August 18, 2004
Combat doesn't a president makeBy James Holmes
Something's been nagging at me about the prominence of military issues in this year's presidential campaign. As has been widely noted on this website and elsewhere in the media, Sen. John Kerry has predicated his run for the White House almost entirely on his short, though eventful, tour on board U.S. Navy riverine patrol boats in Vietnam. He famously "reported for duty" at last month's Democratic convention in Boston.
But combat service does not a president make.
Why? Start with the obvious. Kerry was a junior officer in Vietnam. His duties, like those of all junior officers, were overwhelmingly technical in nature and focused on the tactical level of war. He didn't glean much insight into politics and strategy——the province of presidents and their advisers——while serving in Indochina.
I speak from experience. Like Sen. Kerry, I served a combat tour as a Navy lieutenant, in my case as gunnery officer in the battleship Wisconsin during the first Gulf War. I mastered the intricacies of shiphandling, launching cruise missiles, and loading and firing our massive 16—inch guns. In short, I learned the skills to fight within a confined sphere. Did that qualify me to be president, entrusted with guiding the nation's diplomatic and military affairs?
That's why the armed forces maintain an array of war colleges and send mid—career officers to security—studies programs at civilian universities. These institutions acquaint officers steeped in tactics with the airy—fairy realm of policy— and strategy—making——the realm in which senior officers and their political superiors operate. But Sen. Kerry wasn't in the service long enough to attend one of these schools.
In short, a junior—officer tour in Vietnam is a flimsy foundation on which to build an argument from authority——which is essentially what the claim that combat service is an irreproachable qualification for political office amounts to.
Next, history doesn't bear out the view that combat endows military men with some special wisdom about politics and war. Georges Clemenceau, prime minister of France in the latter stages of World War I, rightly observed that war was "too important to be left to the generals." Clemenceau blamed the outsized political influence of combat veterans in the warring countries for the bloodletting on the Western Front.
So much for the political acumen of combat veterans.
By contrast, some of America's greatest war leaders——Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt come to mind——amassed little or no military experience. Roosevelt never served in uniform. Lincoln deprecated his brief stint as a militia officer in the Black Hawk War. During one election campaign, he declared that if his Democratic opponent had seen "any live, fighting Indians" during the war, "it was more than I did."
And finally, excessive reliance on military services goes against American traditions. Just ask George Washington, the chief architect of our model of civil—military relations.
Washington looked for inspiration to the example of Quinctius Cincinnatus, a fifth—century—B.C. Roman military commander and, briefly, the dictator of Rome. In his magisterial History of Rome, Titus Livy reproved those who believed that "rank and ability are inseparable from wealth," noting that "Cincinnatus, the one man in whom Rome reposed all her hope of survival," was content to work a humble three—acre farm west of the Tiber.
Offered the dictatorship, Cincinnatus hurriedly raised an army to repulse a Sabine attack on Rome. To show its gratitude, the Senate issued a decree inviting the dictator to enter the city "in triumph with his troops," riding in a chariot preceded by captured enemy commanders and the spoils of war. Far from exploiting this acclaim to retain political power, however, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his farm after only fifteen days of a six—month term as dictator.
Washington embraced this self—denying attitude. He was scrupulously respectful of civil authority. Civil liberty would perish if soldiers could "dictate terms to their country." In 1783 at Newburgh, New York, he implored a near—mutinous officer corps, "as you regard the Military and National character of America," not to challenge the authority of Congress. To do so would "open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood."
In the 1780s, some Americans, notably Alexander Hamilton, took to extolling the virtues of elective monarchy. Because of his near—universal popularity, Washington was the obvious choice for king. He threw cold water on these mutterings. "Let me conjure you then," he told one correspondent, "if you have any respect for your Country...to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or anyone else, sentiments of a like nature."
George Washington, then, was uneasy when his countrymen mingled civil and military affairs. The precedent thus set has served the Republic well for over two centuries. Not only is John Kerry's tour in Vietnam tangential to his qualifications for the White House, but his repeated trumpeting of his wartime service ill befits someone who aspires to the office once held by America's Cincinnatus.
Enough with Vietnam, already.
James Holmes is Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Trade and Security of the University of Georgia