Once political foes, these veterans are joining forces against a shared enemy: America's 'forever wars'

Dan Caldwell, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, and Jon Soltz, the chairman for VoteVets on MSNBC's Morning Joe on March 18 discussing their campaign to see Congress end America's Forever Wars. (MSNBC/Youtube)

Two political veterans groups, one conservative, the other liberal, have spent millions fighting each other on various fronts, from Department of Veterans Affairs reform — what one group calls "choice" and the other calls "privatization" — to getting their pick of candidates into office.

But they've found common ground on at least one issue: It's time for Congress to have an open debate about ending the Forever Wars.

Dan Caldwell, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans' group with financial backing from the billionaire Charles Koch, and Jon Soltz, the chairman for VoteVets, a liberal vets group which aims to get former service members into office, laid out their goal in a recent New York Times profile, and spoke about their plan on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Monday:

Veterans Rights Group Band Together Against Forever Wars | Morning Joe | MSNBC www.youtube.com

Their ultimate goal may be to see the Forever Wars end, but the starting point is to revisit the Post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act, which allowed for the war in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and has grown to include conflicts with enemies that weren't even in existence at the time the initial authorization was passed — and all with little to no oversight from Congress, which is constitutionally responsible for declaring war.

In other words, they want Congress to get off its ass and do its job before more fights in new areas of operation are swept under an aging resolution which has already been used to wage war in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger.

"I just don't think these wars are making us safer," Caldwell, a former Marine Corps infantryman who deployed to Iraq and served in Al Anbar and Ninawa provinces, told Task & Purpose. "If anything they've made us less safe. If you look at Libya, you look at Iraq, at the end of the day those empowered are the very types of groups that attacked us on 9/11. You have an explosion of ISIS and Al Qaeda across North Africa because of the collapse of Libya."

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Bundy and Sgt. Dennis First walk to the rally point to link up with the Iraqi army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division for an Iraqi army-led operation in Al Muradia village, Iraq, March 12, 2007. U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway

"Oftentimes these wars are framed through the prism of: we need to fight these [wars] to secure our country, but they really made us less safe and only empowered our enemies," said Caldwell, adding that the resources siphoned off to wage an ever-expanding list of wars may ultimately leave the United States' vulnerable to more conventional threats.

The other reason for their campaign: It's been too long since we've had a national conversation about these conflicts, and whether they're worth the cost.

Marines in the middle of a sand storm make their way back to their vehicles after dismounting and patrolling a nearby mountain ridge in Bakwa, Afghanistan, May 3, 2009. (U.S. Marine Corps) U.S. Marine Corps photo

"You raise your right hand to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and we're for the Constitution," Soltz, a former Army officer who is also a veteran of the Iraq war, told Task & Purpose. "90% of Congress hasn't voted on these wars. 90% was not here, and soon we're going to start having kids die in Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. This justification has been used all over the world for operations that had nothing to do with those initially voted on."

"We want to see Congress do their jobs," Soltz continued. "What's the pay-off in Afghanistan after we've been there for 18 years? What more can we accomplish that we haven't accomplished already with more troops and more time? I don't think there's a strong argument to stay. I think overall, this is the time for us to have the conversation, for Constitutional reasons, and for the policy reasons."

The two groups say that their partnership comes at a time when there appears to be a sea change afoot on the Hill.

"One of Congress' most solemn duties is deciding when and how we send Americans into combat by debating and passing Authorizations for Use of Military Force... which set the legal framework and constitutional basis for military action and are supposed to define the mission of Americans downrange," Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a March 13 speech ahead of the 16th anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq.

"But lately, too many on the Hill have shrugged off that duty, hiding behind the outdated AUMFs that launched the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars all the way back in 2001 and 2002," continued Duckworth, herself an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient. "Scared of the political risks that come with bringing these wars back into the spotlight… staring down Election Days… Congress has shirked its responsibility to our troops."

A patrol with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines returns fire during an ambush near Marjah, in Helmand province Afghanistan in January 2010.U.S. Marine Corps/James Clark

In terms of legislation, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) recently announced a bill to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan; Tim Kaine, (D-Va.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.) are pushing for a new bill which would repeal both the 2001 AUMF and the much older 1991 authorization used during the Gulf War; and then there's Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who is proposing a repeal of the 2001 AUMF, with an eight-month window for Congress to establish new war-time authorizations.

"The political credibility we've built and the political leverage that we have, we can really help put a lot of muscle behind this issue and help advance it in a way that it really hasn't been in Congress," Caldwell said.

"To get anything done, you need the bipartisan support, but our credibility comes from the fact that we're enemies," Soltz added. "We're not groups that just hide in the center because we're scared of our shadow. We are groups that have firm beliefs, and when our beliefs align, we're going to work for the benefit of this country and to the benefit of our military."

A Marine holds security during a medical engagement at the Aynak School in Afghanistan, July 24, 2010. U.S. Marine Corps

"The majority of veterans do not feel that we have a clear end-state in Afghanistan, and that in general, it's really not worth continuing," Caldwell said, citing an October 2018 poll from the Charles Koch Institute, which indicated that just over half of civilians polled felt the same way.

"Just because you're ending the war in Afghanistan and Syria does not mean you end the ability to undertake counter-terrorism or intelligence operations against people who threaten us," Caldwell told Task & Purpose. "We will retain that capability just as we did pre-9/11 and we'll still want to prevent attacks against the United States when there's a clear and imminent threat. Having these long term endless deployments does not help in many cases with those clear and imminent threats."

Soltz added: "The fatigue for Iraq and Afghanistan is a different conversation from our right to strike terrorists who threaten the United States from wherever they are in the world."

"I've never met someone who's like 'I'm going for my fifth tour in Afghanistan — pretty great,'" Soltz continued. "You don't need to go to Harvard or Yale or go to the Army War College to learn these things, you just need to do a tour and you'll learn really quick."

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