Is Veterans’ Preference Bad for the National Security Workforce?  

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When it comes to civil-military relations, when it rains, it pours. President Donald Trump recently threatened to deploy active duty troops in Washington in response to largely peaceful protests. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper likened the nation’s capital to a “battlespace.” A U.S. senator called for an “overwhelming” show of force against his fellow citizens. In an extraordinary moment, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized after appearing in uniform in a photo op with the president after the forcible removal of peaceful demonstrators. And a retired secretary of defense and four-star Marine Corps general broke two years of silence to accuse the president of dividing the United States. But it is important — now more than ever — to fuel a deeper discussion of civil-military relations in order to reveal the varied roots of America’s current political crisis. This is our modest attempt to explore what might be one of these roots.

While various observers have fixated on the maneuverings of civilian and military elites, it is also valuable to consider the landscape of civilian control of the military in such a way that includes a look at the state and health of the civil service workforce.

The slow and steady erosion of civil-military relations is the result of many interlocking issues. Before problems reach the White House — or the streets of the capital — low-level checks and balances are designed to ensure that civilians retain control of defense policy, starting in the corridors of the Pentagon. However, these systems have weakened over time, as an increasing number of recently retired military personnel fill the civil service roles that are designed to keep civilians involved in U.S. national security structures.



Although veterans are also and eventually civilians, they retain a military ethos, training, and sometimes mindset not shared by their colleagues who never served in the armed forces or deployed in conflict. When veterans consistently edge their civilian counterparts out of the federal defense civil service workforce, it disrupts the U.S. national security ecosystem and the tenuous balance of civil-military relations. The consequences are now unfolding in real time and warrant closer scrutiny. Indeed, now may be the time to reexamine the personnel policy of “veterans’ preference” — with an eye toward regenerating the defense civilian (not prior military) workforce.

How the Preference Works

Numerous civilian jobs with the national security community — particularly in the Department of Defense — wind up being filled by former servicemembers as a result of ordered preferential hiring practices. To become a civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at a combatant command, an intelligence agency, or the Joint Staff, applicants are forced to run the gauntlet of plugging information into USAJOBS, the behemoth federal government hiring clearinghouse. Within each online job listing, applicants can denote if they served in the armed forces and separated from service, which is called “veterans’ preference.” With it, veterans “may receive preference over non-veteran applicants in the hiring process.”

Alongside veterans’ preference, there is the Veterans’ Recruitment Appointment authority which allows agencies to appoint eligible veterans to certain positions without competition. Additionally, the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act of 1998 created a special hiring authority that allows eligible veterans to apply through job announcements that would ordinarily be limited to current competitive-service employees. In practice, this means that a veteran who served for three or more years can edge out a highly-qualified civilian who never served in the armed forces for a competitive-service position in the civil service, even if that civilian has served in her field for two decades.

During the Obama administration, the interagency Veteran’s Council was also started as part of the Office of Personnel Management, in order to fulfil an executive order, the Veterans Employment Initiative. President Barack Obama’s order stated,

Our veterans, who have benefited from training and development during their military service, possess a wide variety of skills and experiences, as well as the motivation for public service, that will help fulfill Federal agencies’ staffing needs. It is therefore the policy of my Administration to enhance recruitment of and promote employment opportunities for veterans within the executive branch.

It is a laudable initiative to help veterans find employment in the civil service. The plan seems to have worked. According to a 2017 Office of Personnel Management report on veterans’ jobs, “In Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, the Executive Branch of the Federal Government hired 57,062 veterans, representing a veteran new hire percentage rate of 28.1 percent. Veterans currently represent 31.1 percent of the federal workforce compared to 25.8 percent in FY 2009, the year the initiative started.”

At the Pentagon, the Washington Post reported in 2016 that between September 2001 and August 2014, “41,630 military retirees — many of them senior officers — walked back into the Defense Department as civilians.” The so-called “revolving door” to a civilian job is a great deal for retirees: “more than a third were hired before they officially retired, and more than half started their civilian careers within a pay period after taking off their uniform.” In most instances, these retirees did not have to compete with peers for the job.

These initiatives were helpful in supporting highly skilled individuals who volunteered to serve in the U.S. armed forces and deployed in harm’s way. The difficulty now is that veterans’ preference, and the various other mechanisms that exist to help veterans find jobs in the national security field upon separation from the military, is choking the small community of civilians vying for similar jobs. Civilians without military ties bring fresh views, diverse backgrounds, strong credentials, and a deep desire to serve in the national security establishment.

In 2018, the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission cautioned that “civilian voices have been relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control.” Are we doing any favors to our bench of national security leaders, let alone our national security strategy, by stacking the team with retired military men and (a few) women?

Especially when there are multiple private industry initiatives that help veterans transition to the civilian workforce, including the prominent American Corporate Partners, started during the Bush administration. Companies such as Nike, MetLife, Deloitte, Coca Cola, Visa, Morgan Stanley, and IBM take on a veteran and mentor him or her for an entire year to help ease the transition into a well-paying career. American Corporate Partners is one of many organizations helping vets find their métier in the private sector. Knowing that the veterans’ hiring void is filled by many private organizations, it should be asked whether the U.S. government may safely step back its pro-veteran hiring practices.

What Is Lost as the Civil Service Homogenizes?

As Risa Brooks and Alice Hunt Friend recently explained, retired military officers “are different from civilians who have professional backgrounds.” They specifically focus on the different mindsets of civilians versus retired military, citing the research of civil-military scholars who find “a distinct effect of military experience on attitudes toward the use of force and on the role of congressional oversight.” Significantly, Brooks and Friend find that “retired officers often continued to advocate for service and other military institutional preferences in policy and budgeting processes.”

These formal and informal links between retired military defense policymakers and their former branch of service have implications for defense policy. One substantial risk is the peril of “groupthink.” Irving Janis’ Victims of Groupthink was first published in 1972, warning that “the results are devastating: a distorted view of reality, excessive optimism producing hasty and reckless policies, and a neglect of ethical issues. The combination of these deficiencies makes these groups particularly vulnerable to initiate or sustain projects that turn out to be policy fiascos.”

Similarly, a homogenous community of defense civilians — an ever-widening pool of retired military — may also become a community of like-thinkers. Broadly speaking, these retired officers (mostly) received similar strategic-level training, and are cut from similar institutional cloth. Speaking generally and by no means uniformly, serving in the military can form a certain world view in people. This common view has been written about ad nauseam as critics of the demographics of today’s military notice that the small percentages of those willing and able to serve come from the same part of the country, and are very likely the children of current or retired servicemembers. “With a common language and history,” Brooks and Friend wrote, “retired military officers might unintentionally marginalize civilian outsiders.”

No “Cooling Off” Required

In addition to the bulging number of veterans in defense civil service, recently retired brass are increasingly serving in senior appointed Pentagon positions. To get a job as a political appointee, there are some checks in place for the recently retired military coterie. The National Security Act of 1947 required a 10-year cooling off period for officers coming from active duty. Though “cooling off” is now reduced to seven years, there are always exceptions — such as recently retired Gen. Jim Mattis’ appointment to secretary of defense. At the time of his appointment, former Pentagon leader Kathleen Hicks testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioning against “substantially populating the upper ranks of our national security structures with recently retired senior military personnel.”

For the rest of the military community, “cooling off” is not even a consideration. At the Pentagon, it is not uncommon for a retiring colonel to come to work one day in uniform and the next in a suit as a GS-15. The transition to civilian life in the national security establishment can be that seamless — especially if there is a civilian billet open that fits the retiring servicemember’s sphere of expertise.

Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 and became secretary of defense in 2017 when Congress suspended the seven-year regulation codified in Title 10 between the end of active duty service and an Office of the Secretary of Defense political appointment. This circumstance has occurred but once before when President Harry Truman asked for special dispensation for recently retired Army Gen. George Marshall to serve as secretary of defense in 1950, only three years after the National Security Act put restrictions on such transitions (although it is worth noting that Marshall had already by that time served as secretary of state). According to Army officer Jim Golby, who served on the staffs of two vice presidents — Joe Biden and Mike Pence — and observed much of the personnel machinations at the Pentagon, Mattis relied heavily on his joint staff, perhaps to the detriment of his civilian staff, signaling that best military advice was superior to civilian counsel.

This occurred despite Mattis’ keen awareness of the need to account for the recommendations of both civilian and military cohorts. In 2016, Mattis co-edited Warriors and Citizens with Kori Schake, in which Mackubin Owens reiterated that American civil-military relations have historically been healthiest when “there is mutual respect and understanding…that leads to the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision making process.” If the civilian cadre at the Pentagon — both civil service and political appointee — continues to expand with former military, civilian defense policymaking will get murkier and murkier as the lines between those actively serving and those who once served blur and ultimately erase.

In 2018, the National Defense Strategy Commission also argued that, “It is critical that [the Defense Department] — and Congress — reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.” The commission is rightly concerned that strategy and decision-making is shifting from the civilian to the uniformed side. However, if the civilian viewpoint is so saturated with former uniformed personnel, would a pendulum swing toward primacy of civilian decision-making even make a difference?

In Search of the Defense Femsplainers

Allowing the reservoir of pure civilian talent to wither will have consequences and it is a waste of resources. Generally, individuals applying to civilian jobs in the national security establishment have some form of subject matter expertise. If the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy’s “Stability and Humanitarian Affairs” office is looking to hire a new “action officer” (or desk officer), ideally that civilian will have language skills, regional studies background, a history of government service, etc. However, with veterans’ preference, a retired military member will trump a civilian applicant without a history of military service, even if they have the required proficiencies — just by being retired military. Subject matter expertise is secondary. This is particularly troubling because the Pentagon has demonstrated that it places great value on critical talent in its active duty forces, prominently implementing new recruiting, promotion, and retention policies for cyber personnel, for example.

Further, though unsurprisingly, the major demographic affected by veterans’ preference is women. According to a 2018 RAND study, “Women’s Representation in the U.S. Department of Defense Workforce,” high proportions of veterans in the workplace equals less female representation. For perspective, 15 percent of the active duty Army and 9 percent of the Marine Corps are female. The authors write, “The proportion of employees who are veterans is the primary contributor to the explained portion of the gaps in women’s representation between the [defense] civilian workforce, the non-[defense] civilian federal workforce, and the civilian labor force.”

To substantially increase long-term representation of women in the workforce would require significant changes in hiring. Hiring nonveteran women would not be sufficient to replace retention losses. In fact, the RAND recommendations are clear: “substantial changes in hiring veterans are necessary before projections show either prevention of a long-run decline or numbers in line with those for the relevant [civilian workforce].” The report suggests that “if the proportion of new hires who are veterans stays the same but women’s representation among nonveteran new hires increases, a majority of nonveteran new hires need to be women before projections maintain the initial level of women’s representation over time.”

Time to Rebuild the Bench of Defense Civilians

A dwindling number of Americans have served in uniform or know someone who has been part of the military. In 2016, as the Congressional Research Service summarized, Schake and Mattis asked “whether 40 years of an all-volunteer force — of which, the last 15 have seen continuous war — has significantly altered the ways in which the U.S. military, civil society, and civilian leaders relate to each other.” In a context where a smaller number of civilians are capable of adequately addressing the national security interests of the United States, it seems unwise to further disincentivize the few who remain engaged.

Veterans’ preference is premised upon the goal of providing career opportunities to those who served their country; but in an era when there are a host of programs that offer similar support, policymakers and the Pentagon should ask themselves if this hiring favoritism retains its original value. In its current form, the preferential treatment of veterans at every level of the national security ecosystem is preventing the Department of Defense from accessing civilian expertise and perspectives, contributing to a one-sided and myopic workforce.

Further, if the goal of veterans’ preference is to support the employment outcomes and careers of veterans after they complete their military service, then there are surely better solutions. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the treatment of civilians within the Department of Defense. They have received years of lower pay raises than their uniformed, active duty counterparts and the White House has also halted collective bargaining power among civilian workers at the department. The presidential memo, citing the need for flexibility, allows the secretary of defense to exclude Pentagon agencies and organizations from their legal right to unionize. Better options for improving veteran employment outcomes might include introducing new recruits to the organizations that will support their future job search and applying the lessons from innovative recruitment practices to in-service professional development. Still another is to publicize the exceptional performance of veterans as employees using the vehicles present within the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was one of the goals of the VET OPP Act of 2019.

Protecting the role of civilians within the Department of Defense should be paramount for the Pentagon and lawmakers alike. Steps like sunsetting or scaling back veterans’ preference should, of course, be undertaken with the utmost care and caution. That said, if civilians continue to be boxed out of the U.S. national security establishment, the bill for insular thinking and degraded communication will come in at some cost. A healthy workforce where strong civilian thinkers balance their partners in uniform is in the best interest of those making and implementing defense policy. Both groups will be better if each is strong.



Frances Tilney Burke (@28Cranfield) is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. She was until recently a visiting research fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a 2020 recipient of the Smith Richardson Foundation World Politics & Statecraft Fellowship. Prior, she was a civil servant in the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and an active Army family volunteer.

Mackenzie Eaglen (@MEaglen) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She has also served as a staff member on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission, the 2014 National Defense Panel, and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel. Prior to joining the American Enterprise Institute, she worked on defense issues in the House of Representatives, in the U.S. Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff.

Image: State Department (Photo by Ron Przysucha)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled “competition” in the sentence, “Alongside veterans’ preference, there is the Veterans’ Recruitment Appointment authority which allows agencies to appoint eligible veterans to certain positions without competition.”