Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Presidents and war records

Sunday on Face The Nation, retired Gen. Wesley Clark made the accurate, if in-artfully stated, argument that John McCain’s military service does not necessarily qualify him to be the next leader of the free world. Specifically, he pointed out that flying his plane around and getting shot down does not qualify him to be president. Additionally, he pointed out that McCain’s command experience was not in combat, for what little that’s worth. And this from a retired general who ran for president.

Here is the exact quote:
Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
He was responding to this question:
I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean...
But there's more from Clark:
I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war.
To his credit, Clark is not backing down. But, that’s beside the point.

Naturally, the Right are having a hissy fit because they see those comments as an attack on McCain’s war record. (Never mind the effective Swiftboating of John Kerry. Nothing to see here; please move along.) Meanwhile, Barak Obama has distanced himself from Gen. Clark’s assessment so that it doesn’t look like they are advocating a questioning of McCain’s record. (Indeed, Obama has gone to lengths to highlight McCain’s service while still disagreeing with the GOP’s presumptive nominee on pretty much every issue.)

This non-issue does raise an interesting question, though. Is there a correlation between past military service and performance as president? Using Wikipedia I identified the 27 of 43 presidents who had some military service. (Note: normally, I do not like to use Wikipedia as a source, but this was the quick and dirty way to get the information.)

First, though, a quick question. Is this your idea of a great leader...

Or is this more like it...

Here are the presidents who had any kind of military service:

George Washington: Revolutionary War; general of the Colonial Army
James Monroe: Revolutionary War; soldier in the Colonial Army, fought with distinction at the Battle of Trenton
Andrew Jackson: Seminole War/War of 1812; army commander, led the defense of New Orleans weeks after peace was signed (neither side got the memo because no one had invented the Internet yet)
William Henry Harrison: Various wars against Native American tribes; commander of government forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe
John Tyler: War of 1812; member of volunteer military company
Zachary Taylor: War of 1812/Black Hawk War/Second Seminole War; served in various capacities.
Millard Filmore: Peacetime; Served in New York militia
Franklin Pierce: Mexican-American War; brigadier general of volunteer units
James Buchannon: War of 1812; Served in a volunteer dragoon unit in the defense of Baltimore
Abraham Lincoln: Black Hawk War; elected captain of an Illinois militia unit
Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War; General of the Army of the Potomac
Rutherford B. Hayes: Civil War; colonel of 23rd Ohio regiment
James A. Garfield: Civil War; brigadier general in the Army of the Cumberland
Chester A. Arthur: Civil War; quartermaster in New York
(Grover Cleveland: none; paid a Polish immigrant to fight in his place during the Civil War.)
Benjamin Harrison: Civil War; brigadier general in the Army of the Cumberland
William McKinnley: Civil War; army captain
Teddy Roosevelt: Spanish-American War; army captain, commander of the famous Rough Riders
Harry Truman: World War I; commander of a battery unit, later a colonel in the National Guard
Dwight D. Eisenhower: World War II; five star general, commander of allied forces in Europe
John F. Kennedy: World War II; navy lieutenant, commander of PT 109, highly decorated but later admitted that he probably did not deserve the medals.
Richard M. Nixon: World War II; Lt. Commander in the navy (Pacific Theater)
Gerald R. Ford: World War II; Lt. Commander in the navy (Pacific Theater)
Jimmy Carter: Korean War era; lieutenant on the early nuclear submarines, only president to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy
Ronald Reagan: World War II; served state-side making propaganda films for the military
George H.W. Bush: World War II; navy pilot (Pacific Theater)
George W. Bush: Vietnam era; Texas and Alabama Air National Guard. Just a few notes about George W. Bush: He protected the skies over Texas during the war. He probably even showed up for duty. Meanwhile, people like John McCain (pilot and long-time POW), and Bush’s two main opponents for the presidency Al Gore (military journalist), and John Kerry (Swiftboat commander) and millions of other Americans actually went to Vietnam. More than 58,000 died there.

I hardly need to go to the trouble of quantifying these findings. Just one caveat: leadership skills developed in the military are certainly useful for future political leadership. Conversely, it is up to the individual to translate military leadership to civilian leadership.

That said, some of our greatest military leaders were also great presidents (Washington, Monroe). We have had some real losers with exemplary (Grant), mediocre (Nixon, Buchannon), and nearly non-existent (Bush 43) military records. There were some superb military leaders who had controversial records in the Oval Office (Jackson, T. Roosevelt). Some who had limited military experience (Truman, Kennedy) are regarded as some of the best presidents. We had one (F. Roosevelt) who had no military experience, but led the country to victory in World War II. There is one example (Eisenhower) who had an historic military record, but did very little as president. Two veterans (Harrison, Garfield) did not live long enough to establish their presidential legacies. Personally, I have a lot of respect for Chester A. Arthur as well. He went from being a crooked political appointee to the president who reformed civil service.

To reiterate Gen. Clark's statement on a philosophically logical level, he implied that military service does not necessarily qualify one to be president. However, that logic does not apply in the reverse. Past military service does not necessarily mean that the soldier is not qualified to be president. The two roles (as I have demonstrated) are mutually exclusive.

As for the brain dead media narrative of the whole Clark statement, FAIR's assessment, is right on target. As usual, the media (who have been accused of being McCain's main constituency) always need a new controversy. FAIR's article details how Clark's statements were taken out of context and bent to fit the media's need for a new controversy. My favorite is Fair's statement that the media pounced on this a lot more quickly than the Swiftboat nonsense.


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