bipartisan project that threatens nine million mainly poor or working-class patients served by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And in January 2021, even after the storming of the Capitol by a Trump-incited mob, thirty-five Republican veterans voted against certifying Joe Biden as his successor.

Often, the supposedly “unique perspective” of most GOP veterans is no different from that of other right-wing paranoids in Washington who lack military backgrounds. For example, Ronny Jackson, Donald Trump’s White House doctor who retired from the Navy as an admiral to run for Congress two years ago, believes that his previous presidential patient, Barack Obama, is a “Deep State traitor” who “weaponized the highest levels of our government to spy on President Trump” and deserved to be prosecuted for it. One of Jackson’s House colleagues from Texas is former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw. He has teamed up with Republican senator Ted Cruz, a non-veteran, to expose the Pentagon’s alleged “woke ideology.”

Meanwhile, Crenshaw has demonstrated his standard-brand fiscal conservativism. Earlier this year, he joined thirty-five other veterans and current members of the National Guard or Reserves in a House vote against expanding eligibility for post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to fellow members of the Guard and Reserves (because it would cost $1.9 billion over the next decade). More recently, because of similar objections to federal spending, two Republican veterans in the Senate — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa — cast an initial vote against the PACT Act, which allocates $280 billion to assist veterans suffering from burn-pit-related ailments and other past toxic exposures.

It was also the Harvard-educated Cotton, you might recall, who urged Trump to deploy federal troops against Black Lives Matters protestors in 2020 “to restore order in our streets.” On Twitter, the former Army captain called for “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters” — orders which on a real battlefield would be considered a war crime if applied to enemy combatants attempting to surrender.

Venture Capitalists and Conspiracy Theorists

On the ballot this fall, and eager to join Cotton and co., are former Army general Don Bolduc and well-known ex-Marine J. D. Vance. They’re seeking US Senate seats from New Hampshire and Ohio, respectively. Along with 120 other retired generals and admirals, Bolduc signed a letter declaring that Trump won the 2020 election (a stance he is now retreating from after having “done a lot of research on this”). Among Bolduc’s bold ideas is abolishing direct election of US Senators (after he becomes one, of course). Author of the poor-bashing Hillbilly Elegy and a venture capitalist, Vance plans to help veterans and their families by privatizing Social Security, a cause favored by his former boss and biggest single financial booster, the right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel.

Retrograde attitudes toward women and/or paramilitary cosplay have made other Republican veterans — like Eric Greitens in Missouri, J. R. Majewski in Ohio, and Alek Skarlatos in Oregon — less electable. A disgraced former governor, forced to resign four years ago after a sexual assault scandal, Greitens made a failed comeback in his state’s Republican senatorial primary this summer. The ex-Navy SEAL lost after airing a controversial campaign video in which he appeared as a gun-toting member of a camo-clad squad breaking down the door of a private home in search of “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only).

A challenger to House Democrat Marcy Kaptur, Majewski is a conspiracy theorist who attended the January 6, 2021 election protest at the Capitol in the company of a QAnon blogger. He was so disgusted with Joe Biden’s handling of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan six months later that he declared himself ready to “suit up and go back to Afghanistan tonight and give my best to save those Americans who were abandoned.” If Majewski actually had any post-9/11 combat experience, as he has claimed on other occasions, he would have been playing the veteran card in politics with a stronger hand. Instead, he is now being denounced (and mocked) for “stolen valor” — a mortal sin among veterans — because the closest he got to a combat zone was loading and unloading planes at an Air Force base in Qatar.

A Legion of Honor Member

In Oregon, two-time Republican House candidate Alek Skarlatos has no such need to embellish his record in the Oregon National Guard or afterward. On his way home from Afghanistan in 2015, he helped thwart a terrorist attack on a train in France, as depicted later in Clint Eastwood’s action film, The 15:17 to Paris. President Barack Obama awarded Skarlatos the US Army’s Soldiers Medal; in France, he was inducted into the National Order of the Legion of Honor. Capitalizing on his celebrity persona (which included playing himself in Eastwood’s film), Skarlatos mounted a serious 2020 challenge to Democrat Peter DeFazio, the longest serving veteran in Congress.

This year, DeFazio retired rather than stood for reelection, so Skarlatos is running again. Recently, he has taken flak for comments he made while promoting Eastwood’s film. On a podcast called Drinkin’ Bros, he criticized the appearance of female residents of Roseburg, Oregon, where he lives, and joked with the host about women being choked during sexual encounters with men. His campaign had to issue an apology in which Skarlatos acknowledged being “disappointed” with himself for “comments made as a twenty-four-year old who just left the Army.”

Elsewhere in Oregon, former Green Beret Joe Kent has managed to avoid such slipups so far because, as the New York Times notes, he is “one of the most polished of the MAGA candidates.” Forty-two-year old Kent got into the general election ballot by polishing off Republican House member Jamie Herrera Beutler, one of only seven House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment for inciting the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. Kent became a single father of two children when his wife, a Navy intelligence officer, was killed in Syria by an ISIS suicide bomber. In a recent debate, he told voters: “I served for this country for over twenty years. Did eleven combat deployments. Lost many friends. Lost my late wife because our ruling class — Republicans and Democrats — consistently lied to the American people to keep us engaged in wars abroad. That is why I have a skepticism of our federal government.”

Unfortunately, Kent’s “skepticism” extends to federal officials like Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who he believes should face criminal charges for the “scam that is COVID.” (Unvaccinated himself, Kent argues that the COVID-19 vaccine is a form of “experimental gene therapy.”) He also favors criminal prosecution of defense secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley for botching the 2021 US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. And if Republicans regain control of the House with him among them next year, Kent wants to impeach Vice President Kamala Harris because she was “one of the lead fundraisers” for Antifa and Black Lives Matter during protest activity two years ago.

An Anti-War Alternative?

In the summer of 2020, when Trump was close to invoking the Insurrection Act and ordering federal troops to suppress Black Lives Matter protests, Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona was among those veterans in the House who strongly opposed any use of the US military against civilians. In a public query to Milley, Gallego demanded to know whether he intended “to obey illegal orders from the president?” Gallego, a former Marine, is a Pentagon spending critic and one of the only combat veterans in Congress who also signed a pledge to “End The Forever War,” promoted by the progressive veterans group Common Defense. Its supporters are now working to secure Gallego’s reelection so he can mount a strong challenge to Senator Kyrsten Sinema in the 2024 Arizona Democratic senatorial primary.

Other than Gallego, however, there “really isn’t any veteran in Congress yet who is close to being part of the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus,” according to one former Common Defense staffer. With few exceptions, veterans running as Democrats in swing districts and even in blue state safe seats have been reliably hawkish and “pro–military-industrial complex,” he says. One of them is New Jersey Democratic representative Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and US Naval Academy graduate, who has berated her colleagues in the House for not believing “in muscular foreign policy and muscular national defense like I do,” and has authorized military budgets even bigger than what the Pentagon itself requests.

In July 2020, another VoteVets favorite — former Army Ranger and Bronze Star–winner Jason Crow, a Democratic representative from Colorado — worked with Republican super-hawk Liz Cheney to slow the pace of the Trump administration’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year later, Crow was more receptive to Biden’s “decision to finally bring our longest war to an end,” although he criticized Afghan refugee evacuation planning by the White House. Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who did four tours of duty as a Marine officer in Iraq, called that withdrawal a “disaster.”

To find a veteran willing to question the military-industrial complex, one has to look outside the two major parties in this election cycle. His name is Matt Hoh, a former Marine with a very impressive resume, who can be found campaigning for North Carolina’s open US Senate seat as a Green Party anti-war candidate against Democrat Cheri Beasley, a former state supreme court justice, and a Trump-backed Republican, Congressman Ted Budd.

The national Democratic Party invested heavily in a failed legal effort to keep Hoh off the ballot. He’s been excluded from debates and ignored in national press coverage of the race. But Hoh is daring to say what needs to be said: a much smaller military budget wouldn’t just promote peace abroad; it would be good for millions of US workers in need of a better life.