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Memorial Day and veterans in politics | American Enterprise Institute

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With much of the nation just beginning to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, this year’s celebrations of the Memorial Day holiday will differ from past ones. A suggestion of how we might commemorate the men and women who died while serving in the military without the usual ceremonies and cookouts comes from the work of AEI scholar Leon Kass. In 2011, AEI published “What So Proudly We Hail” by Leon Kass, Amy Kass, and AEI visiting scholar Diana Schaub. This book is an anthology of American short stories, political speeches, and songs. Several of the selections focus on the importance of civic holidays, and the AEI event in 2011 introducing the book focused on the meaning and importance of Memorial Day, a holiday first instituted to honor those who died in the Civil War defending the Union. This event featured a reading of “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire”, a remembrance by Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. which was delivered as a defense of Memorial Day on May 30, 1884.

Holmes’s remembrance is well worth reading as a tribute to the bravery and strength of conviction shown by our armed services. The latter quality should also illuminate why a large number of veterans currently serve in Congress and why many will run this fall. Vital Statistics on Congress, the Bible of congressional watchers, is a compilation of important demographic and electoral information on Congress including occupations of members prior to serving.  AEI scholar Norm Ornstein and Brookings scholar Tom Mann launched the project and the book in the 1980s, and it still being published today. The data on prior occupations of members of Congress doesn’t go back to the Civil War, but instead to 1953 (the 83rd Congress). At the end of the first session of that Congress, there were 268 lawmakers with military experience. At the end of the first session of the 116th Congress in 2019, there were 77. The data are available here.

This year’s presidential contest featured three post 9/11 veterans: Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, and Pete Buttigieg. As primary contests have not been held in many states this year, it isn’t possible to know how many veterans are running for Congress this year, but it already clear that quite a number of them will move on to the general election at the congressional level.



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