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Bystanders-in-Chief: Can Presidents Possess Military Virtue Without Military Service?

Updated on July 28, 2016

With the early withdrawal of former Senator James Webb from contention for the Democratic presidential nomination, the prospect of a commander-in-chief with military experience again eludes the armed forces. Like former Texas governor Rick Perry on the Republican side, Webb failed to parlay his record in uniform into political success. After 40-plus years of all-volunteer services, it comes as little surprise that voter appreciation for military virtue has diminished. The danger, however, rests in whether or not their choice for president is similarly indifferent. It is one thing to extol fighting men and women on the campaign trail. It is quite another to direct them with competence and principle from the very top of the command structure.

Grover Cleveland's Proxy Problem

Before there was a Bill Clinton, there was Grover Cleveland. A New York Democrat at the outbreak of the Civil War, there is some debate as to whether this young lawyer in Buffalo was pro or con as to the merits of the conflict. What is certain is that his hiring of a Polish immigrant to serve in his place—not uncommon in those days, and perfectly legal—later cost him political credibility in crucial quarters. While he needed to financially support his mother and several sisters, Cleveland’s non-participation in the War Between the States nevertheless raised suspicions that he was either a coward or a secessionist sympathizer. Or both.

He did not help his own case when—upon assuming office in 1885—Cleveland returned several captured Confederate battle flags to their respective states. Eager to heal the sectional wounds still throbbing abroad in the land, he instead rubbed salt in them, tone deaf to the values and memories of thousands of Union veterans. In addition to this unintentional insult, his zealous rejection of so many veteran pension petitions led the battle-scarred to resent him as an ogre. The fact that he was simply enforcing existing criteria was lost on them; his vetoes were interpreted more as spite than as thrift.

How different would things have been for President Cleveland had his younger self submitted to induction? That is hard to determine but there is a good chance that the organized body of Union vets—the Grand Army of the Republic—would not have so quickly impugned his motives. His decisions on veteran matters and foreign policy might have carried more political weight (to match his own bulky body) had he put himself in harm’s way. Granted, the Constitution gave him the power to conduct foreign affairs, and to command the Army and Navy. At the same time, none of these functions are executed in a vacuum. The power to persuade is a president’s best asset. For that, he (or she) must possess moral authority.

Although he butted heads with some generals, President John F. Kennedy enjoyed broad respect among the armed services because of meritorious conduct in World War II.
Although he butted heads with some generals, President John F. Kennedy enjoyed broad respect among the armed services because of meritorious conduct in World War II.

Marks of Sound Leadership

How does a man or woman who spent young adulthood exclusively in the law library or on a campaign staff accrue moral authority as a commander-in-chief? Like the old bumper sticker reads: “If you can’t be a vegetarian, eat one.” If a candidate has avoided military service—or the opportunity has eluded that candidate—there is always the fallback strategy of demonstrating military virtue in the living of life. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen were people before they were warriors. They can recognize sterling character in civilians. To what virtues, then, do warriors respond?

This question can be answered any number of ways according to a variety of cultures. But I think the classicist and military historian—Victor Davis Hanson—makes a strong case that the American military ethic originated in Ancient Greece. In fact, he argues in The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (And Their Invention of Western Military Culture) that Greece was later conquered because her enemies adopted her way of war while Greece herself forgot it:

The phenomenal record of Greek military prowess is unquestioned. After Xerxes’ failed invasion of 480, Greece remained free from foreign invasion until the Roman conquest three centuries later – and the triumphant legions of Rome owed much of their battle success to the hallowed Greek approach to warfare.

(from The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, p.24. London: Cassell. 1999)

Hanson lists eight pillars that undergirded the Greek (and subsequent western) practice of warfare that we, as voters, do well to apply to our presidential candidates.

  1. Advanced technology – for the Greeks, of course, this meant breastplates, shields and catapults, rigorously tested and developed. Does the candidate have a record of putting a premium on the very best and most efficient weapons systems? Can he or she make a clear case for why one system is preferable over others?
  2. Superior discipline – virtually every candidate who gets this far has some degree of personal discipline with regard to, say, getting out of bed early, staying in shape (not Cleveland’s forte), staying on message or maintaining eye contact. These, however, are cultivations driven by political ambition. The physical and mental toughness gained through martial training is all predicated on the subordination of the will to another soldier. This is what plebe summer represents at the service academies: endowing the future leaders with the prerequisite instinct of followership.
  3. Ingenuity in response – true warriors are proud but not vain. They will gladly adopt (like the Romans) the successful strategies and tactics of their enemies without compromising on principle.
  4. The creation of a broad, shared military observance among the majority of the population – this is the basis of the citizen-soldier. The volunteers will fight harder than the draftees because they believe in the mission. Will a president use political capital to advocate and champion military service? This will be a hard slog for either of the current nominees: for one, because his background does not reflect such values; for the other, because her party will not tolerate it.
  5. Choice of decisive engagement – this consists of bold attacks and overwhelming force. There is a difference between prudence and timidity. Prudence dictates sufficient arms and troop levels for success and minimal casualties. Yet a preoccupation with dead and wounded will prevent a commander from acting with lethal resolve.
  6. Dominance of infantry – i.e. boots on the ground. This one might seem outdated in the 21st century, and might strike the layperson as unnecessarily exposing our men and women in uniform to danger. Reality is, though, that there will come the mandate sooner or later to take and hold territory. Like it or not, special forces and drones are not adequate to that contingency.
  7. A systematic application of capital to war making – armaments, technology, food and salaries cost money. The Athenians and other Greek states were exceptional at financing and supplying their armies in a timely fashion. What are the budget proposals for the future?
  8. Moral opposition to militarism – the best victories came to the Greeks when they convinced the people, the scribes and the philosophers that military action was morally and practically optimal. Not to mix my cultures, but Sun Tzu says it best: “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.” War must never be fought for its own sake or for crass political reasons.

It is unlikely that the American media outlets will quiz the present candidates on these principles. It would lead to hard philosophical discussion at which reporters are ill-equipped. Still, we can bear them in mind as we make the difficult choice come November.


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