When we lost the war in Afghanistan, it was the first time in the history of our all-volunteer military that we lost any war — and it had more to do with how we elect our leaders than people might think.
Our military relies on our civilian leaders to provide policy guidance that includes achievable outcomes backed by a political will that is consistent with public sentiment.
If any of these components are misaligned, problems will ensue like fighting a 20-year war with no clear end state, waning public support, mistakes by military leaders and inconsistent political attention.
We can help mend the relationship between the public, elected officials, and the military by adopting electoral reforms such as ranked choice voting (RCV). The single-winner version of RCV (also known as “instant runoff voting”) will give voters a chance to truly express their preference during primary and general elections.
Connecticut currently uses plurality elections where voters can make only one choice and the candidate with the most votes wins. If there are five candidates, for example, the winner needs 20 percent of the votes, plus 1. This makes it possible that the winning candidate was not the choice of 80 percent of the voters.
The actual percentages of votes received by a winning nominee in a multi-candidate race are often misleading because plurality elections also lead to strategic voting, which occurs when voters cast their votes so as not to waste them on a candidate not favored to win, rather than voting for their true preference.
The current single choice system fosters division, low competition, and low accountability, thus diminishing trust in the electoral system. RCV removes the wasted vote from the equation, fostering trust in voters that their votes matter.
Veterans, one of America’s most-trusted groups, are increasingly at odds with America’s least-trusted group — our government — because veterans often bear the brunt of political dysfunction.
We are the ones left with physical and moral injuries, often resulting from government leaders making decisions that are not in the best interest of national security, but in the best interest of political agendas.
We can no longer confidently say to our local national partners, “we’re here for the right reasons and the situation will improve.” Our allies struggle to trust us and when they do, it may be to their detriment because our country’s behavior is inconsistent from administration to administration.
The bottom line is that military strategy is derived from political will and political will is unreliable today. Military force alone cannot achieve political outcomes because military strategy requires a political predicate. In Afghanistan, the initial rationale for intervening after 9/11 was clear. The rationale for staying for 20 years was not.
American policy makers struggled to provide that clarity while military leaders struggled to provide accurate assessments and sound guidance. Our military competence was mistaken for national will, while our armed forces became irrevocably wed to a self-prescribed, military-centric Afghanistan strategy. What was and is needed is a geopolitical solution.
Although the public undoubtedly supported our troops, our political system mistook that support for also supporting the not-so-clear goal of creating a parliamentary democracy in Afghanistan and our attempt to create a military in Afghanistan that mirrored our own, despite its lack of self-sufficiency.
After Kabul fell, the U.S. military was in a familiar place. We adopted, and still retain, the mentality that our civilian political leaders failed us. That mentality, however, is misguided and misplaced. We are dangerously close to believing that we, as veterans and the military, are morally superior to those civilians who lead us. We are not.
This position expands the divide between the military and our elected officials and makes the military vulnerable to being politicized. The politicization of our military, combined with the already disconnected electorate, can lead to consequences that we have seen play out in other countries which no longer exist as democracies.
The military needs to fix its relationship with Congress and the Commander in Chief. That healing process must start with how we elect our leaders. Without repairing this relationship, each institution will have few incentives to truly understand the limits and utility of military power.
Institutional honesty by both government leaders and the military will help to regain the trust of the American public. It will also help veterans wondering why they sacrificed years of their lives and lost friends in a war that ended up almost exactly where it started in 1996.
Veterans look at the flag now, one that we wore on our shoulder, as a different kind of symbol, a political symbol. Something as sacred as our flag has now become partisan, falling victim to political dysfunction. There is great cynicism among voters about how our political leaders are chosen, in the country that created the world’s first modern democracy.
Ranked Choice Voting is simply a more democratic way of choosing our political leaders and as a veteran and advocate for RVC, open primaries, and similar reforms to address our political dysfunction, I urge the people of Connecticut to take a serious look at the RVC legislation being considered by the Connecticut General Assembly this session.
We are positioned to lead the country toward meaningful reforms that can rebuild trust in how we elect our leaders and get our government healthy again.
Henry Rowland leads the Connecticut Task Force of Veterans for Political Innovation and serves on the advisory board for Connecticut Voters First. He is a former U.S. Army infantry officer, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.