Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Conservative Myth: GOP Politicians Serve in Military More Than Dems

 Myths or “Urban Legends” abound.  I am not speaking of “myth” as an identity shaping story that might or might not have historical basis, as biblical scholars use the term. I am using the popular definition of “myth” as a fictitious story with no clear author.  In the spirit of the cable TV show “mythbusters,” I am starting a series of posts (irregularly posted) on “conservative myths.” Liberals and progressives have their own myths, but I think that conservative ones are far more pervasive in contemporary U.S.A. popular culture.  I want to expose them. 

Myth #1 Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats and one excellent measure of this is the fact that so many more Republican politicians than Democratic ones have had military service.

As a pacifist, I am not convinced that military service is the only or even best demonstration of patriotism. (Patriotism is variously defined and some definitions should make Christians wary.  Christians have primary loyalty to the global Body of Christ, not to any nation-state.  But whereas nationalism is forbidden to Christians, I don’t think that chastened, critical, and humble forms of patriotism are forbidden us.) But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that military service IS the most obvious litmus test of a politician’s patriotism.  Are Republican politicians really more likely than Democratic ones to have seen military service?

The short answer is “no.” In the 109th Congresss, when the GOP was in charge, there were 233 GOP members of the House of Representatives and 206 Democratic members.  There were only 110 House members altogether who had any form of military service.  This is low number is a reflection of the class bias in Congress.  Getting elected takes much money and usually the kind of education and connections that come from the upper class and upper middle class. Since the end of the draft (compulsory military service), much fewer middle and upper class people in this nation see military service. So, the younger members of Congress are less likely to have seen military service, regardless of Party. 

But of that low number (110), 59 were Democrats and 51 Republicans.  Source: Congressional Database.  

In that same 109th Congress (with GOP in charge), there were 55 GOP Senators and 44 Democratic Senators and 1 Indep.  Only 31 of those Senators had military service, 17 of which were Democratic and 13 were Republican. Source: Congressional Database.

Things have shifted slightly in the GOP favor since the Democratic Party has gained ascendancy in the current 110th Congress, but things are still fairly even.  There are 20 senators with military service, 10 Democratic and 10 GOP.  Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is the only member of either the House or Senate to have a family member (his son) serving in Iraq.  There are only 70 House members with military service, of which 37 are Republican (including one who has died in office this year) and 33 are Democratic (including the only member of Congress who is a veteran of the Iraq invasion and occupation).

The decline of military service in Congress is clearly continuing, but neither major Party has any kind of clear pattern of enthusiastic joining of the military or clear avoidance.

What is fascinating is the “Chickenhawk factor,” that is how many high-ranking Republican leaders who were cheerleaders for the Iraq war, but who avoided military service themselves in time of war.  The term “chickenhawk,” is rude and may not even be fair in all cases.  But there does seem to be a pattern in which some of the most enthusiastically pro-war refused to go themselves.  They weren’t opposed to the Vietnam War, some of them were cheerleaders for that war, too, but they wanted others to fight it. 

Consider the following list of pro-war Republicans:

Vice President Richard B. Cheney had several deferments, none for medical reasons such as his later poor health.  He infamously said that he “had other priorities.”

Former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft did not serve–received 7 deferments to teach business ed. at Southwest Missouri State University.

Former Florida Gov.  Jeb Bush did not serve, receiving a deferment during Vietnam.

“Bush’s Brain” Karl Rove, did not serve, receiving several deferments so that he could plan future wars and GOP “permanent majority.”

Former Sen. Phil Gramm, did not serve, received several deferments.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not serve, avoided the draft with several deferments.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a major hawk, avoided combat during World War II by making training films for the army while remaining in California.  Later, he seemed several times to have confused his movie role as a tailgunner with the real thing.

President George W. Bush used his father’s influence to get into the Air National Guard in order to avoid going to Vietnam, though he loudly proposed using nuclear weapons on the North Vietnamese.  He was Absent Without Leave (AWOL) several times and eventually failed to finish his 6 year term in the Air National Guard, serving only 4 years.  His father’s influence kept him from being prosecuted for this.  For some reason, “W” still insists that he “has seen war.” Maybe on TV, but that’s all.


Not all big-league Republicans have been chickenhawks, of course.  Former Sen. Bob Dole, one time Pres. candidate, for instance, served honorably in WWII. Dole was permanently injured and earned several medals.  Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB), earned two purple hearts and a bronze star in Vietnam.  Sen. John McCain (R-UT), was, of course captured in Vietnam and spent several years as a prisoner of war. In the 2000 presidential race, the Bush campaign smeared McCain’s reputation (was this practice for the later hatchet jobs to be done on Democrats Max Cleland, John Kerry, and others?) by claiming that he did dishonorable things in Vietnam, but he was defended by several prominent Democrats.

But its interesting that these honorable, sometimes even heroic, Republican veterans are much less hawkish than their civilian chickenhawk counterparts.


By contrast, many prominent Democrats who have been smeared as unpatriotic by the GOP have served honorably, sometimes even heroically, in the military. 

Former VP Al Gore enlisted in the military when he could have avoided it and volunteered for a tour of Vietnam to prevent some poor kid from going in his place.  He did this even though his father was one of the most prominent anti-Vietnam war senators at the time. 

Former Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle was a Lt. in the U.S. Air Force from 1969-1972.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) a very high ranking Democrat, served in the U.S. Army when his family was interred in U.S. concentration camps for citizens of Japanese ancestry.  He lost an arm and earned the Medal of Honor.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), presidential candidate in ’04 (although not my first choice), was a Lt. in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1970, going to Vietnam and earning 3 Purple Hearts, a bronze star with combat V and a silver star for valor.  Then, and in my view, this was just as courageous and patriotic if not more so, he testified before Congress in the Winter Soldier hearings, helping to end the Vietnam War and helping to create Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (It’s too bad that he was so hawkish in his ’04 campaign.)  Chickenhawks smeared his record in the ’04 campaign.

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), lost both legs and one arm serving in Vietnam.  He lost reelection when Republican Chickenhawks, led by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, smeared his record and tried to claim that he was unpatriotic. !!!

Former Presidential Candidate (and still a political activist) General Wesley Clark:  Had a 38 year career of public service in the Army culminating in being the Supreme Commander of NATO. (He was a prominent critic of the Iraq invasion and occupation.)

Former Democratic President John F. Kennedy was highly decorated during WWII.  As was former Sen. and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.  Whatever else one could say about Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), served in the Army in 1951-1953 and was in the Korean War.

Former Pres. Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, was commissioned an Ensign in 1947 just as WWII ended.  He  spent 7 years in the Navy helping to create the nuclear submarine fleet and becoming a nuclear engineer. 

Former VP Walter Mondale, served in the U.S. Army from 1951-1953, including a tour in the Korean war.

Former Sen. and Presidential candidate, George McGovern, a famous liberal politician, was in the Army Air Force in WWII and earned the Silver Star for valor.


The list could be expanded on both sides.  Other forms of national service, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or alternative service as a conscientious objector, etc. should all be counted as patriotic service, in my view.  But even for those who claim military service as THE form of patriotic service, this should disprove the conservative myth that Republicans are more patriotic and respect the military more than Democrats.  There is simply no basis for this view.

August 22, 2007 - Posted by | human rights., myths, nonviolence, politics


  1. FYI: James [Jimmy] Earl Carter, Jr., graduated with the Class of 1947 and was commissioned as an Ensign, not as a Lieutenant, Jr. Grade.

    Otherwise, I really enjoyed, appreciated and agreed with most of your post … although I disagree with your pacifism and am myself an agnostic [formerly Reform Jew] secular-humanist [for lack of a better term] and -therefore- probably disagree with your religious views … but respect them both so long as they don’t impinge on my and others’ rights and beliefs.

    Since this is my first exposure to your blog, I haven’t had a chance to review your other posts of interest … but will … I would be interested in your views on the separation of church and state, especially with respect to Mikey Weinstein and his Military Religious Freedom Foundation and george dubya shrub’s and the amerikan taliban’s push to evangelize this country and the world.

    Comment by USNA | August 22, 2007

  2. Thanks for dropping by, USNA. Feel free to examine the rest of my blog. My church-state views are well documented here.
    Briefly, I am close to a strict separationist. (I say “close,” because no separation is ever total.) I believe the institutions of religion and government ought to be separate. I believe in a pluralistic nation.

    I don’t know the Military Religious Freedom foundation per se, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one, but I can say that I am a card-carrying member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and of the American Civil Liberties Union–though, as with any large organization, I don’t agree with every position on every issue. I think people ought to be free to bring their faith (if they have a faith perspective) or whatever philosophy plays a similar role into the political realm–but in a way that is respectful of others with other views.
    When formulating public policy one cannot simply say, “God says so,” but must translate convictions that are faith-based into public reasons that others with very different ultimate convictions could still find persuasive.

    I believe in evangelism–but only by persuasion, not any form of coercion. At our beginnings in both Britain and the U.S., Baptists defended full religious liberty and church-state separation because we believed (and I still do) that faith cannot be real if it is coerced in any way. So, even though those early Baptists had definite ideas about what theology was right (some were anti-Jewish, more were anti-Islamic, and almost all considered the Native Americans to be pagans), they defended the religious liberty of even folks they didn’t like. So would I, although I do not share all of their 17th C. views. It’s easier to defend religious liberty for everyone if one considers all religion to be bunk or if one considers all religious views “equal.” If one is convinced that, say, “Jews are Christ killers” (as, alas, some of my 17th C. spiritual ancestors were) but defend their full religious liberty ANYWAY, then one really believes in religious liberty for everyone.
    (Brown University was the first university in this country built by Baptists–and the first to admit Jewish students and one of the earliest to admit women and African-Americans. It no longer has Baptist connections, but its approach to education still shows those early roots.)

    Thanks for the corrective on Carter’s bio. I’ll make the corrections in the post. I have read much on Carter’s life and views, but I was going from memory.

    Stick around–I may persuade you concerning nonviolence, too. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 22, 2007

  3. It is telling that those most insistent on continuing the war are those who lack military experience. That Max Cleland was smeared as unpatriotic is simply unconscionable. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | August 23, 2007

  4. What about Bill Clinton’s militay record? In all fairness it should be posted.

    Comment by Richie | October 27, 2007

  5. I hate the Republican party and all their evil smear-campaigns to make Democrats look like they hate the military. The Republicans, looking at their records, have cowared out of of just about every war we have been in. Bush is the worst because he went AWOL and was not prosecuted. He and Cheney are the guys touting all this “Patriotism”, yet neither of them have ever done anything to defend this country.
    As for the comment about Clinton by Richie, Clinton was in college earning his degree, unlike Bush who had his daddy write a letter for it. Clinton did not lie about his not serving, nor did he lie about his stance on the vietnam war, unlike Bush.

    Comment by Valk21 | November 5, 2007

  6. I left out Clinton’s (lack of) military record only because that was well known.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 5, 2007

  7. Interesting article but you left out a lot of even more interesting facts. (Most of these facts were copied from http://www.city-data.com/forum/politics-other-controversies/89071-politicians-sons-serving-afghanistan-iraq-wars.html)

    Politicians with military family members (A more complete list.)

    *Senator Tim Johnson (D- South Dakota)
    (son, Brooks, Served in Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and now works as an Army recruiter. )
    Conflict with Iraq: Some members of Congress have great personal interest in the war

    *Former Senator & Attorney General John Ashcroft (R- MO)
    His son, Andy, is in the Navy and has served in the GulF in support of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.
    This is a little known fact, because Ashcroft did not want to bring unwanted attention to his son and of course the left-leaning media never did a story on it, because that would hurt their agenda of hurting him.

    *Senator Christopher Bond (R – Missouri)
    (son, Sam, is in the U.S. Marines and is currently serving in IRAQ.)
    Kit Bond’s son leaves for Iraq Marine duty

    *Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California)
    (son, Duane, is a U.S. Marine and Served in IRAQ)
    Serving on two fronts | The San Diego Union-Tribune

    Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina)
    (Three sons in military:
    *Alan is a captain in the Army National Guard served in IRAQ,
    *Addison is serving in the Navy,
    *Julian is in the Army National Guard)
    USATODAY.com – For a few in Congress, war is family concern

    Senator elect James Webb (D- WV)
    Son is a U.S. Marine and serving in Iraq.
    Troop Push Is Personal For McCain – washingtonpost.com

    Senator John McCain (R- AZ)
    Son is a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq War.
    Troop Push Is Personal For McCain – washingtonpost.com

    Rep. John Kline, (R-Minn)
    (son, Dan, is a Black Hawk Helicopter pilot in the 101st Airborne and serving in IRAQ)
    Power Line: A message from the Kline campaign

    *Senator Joseph Biden (D- Delaware)
    ( has a son who is a Lawyer and a First Lieutenant in the Delaware Army National Guard.)
    Delaware Grapevine

    Rep. Jim Saxton (D- NJ)
    nephew, a Marine rifleman, served in Iraq.
    USATODAY.com – For a few in Congress, war is family concern

    *Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado)
    (son, John, serving in the Navy and sent to Iraq)
    FOXNews.com – Handful of Lawmakers Send Their Kids to War – Politics | Republican Party | Democratic Party | Political Spectrum

    *Rep. Ike Skelton (R-Missouri)
    (has a son serving in Army serving in Iraq)
    Serving on two fronts | The San Diego Union-Tribune

    *Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri)
    (has a son, Perry, in the Marine Corps who is a combat engineer serving in Iraq.)
    Serving on two fronts | The San Diego Union-Tribune

    (Im not very good at counting but there seems to be more Rs than Ds on this list.)

    Comment by Nate C | September 3, 2008

  8. Republicans are cowards. The young Republicans are even worse.

    Comment by CG Brady | April 4, 2010

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