In pondering the ongoing train wreck we call government these days, Lawrence Olsen made a sage observation.
Reflecting back on his years as a congressional staffer, Olsen noted, “In the years until about 1987-1989 … many of the leaders in Congress had served in World War II. These were the folks who had seen the real abyss, and although they were dedicated to public service in Congress, they had faced much more important and life-changing situations in the past. So, they could have partisan battles and, afterwards, gather with colleagues from the other side of the aisle and have a beer, because they were first of all Americans — not Ds or Rs, or from whatever section of the country. “
Olsen, executive vice president of the Texas Good Roads and Transportation Association, was one of the late Jake Pickle’s former press secretaries. Pickle served in the Navy during World War II. First elected to the U.S. House in 1963, Pickle certainly was only one of an army of veterans elected after mustering out in World War II. These days, he’d have a hard time drumming up a group with which to trade service stories.
Only 89 of 435 House members have served either on active duty or reserves. In the 100-member Senate, only 19 veterans are members of the most exclusive club in the world.
Though Iraq and Afghanistan vets appear to be staging a rally by seeking and winning office, the number of veterans in Congress has been in steady decline since the Vietnam years.
Those numbers explain a lot of things. It certainly tells me why the Veterans Affairs Department continues to get away with processing disability claims at glacial speed. And why families of GIs killed by shoddy defense contractor work get folded flags and transitory sympathy but the contractors don’t suffer financial consequence. Congress doesn’t even ask for the money back when contractors screw up — and then finds ways to give them more.
Members of Congress go into full-blown harrumph mode, but for all the bluster and table pounding, the VA stays unfixed.
It also explains why members of Congress can’t quite get the hang of getting along. After all, they’ve never had to share a table — much less living space — with people from myriad backgrounds and whose viewpoints reflect the diversity of their experiences. Anybody who has ever lived in barracks knows it’s not all brotherhood and harmony, but military life is about achieving objectives, and that requires levels of cooperation — whether those cooperating like each other or not.
Since the end of the draft in 1973, fewer people have had to learn the basic people skills that are attached to military service. That, in turn, makes the pool of potential congressional candidates that much shallower.
Fewer people in public office — and journalism for that matter — know much about military life except that ex-GIs make dandy props. Doing something about the problems they have — well, that’s another story.
It’s been that way since Revolutionary War veterans started agitating for pensions they were promised but were never delivered. In 1932, there was a bloody confrontation between the active Army troops and the so-called Bonus Army of World War I veterans. And the band plays on.
Generations of vets have learned that the thanks of a grateful nation only go so far. To quote a line from Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, “Catch-22,” “Oh, well, sang McWatt, what the hell.”
We all had our reasons for putting on that uniform. Some of us enlisted, some of us were conscripted, and some had a little nudge from a judge.
Military service didn’t make us any better than anyone else, but we did what a lot of other people didn’t want to do. Some of us are prouder of that than others, but that experience bonds us — like it or not.
Monday brings Veterans Day and the usual fanfare. Impressive as the public ceremonies are, I would be more impressed with fewer speeches and more progress on disability claims and finding ways to divert veterans from homelessness and suicide.
It is heartening to look around and see more nonprofits stepping up to help vets who need assistance. The nonprofits can’t do it all, but it beats waiting around for Congress to move meaningfully on these issues. Sure, it’s going to cost money, but politicians should think about what it will cost to fix broken minds and bodies before pounding war drums.
It’s a lesson we’ll learn eventually. We’d learn it faster if more people who learned it the hard way served in Congress.
Other Veterans Day observations available on statesman.com/opinion.