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Published: 9/8/2007

A modest proposal

GEN. David Petraeus will make his report to Congress this coming week on the situation in Iraq. Much will be written about what he has to say. I'd like to devote a few words to those who will be passing judgment on General Petraeus' report.

We are in the midst of a world war, as the disruption this week of bomb plots in Denmark and Germany reminds us, or ought to. It figures to be a long war. What Congress does or doesn't do in response to General Petraeus' report largely could determine whether we win or lose. But the number of senators and representatives who are veterans - that is to say, who have the experience to make an informed judgment about what General Petraeus has to say - is the lowest it's been in half a century.

Only 29 percent of senators and just 23 percent of congressmen have worn their country's uniform, according to the Military Officers Association of America. That's down from 68 percent of senators and 48 percent of representatives in 1991, noted Washington Post reporter Peter Baker in an Aug. 24 article.

That proportion is likely to get lower, possibly much lower. "Among defeated or retiring incumbents last year, twice as many had served as the freshmen replacing them," Mr. Baker reported.

Of the leading candidates for president, only Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has had military experience. Senator McCain illustrates why military experience is valuable in a wartime commander in chief. Returning from a visit to Iraq in November, 2003, Senator McCain said:

"To win in Iraq, we should increase the number of forces in-country, including Marines and Special Forces, to conduct offensive operations. I believe we must deploy at least another full division, giving us the necessary manpower to conduct a focused counterinsurgency campaign across the Sunni triangle that seals off enemy operating areas, conducts search-and-destroy missions, and holds territory."

In short, Senator McCain was making the case for the surge three years before the surge began. Had we followed his advice then, it's possible (though, of course, by no means certain) that the war in Iraq would have been won by now. But President Bush, whose military experience consisted of a hitch in the Texas Air National Guard, followed other advice.

Military experience is not a be-all or end-all. Franklin Roosevelt never served, and Abraham Lincoln's military experience consisted of a brief stint in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Both were successful wartime presidents. But it should give us pause that President Bush has more military experience than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney combined.

Most of our presidents have worn the uniform. Twelve of the 42 were generals. But having a Congress composed chiefly of people who have never served is actually a return to normalcy.

Virtually every able-bodied male of military age served during World War II. The Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War kept the draft in place, troop levels high, and (until Vietnam) veterans' status prestigious. But for most of our history, our armed forces have been small and all-volunteer, and few in Congress had served in them.

Historically, our armed forces expanded substantially during wartime. Iraq is the first war in which this hasn't happened. "Never have so many owed so much to so few," Winston Churchill said of the Royal Air Force after the Battle of Britain. The same could be said of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are protecting us from Islamic terror. The biggest difference between Britain then and America now is that the British people and their political leaders understood what the RAF had done and appreciated it.

The draft is a military anachronism, of no more use to the armed forces of today than the horse cavalry. But there remains nostalgia for the draft, on the grounds of social equity. All have a duty to serve, even if the service of only a relative handful is required. And though it is emphatically untrue that the military is composed primarily of those who have few other options (it's harder to get into the Air Force or Navy today than into most of our universities), it is true that it's been the most privileged among us who have most studiously avoided military service.

We can spread the burden of military service more equitably and produce a Congress that better understands what it takes to win in war without a draft. All we need do is make it a condition for holding federal office that a candidate have an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed forces.



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