In every presidential election since 1992, the candidate with the less distinguished military resume has triumphed.
Bill Clinton defeated war heroes George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole; National Guard pilot George W. Bush beat Vietnam veterans Al Gore and John Kerry; and Barack Obama was decisively elected over John McCain, who had displayed extraordinary valor during years of captivity as a Navy pilot in North Vietnam.
In 2012, we won’t have the chance to test this trend: For the first time in modern American history, neither major candidate for the presidency has any military experience.
This is a dramatic change. The crucible of combat not only created these United States but also has given us many of our most successful presidents.
Our first president, and still the greatest of all Americans, was a general before he was elected; George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army proved that he could handle the challenges of a newborn nation. William Henry Harrison’s short presidency was based in no small part on his victory over the Shawnee Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe; with Vice President John Tyler, he won on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, though marked by scandal, would never have been but for his steady generalship in America’s bloodiest conflict.
Harry Truman came to prominence as the commander of a National Guard artillery battery in the World War I in France; his performance in combat powered his rise to the Oval Office. Service in World War II gave the nation not just Dwight D. Eisenhower but also John F. Kennedy, whose heroism as a PT boat skipper in the Pacific was a counterpoint to Eisenhower’s leadership of a great alliance in Europe.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush all served in uniform during World War II, while Jimmy Carter, too young for that conflict, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served aboard nuclear submarines during the Cold War.
But today, the connection between service in war and election to the highest office in the land has been severed.
Now, nearly 30 years into this experiment with an all-volunteer force, and more than a decade into America’s longest war, the nation will elect a president who has not known the tender courtesies of a drill sergeant at oh-dark-thirty in the morning. Military service is not the only way to demonstrate dedication to country or capability for high office, of course; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents despite never wearing a uniform, although his appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy gave him a useful perspective on the military he would lead with such distinction.
And after this election, there will be a new generation waiting to enter the political arena, veterans of a tough decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike those who fought in Vietnam, the veterans of these wars have been embraced by an American public that supports the troops, even if they oppose the conflicts in which they fought. The admiration offered to today’s veterans bodes well for the prospects of future political candidates who have known firsthand the burden of carrying out the orders of the president abroad.
Wars have given the United States many of its most important political leaders, and we can expect those who have led this country’s sons and daughters in the sands of Anbar province and the mountains of the Hindu Kush to turn their sights to the highest office in the land in years to come.
When they do, these veterans will lead the nation back to its foundations. Forged in war, they will work to build a better peace.
John Nagl, a retired Army officer, is the Minerva research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy and a veteran of both wars in Iraq. He is the author of “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam.”