Veterans and the Presidency

In Sunday’s Washington Post, U.S. Naval Academy professor John Nagl notes that “For the first time in modern American history, neither major candidate for the presidency has any military experience.” That reminded me of a post I wrote as the 2008 presidential campaign got underway, with only one veteran in the mix. I’ll bring the last line of that post up to the front: “At the very least, candidates who have never served in a war should have some special humility in urging that other Americans be sent to war.”

Some of the other commentary in that post seems still relevant today:

“As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern — veterans of foreign wars,” writes Peter Baker in the Washington Post, contrasting this year’s campaign with past election years.

Baker grades both former presidents and current candidates on a steep curve. He writes, “Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush served.” But LBJ, already a congressman, went on investigative missions for FDR, admittedly flying around the South Pacific combat zone. And the nearsighted Ronald Reagan made propaganda films in Los Angeles. He even counts George W. Bush as a veteran on the basis of his Texas Air National Guard service.

As for the current candidates,

“The torch is being passed to a new generation that’s never worn a uniform,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. “It’s a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation.”

But is that really true? The leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a man born in 1961. But John Edwards, born in 1953, Bill Richardson (1947), and Joe Biden (1941) are not “the post-Vietnam generation.” They’re the non-Vietnam generation. A blogger has some more details about the Vietnam records of 2008 candidates here.

As for the Republicans, John McCain famously served, as Baker notes. But Mitt Romney (1947), Rudy Giuliani (1944), Fred Thompson (1942), and Newt Gingrich (1947) are, like their Democratic counterparts, within the age cohorts who went to Vietnam. They weren’t post-Vietnam, just nowhere-near-Vietnam. Mike Huckabee (1955) and Sam Brownback (1956), along with Barack Obama, would seem to the only candidates who are actually from the post-Vietnam generation.

Does this matter? It used to matter to voters. When I asked my parents in the 1960s, about 20 years after the end of World War II, why all the local candidates listed themselves as veterans on all their campaign literature, my mother told me that you’d wonder what was wrong with a man who hadn’t served in “the war.” Today, some worry that military veterans might be more eager to go to war. Historian Jackson sees it differently: “When you have leaders who haven’t gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit,” he told the Post. “It’s a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war … are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war’s about, and they’re less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians.”

That reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, often denounced as militaristic or even fascist, especially by people who have only seen the movie. In the novel, only military veterans were citizens with voting rights. But the basis for that was classical republicanism: that only those who were willing to defend the society, and who by facing combat had come to understand the real meaning of power and war and violence, could be trusted to lead the society.

At the very least, candidates who have never served in a war should have some special humility in urging that other Americans be sent to war.