Soldier, sailor, politician
Published September 27, 2004

The amount of spilled ink and expelled breath spent in this campaign season is staggering. It’s not a surprise, of course, but it’s always of interest to see what topics garner the lion’s share of the field of debate, which discussions monopolize the airwaves of half a dozen different twenty-four hour news services. I’ve been a bit shocked by the amount of talk—and the vociferous venom in that talk—surrounding the military service of both John Kerry and President Bush.

It’s led me to ask a question: just how important is past military experience to the leadership of this country?

Right now, both camps want you to believe that service in the military is somehow important to our future as a nation, as though either Kerry or Bush might be on the ground in Baghdad shooting at terrorists. Simultaneously, both sides are attacking the credentials of the other, claiming that their opponent’s various military shortcomings (exaggerating a war record or not going to war at all) make them unfit for command. The title of the recent book attacking Kerry’s Vietnam experience even used that phrase, “unfit for command,” as though the Presidency was a military rank.

The term “commander-in-chief” might make it seem as though the President is a military leader, and indeed, in times of war, his decisions are final; no one can overrule him and he can ultimately overrule any of his generals. But this authority was vested in the President precisely because the framers of the Constitution wanted an elected civilian—no matter what his past vocation—to be in charge of the generals and the military might of the nation.

So, at the risk of violating everything I said in my last column (it’s OK, I’m a historian!) I delved into the past to find out just which Presidents served in the military and which didn’t.

I wasn’t too surprised by the results. George Washington, that mythical figure whose real life is, at this point, very nearly lost in the mists of time, was a general, and a hero, and the very real foundation of the American nation. He certainly set the precedent in this department. Lincoln presided over the Civil War, quite well many would argue, and his military experience was limited to a brief period in the Indiana militia. Following closely behind him was Grant, often acknowledged as a poor president, if a successful general.

Skipping further ahead, President (Major) McKinley actively pursued a war against the Spanish; that this went down as one of the most successful military ventures in American history may owe more to the declining fortunes of the Spanish colonial empire and the rising tide of American imperialism than to the iron nerves that helped McKinley bring hot coffee to his men while under fire at Antietam.

Woodrow Wilson had no military service whatsoever when he brought the United States into World War I. He allowed his general staff to prosecute the war for him, with generally positive results; certainly the American entry into the war turned the tide against Germany. It was during this war that Franklin Roosevelt served as Secretary of the Navy, another civilian job that led eventually to the Presidency. Roosevelt was deeply involved in the prosecution of the Second World War, and though you can quibble about the details, the end result speaks for itself.

Harry Truman served in World War I, but when push came to shove in Korea, he exerted his civilian influence by bringing General Douglas MacArthur back from the front for espousing his own foreign policy.

The modern world intrudes quickly into the picture; Ronald Reagan had a very macho posture during his terms as President, but his closest exposure to combat was in movies. Still, with the aid of his military advisors, he was forthright in laying out a foreign policy that included several military ventures. His successor, the first President Bush, was more hesitant, perhaps, but still built a massive coalition for war in the Persian Gulf. But then, Bush the elder had served in World War II.

Clinton famously did not serve in his generation’s war. Without questioning the details on what he did and when he did it, it’s fair to say that the current President Bush, while having served in some military capacity, has no combat experience. Yet both of these men sent American soldiers into war zones.

Is it possible to draw a conclusion from this mishmash? I can’t think of a clear one. Wartime presidents have been civilians and former military personnel; generals have made good presidents, and they have made poor ones. In and of itself, it seems that the fact of military service tells us little. Similarly, it’s probably unfair to attempt an extrapolation of current character from the details of service that took place thirty years ago.

Perhaps we’d all be better served by judging the character of the candidates on their merit and convictions as they stand now. Yes, the past can tell us something of the future, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable—nor a much-dreaded flip-flop—for a man to change his views over the course of decades. I regularly change my mind on issues, sometimes within the space of a single day. I don’t find it shocking; maybe none of us should.