Does It Matter If A Presidential Candidate Never Served In The Military?
For the first time in 68 years, neither major party candidate for President has served in the military. Does this matter?
This year marks the first year since Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey faced off against each other in 1944 that neither major party candidate for President will have served in the military at some point in their life (Democratic VP nominee Harry Truman did serve in World War One, andFDR was Asst. Secretary of the Navy during World War I, but never served in uniform). In The Washington Post, John Nagl takes note of this fact, and wonders if we’ve reached a point where military service is no longer a big deal for Presidential candidates:
[T]oday, the connection between service in war and election to the highest office in the land has been severed.
How we got here is difficult to ascertain. The sample size of presidential elections is small, and military service is far from the only factor that voters consider. Yet the 2012 White House hopefuls reflect a broader truth: Even in a country waging what seems to be a forever war, military service is increasingly limited to a small swath of volunteers, widely admired but little known.
Early in our nation’s history, Americans fought to claim a continent both from its native inhabitants and from foreign powers that coveted its riches. Fighting for the country was a regular part of the American experience, and excellence in that service was one way to demonstrate leadership to the nation. The pool of citizens who were veterans was broadened by the draft during the Civil War and both World Wars, increasing the number of political candidates with military service and the connection voters felt to contenders with whom they had shared the experience of combat. Everyone respected those who had served — and perhaps even looked down a bit on those who had not been a part of America’s battles.
That relationship broke down during the Vietnam War, when not all segments of society were called upon to fight. When Johnson chose not to mobilize the National Guard for combat duty, it became a refuge for the sons of the elite who were avoiding war.James Fallows has written, movingly and guiltily, of how the most privileged Americans found ways to avoid the draft, sending the less fortunate to war in their place.
The long conflict in Southeast Asia tore the United States in two, destroying an effective consensus about the use of American power abroad. The soldier became the symbol of an unpopular war. Presidential candidates who had answered the nation’s call struggled to connect with voters who often hated the war that had helped form them. Gore played down his service in Vietnam during his bid for the White House, while Kerry’s service became a liability; although he was one of a few candidates to have been wounded in combat, he was “swift boated” by opponents who questioned some details of his service. No American veteran of any earlier war, let alone another recipient of several Purple Heart medals, would have been treated this way.
But this black mark on America’s treatment of its veterans is fading. In the wake of Vietnam, the country chose to meet its national security needs with a force composed entirely of professionals who had volunteered for duty. This force has proved enormously capable — triumphing in Desert Storm, easily defeating both the Taliban rulers and Saddam Hussein’s army, and demonstrating adaptability when performing counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one who has served in today’s military would countenance a return to the draft and a force composed at least in part of Americans compelled to serve. The small size of the military relative to the population — well under 1 percent — makes broadening the service base both unnecessary and unlikely.
But there are costs to this all-volunteer military that are not immediately apparent, even on this weekend dedicated to remembering its sacrifices. The disconnect between those who give the orders and those who have no choice but to follow them has never been wider; all Americans salute the same flag, but only a few carry it forward against enemy fire. The military has become a caste apart from the nation it protects, with many of its fighters the sons and daughters of military leaders — a family business that asks much of a few. Service academy alumni journals are full of photos of multi-generational family reunions in combat zones, while most of us do no more to support the troops than stand, remove our caps and cheer when they present the national colors before a baseball game.
To some degree, the long stretch of time from 1944 to 2008 when at least one candidate had served in uniform is actually something of an historical anomaly. If you go through a list of major party Presidential candidates throughout American history, you find that very few Presidents or losing nominees had any military experience at all. This is, I think, largely a reflection of the fact that the 20th Century saw America involved in two World Wars, the Cold war, Korea, and Vietnam and that during a large part of this period there was a military draft in place that increased the odds that a given person would end up in military service at some point along the way. Now, though, we’re coming to the point where candidates who were born at the tail end of the Vietnam Era are now the men (and women) running for the Presidency. For the most part, they were born too late to be subject to the draft and have grown up in the era of the all-volunteer military. Therefore, one could argue that we are returning to some sense of normalcy in terms of the way things were prior to the end of World War II when military service was not commonly found on the resume of a Presidential candidate.
Nagl seems to think that this is not necessarily a good thing.
There are, perhaps, some down sides to an all-volunteer military notwithstanding the fact that tends to lead to the creation of a smarter, more professional fighting force while at the same time avoiding the ethically questionable idea of forcing people into military service. The cultural divide between those parts of the nation that serve as the major sources of military recruits, such as the South and rural West, and those that do not is rather obvious and apparent. Additionally, there is perhaps some wisdom in the idea that a President who has served in the military may be more judicious about the use of force than one who has not. That doesn’t always apply, of course, since the two President’s who presided over the ill-advised war in Vietnam both served in the military during World War II, and that didn’t seem to prevent either Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson from making decision about the war that seem to be quite foolhardy in retrospect.
Furthermore, I have serious questions about the idea that military service, especially during war time, invests someone with qualities that make them uniquely suited to the Presidency. Bob Dole served with distinction and honor in Europe during World War II but, in all honesty, I think he would have made an utterly horrible President not so much because of his policy ideas but because of his personality. Bill Clinton didn’t serve in the military, and indeed was the subject of one of the last serious “draft dodger” arguments from the Vietnam Era during his 1992 campaign, and while I often disagreed with his decisions while President, I think it’s rather obvious that he was a better President than Dole ever would have been. Similarly, Ronald Reagan served stateside in the military during World War II and I don’t know that his time in uniform gave him any special insight that he was able to tap into some 40 years later, that came from some place else.
Nagl’s argument is somewhat academic anyway. As I noted above, we are entering an era where the odds of a candidate for political office having served in the military are going to be significantly lower than they have been in the past 60-odd years. I don’t know that you can say that this is either a good or a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life.