Real American Hero? Military experience in U.S. presidential politics

Oscar Winberg

 George H. W. Bush displays his son George W. Bush’s officer’s bar on his Texas Air National Guard uniform, circa 1968. Credit Getty Images

Fighting presidents: decorated veteran George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush in his Texas Air National Guard uniform, 1968. Getty Images

In mid-December, Senator Lindsey Graham threw in the towel and dropped his struggling campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. The South Carolina senator had struggled to gain any traction in the crowded Republican field where Donald Trump continues to hog a disproportionate amount of the news coverage and a large lead in the polls. Graham’s exit was neither surprising nor particularly significant for the wider race, but it did mark the exit of the last candidate with any military experience (former Texas Governor and veteran Rick Perry left the race in September). Since the nation’s founding, political power and military service have often gone hand in hand. The days of a military-political aristocracy, akin to the Lees or Harrisons of Virginia, are long gone; yet even in the modern political age personal experience of the armed forces has been the norm for presidential hopefuls – not since 1932 have the main candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination for president been people without any military background.

With unemployment at 5% and gas only $2.13 a gallon –both the lowest since the 2008 crisis–the U.S. economy is steadily improving. The economic recovery, combined with rising fear of terrorism, makes foreign policy the primary issue for the Republican challengers. Polling data suggests that President Barack Obama is viewed as far weaker on foreign policy than on the economy: according to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages Obama gets a -18.9 job approval spread on foreign policy, compared to only -5.1 on the economy. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is generally understood as more hawkish than Obama on foreign policy, including advocating for a bigger role for the U.S. in the conflicts in both Libya and Syria during her term as Secretary of State.

General of the Army and future President Dwight Eisenhower, 1947. Wikipedia Commons.

General of the Army and future President Dwight Eisenhower, 1947. Wikipedia Commons.

When foreign policy is considered the most important issue, the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces is highlighted. In this, personal military experience has historically been of great import. In fact, out of the 43 presidents only eleven did not serve in the United States military or state militias. Of these eleven, the two most recent democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, are the only ones since World War II without experience of the armed forces. Harry Truman (1945-1953) served in World War I, and was followed by a string of eight presidents who were all veterans of World War II. The election of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), who held the highest possible rank of General of the Army and served as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the war, was explicitly the election of a war proven commander. With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, an election in which his war heroism featured prominently, a new generation of men who had served during World War II came to hold the White House for 32 years.

High ranking officers have continued to be a part of presidential speculation during the last 25 years. Retired General Colin Powell was approached by both Democrats and Republicans in the 1990s and encouraged to run for the G.O.P. in 2000. The 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, is a retired captain of the U.S. Navy who rose to prominence as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Among the Democrats, retired General Wesley Clark sought the Democratic nomination in 2004, and retired General and CIA Director David Petraeus welcomed speculation about future campaigns prior to revelations of his sex scandal in 2012. Still it is the exception, rather than the rule, for professional officers to enter presidential politics. There are, however, clear benefits of having served in the armed forces when campaigning for president.

Flanked by two former Navy Seals, Rick Perry announces his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination. June 2015. Mike Stone.

Flanked by two former Navy SEALs, Rick Perry announces his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination, June 2015. Mike Stone.

When Rick Perry announced his candidacy for the presidency from an airfield hangar in Texas he was flanked by two imposing, large-framed men with notable beard stubs. Many watching the announcement took to social media to wonder who the men, wearing jeans and conspicuously no ties, were. Unidentifiable to a larger electorate but known among the conservative activists Perry’s campaign sought to target, the men were the Navy SEAL twin brothers Marcus and Morgan Luttrell, the former a talk-show host and the author and protagonist of the non-fiction book Lone Survivor. Early ads supporting Perry’s candidacy also prominently featured Perry speaking to veterans in New Hampshire. Perry sought to highlight his military service in an attempt to relate to voters through identity politics as a veteran. Donald Trump has also been appealing to veterans by repeatedly criticizing the federal government’s care of them. One such appeal included Trump accusing John McCain of not having done enough for veterans, and the suggestion that real war heroes don’t get captured: a statement he later denied, wanting to avoid incensing veterans. This pandering to the perceived interests of veterans can also be seen in Trump’s controversial claim that, in spite of receiving several draft deferments during the Vietnam War, he “always felt that I was in the military,” due to attending a military boarding school.

Attempts to relate to veterans are common across the partisan divide, Hillary Clinton for example regularly attends veterans events on the campaign trail. While the U.S. no longer relies on a mass-conscription army, and military service has since the end of the draft in 1973 been on a voluntary basis, the veteran community is still significant. Roughly 16 million Americans served in World War II, some 9 million served during the Vietnam War era, currently only around 1.5 million serve in the U.S. armed forces. All living veterans are estimated to number 22 million: a considerable, if still politically diverse, voting bloc. As numbers of people in the military have declined, the heterogeneity of that group has declined as well. As a result, veterans have become a core constituency among conservatives and the Republican Party, the party with a more hawkish foreign policy.

President Clinton talks to Air Force Colonel Paul Fletcher, 1999. USAF.

President Clinton talks to Air Force Colonel Paul Fletcher, 1999. USAF.

A military background, or rather the perception of military experience, can also be valuable on the campaign trail by shielding the candidate from certain political attacks. While experience of the armed forces is seemingly more important among the conservative base, lack of it tends to be a disadvantage among the general electorate. Foreign policy and defense tend to be among the most frequent attack topics in modern presidential elections, and the lack of personal military experience can escalate the attacks. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, the issue of patriotism or war record became a common topic in Republican attacks against him. Clinton did not serve in the Vietnam War, avoiding service by initially enrolling in a ROTC program to delay service before dropping out and taking his chances with the draft, receiving a very high draft number. Facing George H.W. Bush, the decorated war hero, former CIA director, and incumbent president with the successful Desert Storm campaign under his belt, Clinton’s military record was the source of much criticism. Speaking to the American Legion, Clinton pleaded with veterans to disregard his lack of service on Election Day; “if you choose to vote against me because of what happened 23 years ago, that’s your right, and I respect that.”

John Kerry speaks out against the war in 1971. Library of Congress.

John Kerry speaks out against the war in 1971. Library of Congress.

The same sentiment could have been echoed by John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in 2004. Kerry volunteered to serve in the Navy during the Vietnam War, receiving several decorations for his active duty in Vietnam. After his service, however, he became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and at one protest returned his combat decorations by throwing them over a fence at the U.S. Capitol. The campaign of George W. Bush, whose own record had been questioned in the previous election, decided to attack Kerry on his war record. An independent conservative political group consisting of fellow veterans, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attempted to discredit Kerry and question his patriotism. While the opponents used Kerry’s involvement with the anti-war movement against him, his service record made it harder to change perceptions of his patriotism.

Illustrating the importance military experience plays as evidence of patriotism in campaign rhetoric, Barack Obama in 2008 told George Stephanopoulos that he seriously considered signing up for Selective Service after graduating high school, but ultimately decided against it, since the Vietnam War was already over. Facing John McCain, the prominent veteran and former prisoner of war, the Obama campaign struggled with questions over both the candidate’s lack of military service and his patriotism. “Mr. Obama does not have the biography of a military record to offer as a validation of his patriotism,” The New York Times noted at the time.

The Democrats are now set to nominate another candidate without military experience, as none of the three current candidates have served in the armed forces. Although the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has extensive foreign policy experience as a former senator and Secretary of State, she is still viewed as weak on defense by Republicans – especially regarding the attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012. Back in 1994 Hillary Clinton, then serving as First Lady, suggested she had attempted to join the Marines back in 1975 – an unverified claim she has repeated during the current campaign. Initially, Clinton offered the recollection as a means of connecting with a group of women soldiers. When she in November mentioned the episode on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, she seemed more focused on pre-empting attacks on her lack of military service and that form of instant validation of her patriotism. Any attacks on her war record will, however, be far hollower coming from a Republican candidate without any personal military experience.

Oscar Winberg is a PhD candidate in History at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. He also hosts the monthly Campaign Context podcast, which provides historical context and insight into the 2016 U.S. elections. Follow him on twitter @WinbergOscar.

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