Once again, the matter of military service – or lack of it – is being inserted into the terminally dull struggle between John McCain and Barack Obama to become the next despoiler-in-chief of what remains of the republic. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Exactly how does a candidate’s military record, or the lack of same, impact his ability to function as the nation’s chief executive?
Washington had a spotty military career. In the French and Indian War he managed to get himself defeated, he suffered numerous defeats during the Revolutionary War, but he managed to overcome those problems and lead the nation to victory. As President, he took the field with the army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793. Was his military service a positive or negative on his term as president?
Jefferson never wore a uniform, but he wrote our nation’s birth certificate. As president, he oversaw both failed and successful encounters with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, and he presided over the single largest real estate deal in our history – the Louisiana Purchase. Would a uniform have made him a better or a worse president?
Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans, lost barely a dozen men while killing or wounding some two thousand British soldiers in a Louisiana swamp. He truly democratized American politics, destroyed the national bank, created the “spoils system” for rewarding political supporters, and presided over our first major ethnic cleansing – the Trail of Tears. Did the uniform make him or break him?
Zachary Taylor, presaging Sherman by twenty years, led the American army away from its logistics base on the coast and captured Mexico City, defeating that pitifully weak country led by a blow-hard tyrant and acquiring from it the second largest chunk of real estate in our history. Was his presidency during the years of mounting tension between North and South helped or hindered by his military success?
Abraham Lincoln served briefly and apparently quite ineptly as the elected captain of a company of Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He doggedly defended the American political union with military force – the greatest loss of life in our history – settled the slavery question, and dealt the single greatest body-blow to the federal system. Would he have been better or worse with a notable military record?
Ulysses Grant served in the Mexican War – which his memoirs described as terribly unjust – failed in his interbellum civilian life, but he ultimaterly commanded all US forces during the last third of the civil war; in the summer of 1864, he lost more men in the Wilderness than we lost in Vietnam. Despite his personal honesty, his administration is perhaps unrivaled for its blatant corruption and chicanery. Would a Grant without uniform have done better?
Theodore Roosevelt, scion of the old Anglo-Dutch aristocracy of New York, resigned his Navy Department post in McKinley’s first administration and became executive officer of the US volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders. He served with great bravery and conspicuous leadership in Cuba, being the last American president to have actually led troops in combat. Even though he was a Republican, his subsequent reforms looked more like the actions of a Democrat. Would he have been better or worse without San Juan and Kettle Hill to his credit?
Woodrow Wilson was a never-served, a former Princeton professor and governor of New Jersey who led the nation through its eighteen months of World War I, the third bloodiest war in our history. Would Wilson the warrior have faired better or worse?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, nephew of Theodore Roosevelt, never got closer to a uniform or a war than his World War I service as a civilian in Wilson’s Navy Department. Yet his doggedness helped take the nation through the throws of world-wide depression and oversaw the largest land-grab of federal power in our history. Had FDR’s legs been crippled from war wounds rather than polio, would history have been different?
Harry Truman’s poor eyesight denied him an appointment to either West Point or Annapolis – a grudge he carried into his presidency – but he served as field artillery battery commander for a Missouri army National Guard unit during World War I. His administration oversaw the dawn of the Atomic Age, the rehabilitation of Europe under the Marshall Plan, the beginning of the Cold War, and it initiated a precedent of fighting undeclared wars in distant places. Had he gotten into the regular services, how might history have changed?
Eisenhower was a career soldier who never saw a day of combat, yet he ended up commanding the largest military coalition in American history. He also served as president of Columbia University, something its chancellors doubted he had the administrative and political skills to do successfully. His two administrations saw the end of the Korean War, the beginnings of serious civil rights actions, and the dawn of the Space Age. Had he left the service in the the middle 1920s – as so many of his contemporaries did – how would history played out later?
John Kennedy, New York and Palm Beach playboy, a navy reservist called up for World War II, had a comfortable semi-REMF existence in the South Pacific until he managed to get his PT boat run over in the waters near Tulagi, displayed great personal heroism in a non-combat situation and ultimately get help for his surviving crew. His administration, which took us as close as we have ever been to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, became the stuff of – largely – myth, and it is his brinkmanship that helped propel us on the road to Vietnam. How different would the world have been without PT-109?
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all had Navy service to some degree in World War II, and all presided to some degree over the debacle of Vietnam and its aftermath. Would things be appreciably different if they had either never served or else served with more distinction?
Jimmy Carter had a passing acquaintance with the Navy, but only in peacetime. Would no service or more convincing service have served him best when he and the “Georgia Mafia” came to Washington?
Ronald Reagan was the quintessential REMF; nominally a civilian “sergeant”, he made propaganda movies during World War II while other Hollywood notables like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart actually served in harm’s way. Would Reagan the real warrior have been significantly different from Reagan the “reel warrior”?
George H. W. Bush, World War II Navy flier, served in harm’s way and got shot down but not captured, presided over our last militarily successful operation of any scale. An old-line East Coast aristocrat, would he have been any different without the war record?
Bill Clinton and George Bush both actively dodged the bullet (pun intended) of military service by evading and escaping in different ways. Would Clinton the warrior have been more or less likely to slaughter Serbs in their own country simply because he had a UN hall pass? Would George Bush have been any less likely to have a grudge war in the Middle East had he actually taken the risks his father had?
The question(s) of McCain and Obama are questions to be decided by the future.
But, all in all, is a presidential candidate’s war record, or lack thereof, really of much value in auguring their performance?
T. J. Flapsaddle