The death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg ends a 69-year record of having a World War II veteran serving in the Senate. Since 1944, at least one veteran of the war had served in the Senate. For many years, World War II veterans constituted a majority of the Senate.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, service in World War II was almost a prerequisite for election to Congress. From 1953, when former Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, to 1993, when draft-evader Bill Clinton took up residence, each president had World War II service on his resume. Admittedly, some (Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan come to mind) were not in the thick of the fight, but all had that transformative experience of serving in uniform during wartime. Voters expected this experience from their leaders, and the values, leadership and judgment of these men were unquestionably shaped by wartime experiences.
Today's Senate has only a small percentage of veterans — 16 percent. It's easy to surmise that the declining number of veterans on the Senate floor might have triggered the loss of camaraderie, compromise and self-sacrifice in Congress. Military service instills in young men and women these traits — the interests of the organization over personal goals, the need for organization and good order, the caring for your comrades, and obedience without hesitation to lawful orders. From these practices there develops a cohesive unit pride, friendliness and trust — all earmarks of legislative success.
These values and these experiences are not learned in colleges or in most job situations. They are unique to military experiences. The lack of these traits can result in the chaotic, divisive, self-serving atmosphere now infesting Capitol Hill.
The decline in veterans' numbers in Congress coincides with the shift to an all-volunteer military. While the Vietnam-era draft was a highly divisive topic reeking with unfairness, it at least provided large, diverse numbers of Americans the experience of working with others toward common goals, despite one's cultural, racial or political differences. Having fought three wars (counting Gulf War and Iraq War as separate) without a military draft, it seems likely that America will never again conscript its sons and daughters into military service, even if that service would, overall, be a positive influence on their lives and on politics.