Thursday, January 13, 2011
Things Presidential, and otherwise
It has been some time since I posted anything, Lord knows it's not for lack of topics. The elections, the shootings, the books read, meals consumed, family visited, the working vacation to research sites in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and life and the living thereof have all presented ample opportunity for blog posts. The lack of same amounts to a mea culpa:
1. I've been busy.
2. I've been lazy.
Take your pick--both apply. But during this hiatus some thoughts have been banging around inside my skull that have finally taken adequate form to merit a posting.
It occurred to me recently, while reflecting on recent U.S. Presidents, that there has not been a Vietnam-era military general elected to the office, and further, there will not be one. Their opportunity has passed. The last General Officer elected to the presidency was Eisenhower. Before that we have to go back to Benjamin Harrison and the election of 1888 to find a general-to-president election. In all, we've had nine Chief Executives with General Officer standing prior to their political elevation.
That notwithstanding, there have been very few presidents with no military experience at all. Most of those were Founding Fathers, and they were a little busy with other things during the Revolutionary War. Some, while not in the at-war military, were Secretaries of War, state Governors acting as Commander-in-Chief for state militias (later the National Guard) or served during peacetime eras. Our current president and Andrew Johnson (a tailor by trade before becoming Vice-President to Lincoln) have no military background or service at all. Among presidents most have been General Officers, Governors and attorneys. Only one had a Phd; Woodrow Wilson.
Our military generals became presidents mostly in the 19th century. War veterans from 1812 and the Civil War filled 7 of the 15 presidential spots between 1829 and 1893. There were no presidents from the U.S. military general ranks from the Spanish-American war (Teddy Roosevelt barely made Colonel, but was the Under Secretary of the Navy before the war, was briefly Governor of New York, and as VP, ascended to the White House upon the assassination of McKinley. Incidentally, it was TR that had the West Wing added to the People's House.) There were also none from the first World War. Blackjack Pershing was pushed to run in the 1920 election, but he demurred active campaigning with the cryptic pronouncement that he "wouldn't decline to serve" if the people wanted him. The party opted for a more active candidate, selecting Warren G. Harding, now regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.
So what has this little presidential history lesson suggested to me? We like to reward our war heroes (even if they weren't generals) with high political office. In fact, until recently, it was unthinkable that a viable candidate could arise from the ranks of those with no military experience . I think Korea started the trend away from military commanders and Vietnam essentially codified that trend.
What do those conflicts have in common. We didn't win. Voters like winners. Voters reward winners. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to see war relatively unfiltered, and they didn't like what they saw. Gen X was the first to see war in real-time via satellite from Iraq in Desert Storm. They didn't like what they saw, but were careful to separate the soldier doing his duty, from the CINC sending them off to war. Gen Next is seeing Iraq and Afghanistan the same way, but with the addition of internet feeds and blogs from active duty soldiers under fire. Even in the face of provocation as extreme as 9-11, we don't much like what we see, but are a bit befuddled about what to do about it. It seems to have a surreal 'we broke it, so we have to fix it' adhesive quality to it.
We won't 'win' in Iraq. At best we will leave behind a shaky, fractured government riven with sectarian violence and likely unable-in the long term-to survive as a democracy. We won't win in Afghanistan. No one ever has historically. About the best we can hope for is to do less damage when we leave than we did when we abandoned Vietnam. The result will likely be similar. We will pack up, declare victory, and ship out, leaving the Afghani people to their own devices.
Since the end of WWII no military conflict of significance has ended with a clear victory for the U.S. Even Desert Storm, while a rout to be sure, seemed to be unfinished business. Short of an all-out-conflict, which is less and less likely in this internet interconnected world, large land mass armies will become increasingly obsolete and fewer military heroes will emerge from the ranks of generals.
The elections of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have demonstrated to me that the era of rewarding military veterans-high ranking or otherwise-has ceased to be an important yardstick in selecting our political leader. Clinton, a little-known southern governor faced down a WWII hero from the Senate leadership and defeated Bob Dole. John Kerry, though intellectually better prepared to be president lost to another southern governor. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet was defeated as much because he was a Vietnam vet as anything else. George jockeyed a fighter plane in the Air National Guard under the watchful eye of his highly placed father. John McCain, a bonafide POW hero of the southeast Asian conflict had his campaign run off the rails by erratic decision making and a mortal self-inflicted wound as a running mate. Barack Obama never served in the military and was outspoken against the war in Iraq.
In my estimation, it seems likely that a century or more may have passed before we elect another war general as President of the United States. For now, at least, Eisenhower was the last of that breed. New skills are needed in a new century. But I'll leave you with some hopeful tidbits from two presidents past; one of great note who was a general officer and hero of the War of 1812, and one from perhaps the least significant presidency in our history.
“Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.” Andrew Jackson, 7th POTUS
“Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office-seeking. Men of good character and impulses are betrayed by it into all sorts of meanness.” Millard Fillmore 12th POTUS