Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Should Presidents Have Prior Military Service?

This would never occur to me as an important consideration, but I saw something recently on Facebook.  There are hundreds of snarky, disrespectful things being posted these days about President Obama.  They run from the truly offensive (Witch Doctor photoshops) to mere attempts to be clever with innuendos about his supposed lack of credentials.  Among the later was a picture with the question:  Should we require our presidents to have prior military service?

This is, of course, a dig at Presidents Obama and Clinton, not coincidentally both Democrats.  It is a short sighted hit-piece that has obviously not been thought through.

For one thing, many presidents in recent memory have not had any military experience at all, prior or otherwise.  Of Democrats, besides Obama and Clinton, there's FDR and Woodrow Wilson.  Would anyone say that they were poorly prepared to be president?  Well yes, lots of people would, actually.  They were Democrats, and for a hundred years now Democrats have received the treatment.  FDR and Wilson are, in spite of everything, justifiably revered for their performance in office.  Of Republicans, there's Hoover, Coolidge and Harding.  Maybe those three could have used the extra training and discipline, but that's just me.

But how about mediocre service?  Would mediocre service help at all to prepare somebody to be president?  After all, they can't all be Eisenhowers.  President Eisenhower was the greatest West Point graduate of the century, eminently successful in matters military and political.  Importantly, his military experience was at the highest level of command, but how many can say that?  None of the others, it turns out.

Take George W. Bush, please.  He juiced his way into the Texas Air National Guard in a naked attempt by a rich, powerful family to protect him from the dangers of Vietnam.  His service was thoroughly mediocre, and that's putting it politely.  The skylarking, the long periods of being AWOL, not a distinguished period of service.  He was a mediocre president too, and that's being generous.

How about Ronald Reagan, a great hero to some.  Reagan took a home-study Army Extension course in 1937 and it got him a commission in the Army Reserve.  He was activated in 1942, albeit on limited service due to eyesight issues.  He was assigned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, and later worked for the War Loan Drive.  Less than heroic, with no command responsibilities.  No distinguished service, and no relevant experience to be the president.

Nixon?  Anybody remember Nixon?  He was a supply officer in the Pacific and worked at mundane tasks on islands far behind the point of the spear.  Mediocre. 

JFK's wartime experience was actually heroic, there was nothing mediocre about it.  But it was short on command experience.  He captained a PT boat and saw a lot of action.  Ditto, George H.W. Bush, heroic and exceptional.  He piloted a Grumman Avenger and captained a flight crew of three.  He also saw a lot of action, the dangerous kind, and both he and JFK came close to death when they were sunk/shot down, and both lost crew members to death.  Maybe the experiences shaped their "commander in chief" style, and maybe in a good way, but not so you'd want to require men to have done such things.

Gerald Ford could have skated on combat.  He was a lawyer already when the war started.  Rather than wait to be drafted into the rear-echelon officer corps he joined the Navy.  After a couple of years as a training officer he requested sea duty and spent the last two years of the war as a gunnery officer on an aircraft carrier that saw considerable combat service.  Admirable, and almost heroic, but . . . 

Jimmy Carter was a Naval officer, and he actually had command responsibilities as the XO and engineering officer of nuclear submarines.  I think that's pretty heroic even in peace time.  Probably didn't help him as president.  The engineering part might even have held him back.  Engineers like logical solutions that are susceptible to  proof, and those are rarely available to a president.

Carter and Ford had very creditable service with some command responsibilities in semi-heroic situations.  Neither is anyone's favorite president, let's face it.  

Here's a good one:  would anyone suggest that George Patton would have made a good president?  That would be a stretch, wouldn't it? 

So what would be the point of requiring prior military service for our presidents?  None at all, except as pointed barbs to be aimed at Obama and Clinton.  Both men have done a fine job as president without it.  (I can hear the screaming from here!  Nine to twelve time zones away!  Oh, the agony of giving any credit at all to these fine, if imperfect, men!)  There would be arguments about their successes, but the lie to those arguments would come into sharp focus if the arguments were extended to include FDR and Wilson.  And they would be extended.  All four could be painted with the "progressive" brush, and that's a curse these days among so-called conservatives. 

It would be an almost impossible thing to require anyway.  Wouldn't it require a constitutional amendment?  That's not going to happen.  It's just the right-wing echo chamber getting their snark on.  As distasteful as that is, we should be used to it by now. 

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