Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

War, Veterans, Presidents

The recent passing of President George H. W. Bush -- a hero of World War II -- reminds us that most presidents have served in the military.

Rebecca Burgess at The American Interest:
War creates political opportunities for those who fight them. This is meant as an observation of fact, not a remark intended to cheapen the sacrifices made by soldier-politicians whose military service draws the voting public’s attention and praise. Indeed it is a fact that, historically, some soldiers’ motivation for military service has rested on its perceived value for capturing later electoral dividends. Long before Napoleon Bonaparte strategized how to rule Europe from horseback, and even before Julius Caesar rode his military successes across the Rubicon to occupy Rome, soldiers have leveraged their military prowess for political ends. Sometimes they’ve accomplished this peacefully. Often, they’ve employed their martial skills more directly. The ties that bind war and the political do not necessarily mean that those who wage war will become those who rule, but the historical magnetism between the two expressions of leadership is hard to deny.
The formal exception to this historic trend—the United States—only seems to confirm how deep-seated the attraction is. The framers of the American republic intentionally erected barriers between the military and the political realms. Wary of the dangers that “standing armies” posed to individual liberty, and conscious of the threat that a “man on horseback” could pose to a self-governing people, the framers subordinated military power under layers of civilian control and stripped any political power from the military as an institution. In the final Federalist Papers entry, Publius concludes his pitch for ratifying the Constitution by identifying it as a bulwark to prevent “the military despotism of a victorious demagogue.”
And yet since 1789, Americans have overwhelmingly elected former soldiers to be the nation’s chief executive. Of the first 25 Presidents, 21 had military experience, beginning famously with George Washington, whose chief cabinet officers during his two terms (Henry Knox, Edmund Randolph, Timothy Pickering, and Alexander Hamilton) had served with him as Continental officers. Of the presidential contests from 1789 to 2016, military veterans have been nominated by their parties 65 times, compared to nonveterans’ 58 times. About two-thirds of elected Presidents have been veterans. Mitt Romney in 2012 was the Republican Party’s first presidential nominee to be a nonveteran since Thomas Dewey in 1944. The 2016 presidential election was only the 14th time that both of the two main parties have fielded candidates without military experience.