The 2012 presidential campaign was the first time since 1944 that neither party fielded a military veteran on its ticket. For those hoping that was a historical outlier, 2016 is set to be another disappointment. None of the most likely candidates for President has any first-hand experience in uniform.
One does not have to be a veteran to know that we live in dangerous times. ISIS is burning through the Middle East, making real its apocalyptic vision of Islam. Russia is regressing, with revanchist policies reminiscent of Germany circa 1939. China is asserting dominance over its neighbors, risking a wider conflict. The list of challenges facing America abroad is growing longer, not shorter. Military force, or the threat of it, will inevitably be called upon to deal with some of these issues. That should be reason enough for Americans to give greater weight to military experience when choosing the next President.
It is true that some of our best Commanders-in-Chief never served in uniform. But they faced tests of character early in their careers that current generations of politicians do not. They also had a more intimate understanding of military service. Consider FDR and Lincoln, two of our greatest wartime leaders. FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, endured and overcame polio, and brought to the oval office the right balance of humility and firmness to lead the nation during World War II. Lincoln served several months with the Illinois militia as a young man, and as President possessed a toughness borne of life on the frontier that carried the nation through the greatest trial it has faced.
We do not make them like we used to. Today, there are few paths to political office that truly test a candidate’s ability to lead through life-and-death situations. Community organizing in Chicago, or staring down protesters in Madison, is not the same thing as performing under fire. In the military, we used to say that the only way to know someone is to be stuck in a cockpit or a foxhole together. So it is troubling for vets like me that none of the likely 2016 candidates has been tested the way a Commander-in-Chief should be.
The greater concern, however, is how we got here. Ask the average American who among the current slate of presidential hopefuls has served in uniform, and you are likely to get a blank stare. While it is tempting to attribute this lack of awareness to voter apathy, there is more going on.
Though most Americans have never served in uniform, repeated surveys rank military experience among the most important qualities voters desire in presidential candidates. This is a humbling reminder of the respect Americans hold for the sacrifice that military service often requires. So why, after 14 years of war, has such experience in public office become a rarity? Certainly, there is no shortage of qualified veterans.
Part of the reason that politicians today lack military records is the state of politics itself. It is more difficult than ever to translate service in uniform into a successful campaign. I have many military buddies who have tried. Most have failed. Pathways to high public office run through business or law, not Iraq or Afghanistan. Competing for a seat in Congress requires years of building relationships with funders, earning favors from interest groups, and winning allies in the media. Serving one’s country far away from any base of political support makes that pathway all but impossible.
It should be concern enough that military representation in Congress is near an all-time low. But the lack of such experience in the White House poses a far more serious risk. The most important decision a President can make is when to send Americans to fight and die. Unlike other executive powers, this one is largely unchecked by the other branches. While the judiciary and Congress can rein in war-making powers during extended conflicts, decisions to confront immediate threats rest entirely with the President.
Most voters do not appreciate this constitutional nuance. Yet, it has life-and-death consequences for Americans in uniform. Presidents with military experience, especially in combat roles, have undergone the kind of test that politics cannot match. As Commanders-in-Chief they carry with them real empathy, the kind that cannot be faked, towards the men and women they will inevitably send into harm’s way.
America needs more veterans running for national office. If we are lucky, the parties that groom candidates, and the media that pick favorites, will rediscover the value of military service. But the beauty of our system is that it does not rest on such institutions. America is the longest-surviving democracy on earth because we place ultimate faith in the ballot box itself. The decline of veterans in politics will stop when voters decide, without permission from any party or pundit, that military experience is worth demanding.