The Combat Card

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 2003

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 Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center, is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.