Politics & Policy

The Combat Card

Is Kerry more qualified to be a wartime president than Bush?

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Democratic-party strategists Donna Brazile and Timothy Bergreen decried the fact that “so many prominent Democrats still seem not to grasp the profound sense of insecurity that so many people feel in our country.” They contended that unless the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Scoop Jackson can overcome its reputation as feckless and effete on matters of national security, the country will reelect George W. Bush in 2004.

How do the Democrats gain traction on national security against a wartime president who, so far at least, has been successful? One Democratic contender for the presidency, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, has decided to confront the president on military service, contrasting his own combat experience in Vietnam with President Bush’s Vietnam-era service as a member of the Texas Air National Guard. “If the president is going to wear a flight suit on deck,” he said, referring to President Bush’s dramatic “tailhook” landing on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent speech to its embarked sailors and Marines, “I have one to match, so to speak.”

In a recent speech to veterans in South Carolina he said “the sound of machine-gun fire, the bombs bursting, the sight of the wounded, are always with those who have served. I think being tempered by war, as President Kennedy said, is a valuable experience as you lead a country as commander-in-chief.”

There are several reasons why this approach might not be as promising as it seems at first glance. First, most veterans, even those who served in a theater of war, do not have the “valuable experience” Sen. Kerry describes. Even during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, most soldiers did not hear shots fired in anger, or suffer bombardment, or hear the screams of the wounded. Are only those veterans who have combat experience worthy to be president?

Second, although Sen. Kerry did experience combat in Vietnam, earning the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor, he did so as a junior officer. His actions there, no matter how exemplary, in no way prepared him to make the national-security decisions required of a president.

Indeed, even the achievement of high military rank does not ensure success as president. Only George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower can be said to have been successful as both generals and presidents. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor were successful generals, but their presidencies were hardly unalloyed triumphs. And of course, what can be said about the presidency of the unfortunate Ulysses S. Grant, the most successful general of the Civil War?

Third, the most-successful wartime presidents in American history had little or no military experience: James Polk (Mexican War), Abraham Lincoln (Civil War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), and Franklin Roosevelt (World War II). In contrast, all of the presidents who presided over Vietnam — Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon — saw active service during World War II.

If military experience were a prerequisite for success as a wartime president, then Confederate president Jefferson Davis should have easily outshone Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. He was a West Point graduate, a hero of the Mexican War, secretary of war during the administration of Franklin Pierce, and a U.S. senator who served with distinction on the Senate Military Affairs Committee.

Lincoln’s only military experience was as a militia officer during the Black Hawk War. It was not particularly distinguished. As a congressman, he poked fun of his own military experience to mock the attempt by the Democrats during the presidential race of 1848 to turn Lewis Cass into a war hero comparable to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor. “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of General Cass’ career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it, as Cass was to Hull’s surrender; and like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards….If Gen. Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”

Fourth, there is George W. Bush himself. If Mr. Bush looked more convincing on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit than Michael Dukakis looked in a tank, it is because the former was, after all, a fighter pilot. Many individuals strive to become fighter pilots. Only a few succeed. The implication that President Bush lacked courage because he joined the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War misses an important point. Although he did not see combat, piloting a high performance aircraft is an inherently dangerous undertaking, from start to finish. Flying a jet fighter when someone is not shooting at you is only marginally less dangerous than when someone is shooting at you. It is not for the faint of heart.

The fact is that previous combat experience or not, President Bush has acquitted himself well as a wartime commander-in-chief. Like Lincoln during the Civil War, he has been single-minded in his pursuit of U.S. security since 9/11. He has weighed options, assessed risk, and made often-unpopular decisions. As a wartime commander-in-chief, President Bush has operated successfully at the level of statesmanship, which, as Winston Churchill once remarked, constitutes the summit where true politics and strategy meet. Unfortunately for Sen. Kerry, experience on a battlefield as a young man may build character, but as the performance of our most successful wartime presidents illustrates, it does not in itself qualify one for presidential leadership during a time of war.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

Most Popular

World

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More
World

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Barr Is Right About the Prosecution Power

Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech at Hillsdale College on Wednesday that attracted a lot of attention. Much of that attention was for his ill-considered remark (in a question-and-answer session following the speech) that "Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, [the pandemic lockdowns ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Barr Is Right About the Prosecution Power

Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech at Hillsdale College on Wednesday that attracted a lot of attention. Much of that attention was for his ill-considered remark (in a question-and-answer session following the speech) that "Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, [the pandemic lockdowns ... Read More

The Mystery of Robert E. Lee

No one who ever met Robert Edward Lee -- whatever the circumstances of the meeting -- failed to be impressed by the man. From his earliest days as a cadet at West Point, through 25 years as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and six more as a senior cavalry officer, and then as the supreme ... Read More

The Mystery of Robert E. Lee

No one who ever met Robert Edward Lee -- whatever the circumstances of the meeting -- failed to be impressed by the man. From his earliest days as a cadet at West Point, through 25 years as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and six more as a senior cavalry officer, and then as the supreme ... Read More

Snobs or Mobs?

A   lot of us were feeling pretty good about the future of the media in late September of 2004. Dan Rather and the CBS news division had just tried to derail George W. Bush’s reelection campaign with some genuine fake news — based on fake documents — and, in spite of the manful attempts of ... Read More

Snobs or Mobs?

A   lot of us were feeling pretty good about the future of the media in late September of 2004. Dan Rather and the CBS news division had just tried to derail George W. Bush’s reelection campaign with some genuine fake news — based on fake documents — and, in spite of the manful attempts of ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More