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Fewer veterans are serving in high office in the United States. It’s no coincidence that America is going off the rails.

by PAUL V. KANE

Looking back at a decade of war — with $3 trillion spent pursuing victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of our citizens plucked from home for combat deployments, and more than 50,000 of our brethren wounded or killed in action — Americans need to ask themselves a single blunt question: Are our current military and civilian leaders fit to lead us in the next war?

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There’s a reason our national experience since 9/11 has been mixed with confusion, pride, trying developments, ruinous expense, and fleeting successes. We have lots of leaders but a national deficit in true leadership. Two trends have brought us to this crisis.

First, the vast majority of our current leaders have only a theoretical, intellectual, and abstract knowledge of the military and war — not an experiential, visceral, and personal understanding. The proportion of our key decision-makers who have served in the military and have personal experience with defense is in steady decline.

Before 1993, nearly every modern president had served on active duty in uniform, most in wartime, and a few were war heroes. At one point, 77 percent of Congress were veterans. Come 2013, veterans will make up a mere 19 percent of Congress — and many among this 19 percent have “military service” in their record purely because they sought to avoid the draft and Vietnam combat; they volunteered between 1966 and 1975 for what was then safe, part-time service at home in the National Guard or Reserve.

People who have not served in uniform or combat are often ill equipped to understand how conflict and armies work (or, frequently, how they don’t), how war moves to capricious rhythms, and how war plans last only until first contact with the enemy.

Consider the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 — perhaps the most high-stakes example of this concept.

President John F. Kennedy was a Navy veteran, and his brush with war left him without illusions. He kept his own counsel during the showdown with the Soviets precisely because he had been to war and had his boat sunk in combat. Kennedy was not overawed by the cigar-chomping general with a constellation of stars on his collar who disdainfully told him, “Sir, you have few options on Cuba except ‘surgical strikes’ followed by invasion.”

JFK knew that using the words “precision” and “bombing” in the same sentence was nonsense. We now know that if he had taken the advice of Gen. Curtis LeMay and others, Soviet commanders at sea and on the island would likely have ordered the use of tactical nuclear weapons — potentially escalating the crisis beyond the point of no return. Kennedy had the instincts and experience to discern the right course and hold his military to proper account in that unforgiving moment.

Being a veteran does not inoculate someone from making stupid or reckless decisions about war — not at all. But an executive who’s never been to war needs first to be brutally honest with himself — to know what he does not know — and second, to surround himself with veterans whom he trusts. The Cuban missile crisis turned out well because Kennedy had served in uniform and he had trusted and experienced advisors who were veterans and could provide a check on the generals; he could walk down the hall to ask Kenny O’Donnell or Dave Powers, two former Air Corps bombardiers from World War II, “Is this the real deal or B.S.?”

Two other cases have dominated national security policy since 9/11.

The most conspicuous example of this phenomenon came in the run-up to the Iraq war. Four combat innocents, “The Quartet” (Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Blair) — phony toughs, two of whom had actively gamed the system to avoid Vietnam combat — unleashed the dogs of war. And those same men actively excluded the one cabinet member with the requisite military experience, Colin Powell, because he could have judged both the civilian and military realities and cast doubt over the entire dubious enterprise.

The second example is, of course, Afghanistan, where civilian decision-makers demonstrated disinterest and failed to act with timely boldness. In 2002, and again in 2009, after al Qaeda’s nest had been obliterated and the Taliban bloodied, most American forces could have withdrawn and been replaced by ad hoc Special Forces missions taking out targets to deliver hurt and fear upon the Taliban.

Instead, we went all in; funding and embarking on the lunacy of nation-building among an ancient tribal people, all without any cold, hard, cost-benefit assessment, leading to America’s longest war without any compelling American strategic interest at stake. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “To fight out a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might.” From this Civil War veteran later turned civilian leader, wisdom worth mulling on Afghanistan.

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