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Veterans in Congress Bring Rare Perspective to Authorizing War


WASHINGTON — Veterans of the wars in Iraqand Afghanistan now serving in Congress have emerged as some of the most important voices in the debate over whether to give President Obama a broad authorization for a military campaign against the Islamic State or something much more limiting.

In other conflicts, Congress shaped military policy with a certain remove from the battlefield. But as lawmakers deliberate whether to give authority for a military operation to a president for the first time since 2002, there are 26 veterans from the United States’ two most recent wars serving in the House and Senate, according to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. To them, this fight is not a distant foreign conflict. They have an intimate understanding of battling the same kinds of deadly extremists.

“One of the reasons I ran for Congress was to make sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, of going into war without a clear strategy,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii and an Iraq war veteran.

As a member of a National Guard medical unit who was responsible for reviewing the previous day’s casualty list, she said, she wondered whether “the leaders of our country and those in positions of making these decisions really understand what the impacts of their decisions were.”

While Ms. Gabbard and other veterans agree that Congress should exercise its constitutional prerogative to authorize the commander in chief to engage in military action, their conflicting views on the scope of that authority reflect the larger complexities of the debate and the difficulty the House and Senate face in any effort to draft a compromise resolution.

Republicans, by and large, want to pass a broad resolution that would contain few if any limitations on the president’s ability to send forces wherever and whenever he believes he needs them. Democrats tend to support a more restricted resolution that would not open the door to another lengthy, sprawling conflict.

With the death or retirement of World War II veterans, the number of men and women in Congress who served in the military has been steadily declining. In the 1970s, roughly 70 percent of the Senate had military service, according to Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate historian. At the beginning of the current Congress, 101 members — or 19 percent — had served or were serving in the military, according to the Congressional Research Service. There is not a single member who served in World War II.

But the number of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and their influence — has been rising.

Three Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, all veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq — were elected in November and now sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. More than a dozen House lawmakers who are veterans of those conflicts, both Democrat and Republican, sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

“They understand it’s easy to go to war and it’s tough to end it, and they understand the long-term effects in a very different way,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It’s especially important when the president himself is not a combat veteran.”

The veterans are raising questions that the Obama administration will have to answer about its military commitments abroad, from the precise role that ground troops should play to whether the three-year time frame that Mr. Obama has proposed for fighting the Islamic State is correct.

Many say their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan taught them that the American military cannot fix what is fundamentally a cultural and political issue: the inability of governments to thwart extremism within their own borders.

“If we just go in and solve their military problem, propping up the Iraqi military, I guarantee we’ll be back there solving it again three or four years down the road,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, who served in the Marines in Iraq. A “diplomatic surge,” he added, would be a better strategy than sending in combat forces.

Representative Martha E. McSally, Republican of Arizona and a retired Air Force colonel, calls the fight against the Islamic State a “generational struggle” that will not be easily solved. But her concerns have led her to a different conclusion. She said she was likely to support the president’s request, as long as his authority would not be too limited.

“If you think we’re going to declare victory over Islamic extremism in three years, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Ms. McSally said. “I’m not advocating that we start deploying large battalions over the Middle East, but we do want to make sure that the military can use all elements in any domain in order to meet our military objectives.”

Indeed, many Republicans with military service expressed their greatest anxiety about the language in the war authorization that would prohibit the use of “enduring offensive ground forces.”

“When we go to war, we want to give our troops every advantage on the battlefield,” said Representative Ryan Zinke, Republican of Montana and a retired commander at SEAL Team Six. “We don’t want to have another Benghazi, where you call and all of a sudden no one is answering on the other line.”

Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, served two tours in Iraq. An Air Force pilot who is currently in the Air National Guard Reserve, he said, “We have to ask ourselves what’s worse — the presence of American ground troops or the presence of ISIS.”

Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona and a member of the Marine Reserve, was deployed to Iraq in 2005. He said his experience clearing insurgents from cities — only to have them return once his unit had moved on — had made him reluctant to send ground troops, because he worries about the United States again being forced to “clean up messes.”

Another Democrat, Representative Ted Lieu of California, said he would not support giving Mr. Obama the formal authority he had requested because, like many veterans, he finds it difficult to see how the conflict will ever end.

“The American military is an amazing force. We are very good at defeating the enemy, taking over territory, blowing things up,” said Mr. Lieu, who served in the Air Force and remains in the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. “But America has traditionally been very bad at answering the next question, which is what do you do after that.”