WASHINGTON — In March 2003, a 24-year-old Seth Moulton, then a Marine second lieutenant stationed in Kuwait, made a bet with his fellow troops: President George W. Bush wouldn’t go through with an invasion of Iraq.
He lost that bet and was soon on the first of four tours in the country, fighting in a conflict that would profoundly shape his future and impact a generation of lawmakers, policy makers, and Americans, generally.
The 20th anniversary of that invasion brings complicated feelings for Moulton, the Democratic US representative from Salem. While his multiple tours gave him many of the skills, experiences, and connections he credits for success in politics, they also left a mark emotionally. And he spent years grappling with the failures associated with the war, including the faulty intelligence that underpinned its justification and the mixed-at-best results of an intervention that lasted more than eight years and left more than 4,400 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, by some estimates.
“What I actually think is most tragic about the Iraq War is the massive missed opportunity that we had as a country to do something great when we had the entire world behind us [after September 11], and instead, we used all that political capital, all that international will, to invade a country,” Moulton said. “It was a massive failure of leadership and intelligence to not ask the basic questions more carefully.”
It’s that mix of legacy, good and bad, that now shapes the many Iraq War veterans who are increasingly in leadership roles across America, including in Congress. They are often distinct in their outlook and priorities from several recent generations who have fought in America’s wars and emerged as civilian leaders, noted Allison Jaslow, a former Army officer and an Iraq veteran, and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“There’s something to be said about how war is just not abstract to us,” Jaslow said. “And it’s important for us to remind folks about what it means to have an all-volunteer force and what it means as a country to care for those folks.”
Moulton said that his service left him willing to risk unpopular or unusual positions when he believes in them, a trait that has earned him fans as well as scorn. He has also championed legislation to support veterans, including his bill creating an easy three-digit number, 9-8-8, for the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hot line. Veterans are more than 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than the broader population.
And he and other veterans interviewed by The Globe said they believe that, as the latest generation to come to grips with the horrors of war firsthand, they have a responsibility to ensure the country does not undertake conflict lightly. In addition to insisting on the constitutional role of Congress in authorizing war-making — war was never officially declared in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, or Iraq — some of those interviewed view it as a special responsibility of veterans to challenge the judgment of high-ranking military leadership when they see a pressing need.
It is in that spirit that a group of lawmakers is seeking to repeal the authorizations for the use of military force that Congress passed in 2002 and 1991 for the Iraq and Gulf wars, an effort timed in the Senate to coincide with the anniversary of the conflict. A bill that would do so easily advanced in the Senate on Thursday, 68-27, and is expected to fully pass the Senate next week. Though a similar measure passed the House last Congress, it will likely face hurdles in that chamber this year with a new GOP majority. Still, almost all House Democrats, including Moulton, supported it in 2021, and a modest number of Republicans, including several Iraq combat vets, joined them.
“We in Congress have a responsibility that doesn’t end with the authorization of military force but includes overseeing the way that that force is used and ultimately brought to an end,” said Senator Todd Young of Indiana, the lead Republican in the Senate push for repeal of the authorizations of military force and a veteran whose service pre-dates the Iraq War.
“Veterans should be more attuned to the frequent missteps of our military leadership and they should demonstrate greater courage in taking on any special interest associated with the military industrial complex,” Young said. “I have to say, I don’t see a lot of that.”
On a practical level, the growing number of post-9/11 veterans in Congress has allowed for friendships and bipartisan working relationships in a political time when such ties seem to be fraying. The number of veterans in Congress increased last election cycle by the biggest margin since 1967, though the total remains historically low after decades of net losses. There are a total of 97 veterans in both chambers, and seven are women, a historical high for female veterans. In fact, greater gender equity in the military may be one of the defining legacies of the post-9/11 era, Jaslow noted, as the needs of the wars and an all-volunteer force made clear that restrictions on women’s service were outdated and often counterproductive.
One of those bipartisan relationships Moulton has forged is with Utah Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican who served in the Air Force in the 80s and 90s and worked with Moulton on the 988 hot line bill. Stewart calls Moulton a friend and said the mutual understanding between veterans can’t necessarily erase party differences, but does form bonds and areas of cooperation.
“I love Seth and there’s no doubt that our common backgrounds helped us form a friendship and a relationship ... where we thought, ‘Yeah, we can find areas to work together,’” Stewart said. “Part of it is Seth is just kind of that way, but I think that it’s true about a lot of veterans in Congress.”
Some veterans in Congress cautioned against painting with too broad a brush, noting there is still wide variation among them. But the common experiences and understandings offer a potential for working together in a place where such connections are increasingly difficult to make.
“I have found veterans that I have worked with to be thoughtful and have a seriousness and purpose. That is what I wanted in my colleagues and what I think constituents want in their representative,” said Newton Representative Jake Auchincloss, a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Moulton said his military service has informed the risks he’s been willing to take as a member of Congress, particularly when he has defied leadership and many in his own party. Those moments include when he and a fellow Iraq veteran in Congress, then-GOP Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan, secretly entered Afghanistan during America’s chaotic withdrawal in 2021 to attempt to rescue families and witness the situation firsthand. While the trip drew criticism from top corners of the Pentagon and Congress, Moulton remains unchastened; he’s proud of what he did.
“There are a lot of times when I’ve been faced with doing what I believe is right...and I just say like, ‘How would my Marines think about me?’” Moulton said.
Moulton’s service in the Marines was notable not just in the way it shaped him. The full extent of his service wasn’t even known by his parents until The Globe found, when reviewing his record, that he had won the Bronze Star for valor and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for valor. He served two deployments directly under General David Petraeus, working on a three-person team tasked with identifying and supporting Iraqi leaders and feeding critical on-the-ground information back to US military leadership. That mission also thrust Moulton and his teammates into the heart of a fraught geopolitical season and gave them a chance to study and shape the unfolding dynamics of the Iraq War, far beyond the lessons of a typical deployment.
Ann Fox was one of his teammates under Petraeus from 2007-2008, where in a three-person crew, they embedded in various Iraqi communities during their mission. That meant some rough times in squalid conditions, and coming under fire.
“He will keep going and going until he achieves his objectives,” Fox said of Moulton.
Barret Bradstreet, another member of the group dubbed Team Phoenix, remembers Moulton for being “super disciplined,” describing how he chronicled his deployments through journaling and photography, but was always able to make the mission fun.
Now in his fifth term, Moulton has been working to get more veterans to Congress through his political action committee, Serve America, along with the help from the nonprofit New Politics, which came into its own, in part, due to his successful race.
Emily Cherniack, the founder and executive director of New Politics who first recruited Moulton to run, described a moment in the heat of the campaign, when the political establishment threatened her career for challenging an incumbent. But Moulton was undeterred.
“He didn’t care,” Cherniack said. “He was like, ‘I’ve been shot at, this is OK. We’re going to be OK.’”