Of the 20 Americans that have officially announced their candidacy for President of the United States for the 2016 election, three have served on active duty in the United States armed forces. One, Lindsey Graham (R) was a JAG (military for lawyer) in the Air Force. One, Rick Perry (R), was a cargo pilot in the post Vietnam era Air Force. One, Jim Webb (D), is a real life honest to goodness bona fide war hero, having been awarded the Navy Cross (one step down from the Medal of Honor) Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. Which means that of those who have raised their hand to participate in the pursuit of our country’s highest office of public service, 15% of them have served in our armed forces; 5% in war. Though that may seem low, and it certainly is relative to previous presidential races, it’s actually more than representative of our overall population base with respect to military service. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, presently, about 7% of Americans have ever served on active duty in the military. And so we should be somewhat satisfied by our turnout of candidates. Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though. Perhaps because we hold the office to a higher standard. Perhaps because we value military service differently than other vocations when it comes to presidentiality. As usual though, if we take a look at the history behind it, we can gain some perspective on how much this really matters.
Does military service matter? At the highest level, there’s an interesting pattern that makes logical sense when you take some time to think about it. We’ve had three presidents who have served in the highest ranks during a time of war and have therefore met what we would consider to be the most relevant prior experience to being commander in chief. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower all were, in whatever historically appropriate capacity possible, the highest ranking officer engaged in the highest level of combat during our three most consequential armed conflicts. Of the 24 years those three men served as president, a total of 6 months was spent at war, the sole contribution to our war history being the 186 days it took for Ike to pull the plug on Korea. Now, there’s a case to be made that those men had seen war and therefore had no stomach for more of it. Which we know from their memoir’s is at least a little true. What probably played more of a factor was simple chronology though. Being “General of the Army” is not a young man’s game. So if you were doing it at the time of war, and you went on to become president, you did so in a very short period of time, within the scope of a decade in each case. We tend to steer clear of large scale war within the scope of the same generation if we can help it. And so the requirement for lofty military command to qualify a presidential candidate for the job is not one that history supports.
If we flip the question around and ask what was the prior military experience of our most effective commanders in chief, we get a somewhat surprising answer. For one, we actually didn’t have a president during our first important war, the American Revolution. So when we look at those who played critically tactical roles as President, the list is quite short. It includes two men with exactly zero days of active duty service in the military. Lincoln and FDR were, head and shoulders above the rest, the most important and successful commanders in chief to ever hold the office of President. When you think about the scope and scale of their burden, it’s remarkable all that they were able to accomplish. Lincoln waged war a stone’s throw from the White House personally transmitting orders to generals in the field from the War Department Telegraph room. FDR engaged daily with a joint allied staff on strategy in Europe and the Pacific until the day he died. The decisions these men both made, regularly, are unequaled in their complexity and their impact on the nation and the world. Neither ever wore a uniform.
History makes a pretty strong case. Military service is a poor predictor of performance as commander in chief. So does it matter at all? If not as a qualification to lead the military, then what does it tell us? Does it tell us a candidate is dedicated to a life of service? Perhaps, but to be honest, agree with their politics or not, the list of 20 or so names on this candidate list includes hundreds of years of public service not specific to the military. So, it’s not really about service either. But it is about something. To be clear its actually about two things.
First, it’s a validation that at some point in their life, a candidate has done something that took some grit. Of the three war-time deployments that I had, two were with what we’ll call elite units. The third, the one that I’m least likely to tell war stories about at parties, was with what we would call a “conventional” unit. That deployment, by a country mile, was the one that absolutely beat me down the most. It was brutal relentless and absolutely representative of what most of our men and women in uniform experience when they deploy. So when we see someone who has served, we can say with confidence, that at some point in their lives, they lived through a truly trying experience. Which is something to benchmark them with when so much of everything else that we see out of them feels less genuine and more contrived. Military service is real. And there’s no way to hide from the “suck”. When you look at this field of 20, it definitely feels light on grit. But maybe that’s just from where I’m sitting.
The other thing that prior military service does, and this is more relevant for war time service, is that it validates resiliency. Which is actually entirely different than being a hero. There’s something to the notion that heroism is less important than recovery. My experience during the 14 years of war that we’ve been engaged in is a fairly common one for those that served. I saw less “action” than those who served in the worst of it, yet more than those that managed to serve in more peripheral roles. Of the 20 or so months I spent in active war zones, I can clearly count two instances where I legitimately thought that I was going to die. Some level of danger and vigilance were constants but those moments where I actually thought that I wasn’t getting out of it were rare. And frankly, the reason I did was because of luck and other people, not heroism or skill. The fall out of those events was not necessarily contributory to a life well lived either. That which does not kill us…sometimes leaves us with nightmares, anxiety and a propensity to self medicate. There’s something important that follows though. We’re beginning to talk about this more these days but we used to ignore it entirely. It’s the recovery that matters. The richest part of the human experience is the walk back to the path our life was on when something knocks us off of it. And so for men like James Webb, it’s less about the citation from his Navy Cross, which I encourage you to read, and more about what he no doubt went through in the years after he returned from war to live the worthy and full life that he has. It’s not that you can’t get those experiences without serving. War simply tends to provide those that experience it with more acute opportunities to survive.
With all this in mind, what should we be considering when it comes to military service and our presidential candidates? I think it’s the following question. What did a candidate do with the prospect of military service? For some, because of the time in which they lived and the paths that their lives have taken, the opportunity to serve simply never materialized as a serious consideration. And that’s ok. Lincoln and FDR show that. But for others, the prospect of service was a question that couldn’t be avoided, like those of the “Greatest Generation”. Of the eight presidents that held office after WWII, all of them actively served in some capacity in the military during the war. A little closer to home for this election, there’s the question of Vietnam service. What did a candidate do with prospect of serving in Vietnam? Did they pursue it? Did they leave it to fate? Or did they run from it? I think it’s fair to put the last of those three choices into the “not suitable” bucket. But that’s just my opinion. And it’s an opinion informed by asking that one critical question of what a candidate did with the prospect of service. The snapshot in time that will be the 2016 election is as such that we ought to be slightly fine with the lean yield of the answer to that question. But the future will likely hold a very different outcome. Here’s why.
My generation of service member has been at war a long time. For many of us, we spent our whole professional careers at war. I was deployed when the war started and finished my active duty career months before the end of combat operations in Iraq. Our chance to participate in a new life of service is coming. And when it does, the question of the prospect of service will become much more important. My generation has been knocked far off of life’s path and for those of us fortunate to make the long journey back to it, there will be a calling to serve again. We’ve seen much, sacrificed more and fear little. And our time is coming. So when 2024 rolls around or maybe even 2020, ask yourself that question with regard to your candidate of choice. What did they do with the prospect of service? Because what it tells of my generation is important. And we’re getting closer to the door every day.