“John McCain has extensive military experience”, an American friend of mine wrote, explaining why he would be the better choice for the presidency of the United States. And he is not the only one thinking like that – not by a long shot. It is something I fail to comprehend: why would that be so important?
Sure enough, the President of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces, but I really don’t think that any president has commanded any armies hands-on since the Civil War. The wars of American presidents have been political affairs: weighing options, acknowlegding or dismissing advisers, finding supporters, influencing public opinion. You don’t learn that in the military unless you end up in a Washington position like on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wars are best left to professionals – Americans with any sense of history know full well what happens if Washington starts to indulge in micromanagement of a war. It is exactly that which caused John McCain to end up in the Hanoi Hilton. American aircraft, on strict orders from Washington, flew along fixed routes and attacked fixed targets without permission to go look for targets of opportunity – it was so predictable that the North Vietnamese could just point their artillery in the right direction and wait for the Navy and the Air Force to fly into their cross-hairs. Well, almost. So one wouldn’t want a president with any ideas about commanding armies in any direct way.
One of the greatest wartime leaders the US – and indeed the world – has ever seen, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who brought the US into World War II and lead the nation almost to victory (he died but a month before victory over Nazi Germany), had no military experience. Woodrow Wilson, US President during the First World War, had no military experience. The victories brought about by these men and their allies are still celebrated to this day, and rightfully so.
By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and to a lesser extent Lyndon B. Johnson all had military experience. Eisenhowers is the most impressive and well known, but Kennedy and Nixon both served in the Navy during World War II and Johnson was a Navy Reserves observer for President Roosevelt. These are the men ultimately responsible for the build-up of “advisers” in Vietnam, for the full-blown war which followed and for the drawn-out retreat. And I wouldn’t call Vietnam a success in US military history. The erstwhile enemy is the one celebrating there.
With all that in mind, I would prefer a President without military experience. Judging history I’d say it’s a definite disadvantage.