I joined the Navy at 17, three years after 9/11. I celebrated my 28th birthday on a military base in Afghanistan. Today, my friends – people who have deployed more times than I have, whose daily lives are shaped by decisions the president makes – remain on the frontlines.
I am a veteran, a voter and a millennial. And I am worried about the lack of any real foreign policy debate in this election.
The next president will decide how to spend our taxes and where the members of our armed forces will risk their lives. The president’s choices will affect our standing in the world and the safety and prosperity of those at home. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Yet on both sides of the aisle, discussion of the candidates’ capacities to act as head of state is minimal at best. The commander-in-chief test, once a barometer for leadership, has all but disappeared.
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The eclipse of the commander-in-chief test is a problem – and it’s not just a veterans’ issue. This is an issue that matters for every American, and particularly for my fellow millennials.
How the president chooses to use the American military has a disproportionate effect on young people. Close to 75 percent of those enlisted in the U.S. military are 30 or younger. A full half of enlisted personnel are under 26. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 80 percent of those wounded or killed in action had not yet turned 31. As Herbert Hoover – another recession-era president – put it almost a century ago: “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.”
Millennials should care about the commander-in-chief test because our generation’s lives are on the line.
We should also care because the United States is fighting a new kind of war. We are the first generation to tackle extended conflict with an all-volunteer force, a dramatic and underappreciated change in the structure of the American military. We are a generation accustomed to violent non-state actors and to wars that refuse to conform to traditional boundaries.
Groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram have supranational ambitions and unconventional tactics. These groups target civilians in planes and shopping malls. Militias seek to repurpose drones. Islamic State recruits followers by distorting platforms like Twitter and Facebook for violent aims. It will take innovation from the youngest and most technologically capable generation to stop these trends.
Young people are used to a world in which the lines between foreign and domestic policy are blurred. Our relationship with China shapes economic growth. The United States’ stance on refugees in Turkey and southern Europe drives local immigration policies. Foreign aid programs in South America affect drug use in the United States. In a globalized society, choosing a good commander-in-chief is choosing a leader at home.
But this isn’t just about national security or our military. The commander-in-chief test is also about traditional domestic issues. We too often discuss the military as if it is severed from concerns about jobs, debt and access to health care. But aside from prisons, the military has the only wide-scale socialized health care system in the United States.
More than 90 percent of enlisted military personnel have not received a bachelor’s degree, and military families tend to have more debt than their civilian counterparts. According to the VA, more than half of all post-9/11 veterans will face a period of unemployment.
When polled, people 18 to 34 describe jobs, debt and health care as their primary concerns. The military is a microcosm of the issues millennials care about most.
As we choose the next president, we should scrutinize how the candidates carry themselves and how they plan to lead. Our generation shoulders the burdens of conflict, and we have witnessed the rise of new security threats. It’s time to revitalize the commander-in-chief test in both political parties. Millennials should lead the charge.
Eric Gardiner is adviser to the president for education at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.