Many of our nation’s greatest presidents have been veterans of war: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Military service is not necessary for a successful tenure in the White House, but it brings a deep understanding of war, in all its difficult dimensions, that every president must possess.
The next commander in chief, like every one since 1941, will have to make difficult decisions about deploying American forces into deadly circumstances abroad and managing the consequences for communities at home.
The great presidents who did not serve in the military — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson — had close advisers who brought that experience to their deliberations. They relied on former soldiers for guidance on how to judge adversaries, how to prepare forces, where to deploy them and, most important, when to show restraint. Military experience has always tempered the most aggressive urges of ambitious political commanders.
The domestic side of military experience has proved even more important for presidents. Our nation’s social welfare programs have their origin in helping veterans adjust when they return to their families. In every generation, veterans have driven major government reforms to improve the life chances of hard-working citizens. Former Civil War soldiers pushed Progressive reformers to clean up urban corruption, improve factory conditions and assist struggling farmers. During the Great Depression, veterans marched in “Bonus Armies” at home, demanding government assistance for suffering families.
Most transformative, at the end of World War II returning service members demanded education and home-buying opportunities. Through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as “the GI bill,” tens of thousands of low-income and uneducated veterans attended universities and purchased houses with direct federal aid. These veterans carried American society to unprecedented prosperity during the second half of the 20th century.
But something has changed. During the past 10 years, veterans from the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War have largely retired, and they have not been replaced. Our society loves the slogan “supporting our troops,” but the voices from those who served have largely faded away. Today, our nation’s most prominent CEOs, intellectuals and politicians have never served in the military.
The current collection of presidential candidates — Republican and Democrat — is very revealing. Only one, Lindsey Graham, served in the military, and he is not even among the top 10 Republican contenders. None of the Democratic candidates has been in the military. Candidates from both parties are making extensive claims about how the United States should deploy its military power against ISIS, Russia, China and other foes and potential foes, but they have little firsthand experience with war. They represent the leading sources of money and influence in our society, and that largely excludes the armed forces, despite the importance of military decision-making to the presidency.
We do not need to have a veteran in the White House, and there is no reason to believe that someone with military experience is a better leader. There are plenty of contrary examples. But our public discussion of national security, as well as domestic policy, would be greatly enhanced if the real experiences of veterans in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts were given detailed attention.
This requires much more than slogans. What does modern war mean for the men and women who serve when we deploy them to distant conflict zones? What happens to our warriors in combat and what are the true costs for our society? On the domestic side, what are the barriers to educational and professional opportunity for young men and women, many of whom have served their country? How can our government fulfill its duty to give loyal and patriotic citizens a chance at success?
We have avoided these questions in recent years and neglected the experiences veterans have always lent to American political debates. Focusing on ideologies about war and welfare rather than real experiences, we have increased our partisanship and decreased our policy effectiveness.
On this Veterans Day it is time to do more than thank our warriors. We should ask them to share their stories — bad and good — and we must be ready to listen and learn.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown distinguished professor for global leadership, history and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He was the E. Gordon Fox professor of history, director of the European Union Center of Excellence, and director of the Grand Strategy Program at UW-Madison from 2007-2011, associate professor at UW-Madison from 2005-2007, and assistant professor at UW from 2001-2005.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle (Nov. 11, 2015).
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