Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Are We Entering Another Period of 'Civilian' Presidents?

Author: David Yee
Created: 13 April, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
3 min read

There is no doubt that the vast majority of U.S. presidents had military backgrounds, with 31 of 43 presidents serving in the Armed Forces or National Guards in some capacity.

All but one were officers, James Buchanan served as a lowly private, and most held ranks above Major -- they were trained to lead soldiers into battle.

Almost as a reminder that military service wasn't a prerequisite for the presidency, John Adams, our second president, served only in the capacity of a diplomat and politician during the Revolution.

Even though not a requirement, candidates have often had to face draft dodging accusations; especially, during the period after the Vietnam War.

But there has also been significant lulls where military service was not the norm, including the 26-year period from Taft to Roosevelt that saw the two greatest wars in human history.

America was the overwhelming decisive factor in the outcome of both wars and having a commander-in-chief without military service didn't seem to matter much. Political statesmanship was the key element by making correct alliances, staying out of the wars until absolutely necessary, and managing peacetime with the same fervor.

Bill Clinton was the first president since WWII to not have any military experience, and significant controversy haunted his campaign over his opposition to the Vietnam War and potential draft-dodging.

George W. Bush had his own controversies by sitting out the Vietnam war in a cushy Air National Guard position--with questions about his actual duties performed (more importantly that they might not have been) and his early honorable discharge from service.

President Obama has been the first president since Vietnam to not have to explain his lack of service (or even service arrangement)--he wasn't old enough during the war.

While closing out President Obama's term in office, none of the five remaining candidates for president have any military service experience.

This is potentially setting up a long stretch of presidents who didn't serve in the military. Considering the controversies surrounding President G. W. Bush's service, this stretch could even be characterized as starting with President Clinton.

Military service in Congress is also at an all-time low since WWII, down to 20 percent from a high of 75 percent in 1971.

But at the same time, America has been locked in almost continuous fighting since 1990, when the Gulf Wars began. The Middle East has been a continuously patrolled area, but coupled with other regional fighting in the Baltic states, Somalia, and even combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Part of the decrease in veteran participation in politics is because there is significantly less of the population engaged in military operations -- our soldiers on the modern battlefield do much more than their counterparts in past wars. Part of it seems that military service isn't the 'gold star' beside your name in modern elections -- faithfulness to party ideology seems to be the new standard of service.

However, these 'civilian' presidents -- untrained in war -- must figure out two critical things: a strategy to resolve our military involvement in the Middle East and a clear-cut strategy for taking care of veterans within a VA system that has been riddled with scandals, mismanagement, and bureaucracy.

President Obama has not been spectacular at resolving either issue. Both are complex issues and it is hard to deviate from the set status quo.

We may not be able to fully win the fight in the Middle East with our military alone; we may need to build extensive partnerships with neighboring states and be satisfied with an 'honorable peace' at some point.

But we must have a president willing to do these things, otherwise we are set for another 4 more years of the status quo.