Charles Krauthammer disagrees with me on the impact of war hero status:

With John Kerry as their presumptive candidate, the Democrats may have won the war issue.

True, President Bush will make the case that his post-Sept. 11 policies are infinitely tougher. And Kerry certainly has given him an opening, saying that the war on terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation.”

This is a hopelessly retrograde invocation of the anti-terrorism policies that brought us Sept. 11 — finding, arresting and putting on trial individual miscreants, as we did the World Trade Center bombers of 1993 — but it does not matter. War is more a visceral than an intellectual issue. Kerry holds the trump card. He’s fought in battle. And acted heroically.


However much Democrats want to deny it — and insist on talking about health care and budgets and tax cuts — this is a war election, our first war election in more than a decade. Ironically, they may win because of it.

For 21/2 years it looked as if the political beneficiary of Sept. 11, 2001, was George W. Bush. But Bush, never a believer in hoarding political capital, spent his post-Sept. 11 and post-Afghanistan popularity on Iraq. The big political beneficiary of Sept. 11 turns out to be Kerry.

Sept. 11 changed the rules of presidential electoral politics. Or, more accurately, it returned us to an earlier set of rules that prevailed in Cold War days. Every single president elected during the Cold War had served in some capacity in the military.

It is no accident that Bill Clinton, who never served, was the first post-Cold War president. It is no accident that Bob Dole, who ran in the second post-Cold War presidential election, got absolutely no political traction out of his background as a genuine war hero. During the end-of-history ’90s, military service seemed an irrelevance.


The reason is deeply visceral. It is not just that you think a veteran — or, even better, a hero — has a better understanding of war, its strategy and its costs. It is that when the bad guys are after you — say, after they kill 3,000 of your countrymen in one day — you like the idea of a national leader who has no compunction about killing.

Kerry makes the point with extra emphasis by noting that he hunts. And plays hockey. Post-Sept. 11, that’s the kind of guy even Democrats want wearing the sheriff’s badge.

I agree that Kerry’s Silver Star and Purple Heart innoculate him from much of the “weak on defense” charge that the Democrats suffer from. But Krauthammer over-reads history. Richard Nixon was a Quaker; his WWII service paled in comparison to that of B-24 pilot George McGovern, whom he trounced in 1972. And Ronald Reagan served his country as a uniformed actor.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. craig henry says:

    Lincoln also beat a very popular general in 1864 which was the ultimate war election.

  2. McGehee says:

    Craig beat me to it.

  3. Paul says:

    Krauthammer doesn’t miss often maybe had a bad night’s sleep.

    Voice over on commercial with appropriate video:

    “When our brave men and women rode in Iraq they rode in Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. If John Kerry had his way, the troops wouldn’t have them. He voted against them many times.

    When our brave young pilots flew into Iraq on bombing missions they flew in F15s and F16s John Kerry voted against both of them.

    When our enemies shoot missiles at our troops it is the Patriot missile defense system that keeps them safe. John Kerry didn’t want our troops to have it.

    John Kerry voted 5 times to gut our intelligence service. He said after the cold war was over that we didn’t need them.

    Do you really want John Kerry as commander in chief?

    Done deal.

  4. Jane says:

    Hanoi John can also appeal to those anti-war on priciple (all war is bad even if tens of thousands are saved)by replaying his congressional testimony wherein he discussed the “shame” of Vietnem vets.

  5. mark says:

    Well, McGovern did not dwell on his military service nearly as much as Kerry is now, from what I have read about that election. But I disagree with Kerry being inncoulated on the “weak on defense” charge. His record as a senator will be much more relevant to voters than his service.

  6. jen says:

    There are plenty of Vietnam vets who are not ashamed that they fought that war and don’t appreciate Kerry’s constant harping on the supposed evil’s of that conflict.

    Kerry’s voting record in the Senate is far more important in determining his weakness or strength regarding matters of national defense.

  7. moghedien says:

    If John Kerry wnats to rerun the Max Cleland Senate campaign of 2002, let him.

  8. Charles Krauthammer is brilliant! Why President Dole – a noted war hero – easily beat Clinton in 1996. It wasn’t even a close race.

  9. Whoops, guess I posted too fast. After reading more carefully, I see that Krauthammer’s point is that a war record means something again after September 11.

    I still completely disagree with Krauthammer’s main premise. If Bush loses, it will only be because he manages to alienate his own base. Kerry is almost a side issue. The advantage of incumbency is overwhelming unless your base is split.

  10. Anonymous says:

    My uncle was a sergeant in Vietnam and won all sorts of medals. It was only a few years ago when I was over 30 when I found out about it.

    He NEVER talks about it. He is a successful business man and active in his community, but he doesn’t make an issue of a few years of his life from over three decades ago. I think he wants people to judge him on what he does today – not what he did as a kid from half his lifetime ago.

  11. Anonymous says:


  12. Krauthammer’s wrong. Kerry’s senate record will get a lot of exposure, and it won’t look good. Not to mention the fact that he’s doing a couple of things people find unattractive: reminding people of his service, but down-talking the war in which he served.

    And does anyone remember where/when/if Carter served?

  13. James Joyner says:

    Jimmy Carter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and served until 1953, including being an inaugural member of Rickover’s nuclear program. More here.