When people are invited to make an investment, the person making the offer may put some money into it, to reassure the investors by sharing their risk. Otherwise, investors may hold back, because the promoter has “no skin in the game.”
The idea of having “skin in the game” can apply more broadly than just to finance.
Take Donald Trump’s criticism of Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican senator had criticized Trump for pursuing reckless campaigning, and Trump retaliated by saying that McCain was not a war hero.
Whatever their politics, most people agree that McCain is an authentic American hero. He spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, under the worst conditions, and refused release, supporting his fellow prisoners and not taking advantage of his status as the son of an admiral.
It’s hard to conceive of what McCain went through, and one can only honor him for his strength and valor on behalf of his country. Trump, by contrast, did not serve a day in the armed forces, having been exempted because of a bone spur on one foot.
In other words, Trump has no skin in the game. His bone spur did not give him a free pass to attack the wartime heroism of a man with whom he is having a political squabble. He seems to have no idea of what makes a hero.
This case provides a possible explanation why some members of Congress are inclined toward military solutions of international problems. The consequences are far removed from their own lives.
The vast majority of members of the U.S. Congress did not perform military service. They have little idea from direct experience of the risks and rules for service personnel. They have no sons or daughters in the service.
But many are willing to send American service personnel into harm’s way. They face no possibility of personal sacrifice as they advocate the deployment of American forces to fight distant wars. They can readily accept the risk of death or crippling wounds – for somebody else’s son or daughter.
The military draft ended in 1973. During the 28 years between the end of the Second World War and the end of the draft, five times the U.S. has sent its military into situations where they could be killed or wounded. That’s an average of once every 5.6 years.
In the 42 years since the draft ended, the U.S. has been involved in 15 conflicts that risked American military lives. That’s an average of once every 2.8 years, twice as often as when there was a draft.
Presidents and the Congress give the impression of being more willing to deploy the armed forces when they are composed of volunteers than when they were supplied with conscripts.
The lack of the draft is the main reason why the number of people in Congress with direct experience of military conflict has fallen. The same is true for their voters. Taking these facts together may serve to make war – or suffering five years as a prisoner of war – seem a distant story about others rather than a real life experience.
With the power and role of the United States, there can be no doubt that the use of American military force, the greatest of any country in the world, must be an option. The mere existence of that force will influence actions of other countries and perhaps even terrorist organizations. But having the power and using it are two separate decisions.
In the current debate about whether to approve the Iran nuclear deal or to accept an increased possibility that Iran’s threat would have to be reduced by military force, it is apparently not difficult for some in Congress to accept the risk of war. For them saber rattling is a preferable option, especially because it is somebody else’s saber.
In deciding on the Iran deal, we have seen instant reactions condemning it, even before it was possible to read the document itself. Most of those reactions were driven by calculations about the political value of opposing this deal or possibly any deal with Iran, a country for which we have great distrust.
Iran is an obvious case where the costs of military action should be taken into account if the deal is to be disapproved.
Even if the U.S. will not bring back the draft, leaders need to employ the same kind of sensitivity in making decisions to risk war as if they themselves had skin in the game.