To cure Congress, elect more former military members

To cure Congress, elect more former military members
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Many well-deserved tributes have been paid to John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE, an authentic American hero. The world knew him as a great patriot, statesman and leader. I had the privilege of calling him my friend and mentor.  

Now, I hope we as a nation memorialize him by changing our politics to reflect his best principles — in part, by changing the composition of Congress.


I met then-Navy Capt. McCain in August 1979 when I was a Marine major assigned to the Navy-Marine Corps Senate Liaison Office. Our families had been connected through his father and my uncle, who served together in the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii during the early 1970s, while John was imprisoned in North Vietnam. I served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam at roughly the time of his capture, which was how I first came to hear about him.

In our lifelong friendship I came to know and admire his many virtues but, above all, I will remember his lesson of forgiveness.

Like many of us who served in that conflict, I returned from Vietnam with very mixed emotions. I was disillusioned, as were many of my peers, by the rules of engagement that left too many safe-haven refuges for our enemy; I detested the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for their well-documented torture of American prisoners, both in the field and in the “Hanoi Hilton.” I also witnessed the sadistic treatment of Vietnamese civilians by insurgents. We all knew about McCain, and other POWs, and feared for what it meant for his captivity as the son of the admiral prosecuting the war against North Vietnam.

As history documents so well, our worst fears were realized.

As the years passed and Capt. McCain became Congressman and then Sen. McCain, I was deeply moved by his capacity to forgive, especially concerning his captors and their despicable treatment of our POWs.  

He was instrumental in extending the hand of peace and normalizing relations with Vietnam, convinced there was no future in hating one’s former enemies and that part of healing lies in finding forgiveness. His ability to forgive helped me and, I suspect, inspired many others like me, to put aside past hatreds and to focus on a better future.

His capacity to forgive, in the shadow of enormous suffering, is but one of the virtues he forged in uniform. Military service honed his monumental sense of duty, intense love of freedom, and unwavering fidelity to the ideals of liberal democracy. He brought these passions home and applied them with unparalleled energy throughout his career in elected office.  

No wish would have been dearer to his heart and soul than for his life and passing to inspire the country, once again, to find its better self. Above all, to inspire Congress — an institution he loved — to serve the nation with the same devotion to duty, teamwork and effectiveness as the young Americans we task to defend it, all too frequently with their lives. He wished zealously for the people’s branch of government to make our military and veterans as proud of it as we are of them; he knew this was necessary if the country was to be its best, to meet the complex threats and opportunities shaping the 21st century.

So here is part of a strategic plan for doing exactly that, fashioned after John McCain’s own journey and contribution. Simply put, we should elect more veterans to Congress.

When we served together in the Navy-Marine Senate liaison office, more than 70 percent of Congress had prior military service. It was easier then, it seemed, to appeal to an abiding sense of duty and teamwork that members forged in uniform, to find common ground and compromise for the national good. The intramural fights were no less spirited then but, for the most part, Congress did its job and members not only respected one another, they liked one another.

Today, only about 20 percent of Congress has served in the military; personal and partisan warfare and congressional gridlock have become an unsustainable burden on the nation. I firmly believe that the paucity of veterans in Congress contributes to the nation’s deep political division and dysfunction.

The good news is that a wave of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming of age, ready to present themselves for public office. The citizenry must encourage and inspire them to do so, to harness their skills, patriotism and devotion to duty. We need:

Above all, members of the House and Senate who served in the military should form a bipartisan, bicameral congressional caucus devoted to forging principled cross-party compromise and consensus to solve the nation’s growing roster of challenges. What better way to carry on one’s patriotic duty — or worthier way to expend the credibility, respect and public capital that veterans earn through their military service — than to take part in such a movement, one the nation needs now more than ever?

Vitally, such a caucus could be an orientation point that “enculturates” new members of Congress into a body that values their experience and diversity, and seeks to leverage their patriotic, team-oriented ethos. This, before newly-minted members can be captured by their respective party caucuses and indoctrinated into the culture of partisan warfare, never-ending campaign modes and endless stalemate.

Wouldn’t that be a fitting tribute to the life and service of John McCain, the man I have always referred to as “My Captain”? He would tell us that, more importantly, it’s what we owe the country that we love.  

Gen. James L. Jones is chairman of the Atlantic Council and former national security adviser to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2007 after 40 years, during which he served as commander of the U.S. European Command, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Marine Corps commandant.