What You Should Think About Experience

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war.  Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin.  But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

–Ernest Hemingway

The past few days have seen interesting public debate about the role of military experience in national leadership.  Since long before this Presidential bid, Senator John McCain upheld his military service as a credential applicable to political leadership.  In doing this he perpetuates a long-standing tradition linking military service to political leadership.

Dozens upon dozens of generations ago, civic-minded Romans were inspired by tales of Cincinnatus.  Perhaps the ultimate citizen-soldier, the man discovered he had been selected to serve as dictator in time of crisis when a VIP delegation arrived unexpectedly at his humble farm.  Bold leadership turned into legend as he was credited with preserving and strengthening early Rome while it was under attack by rival factions on the Italian peninsula.

Ever since, Western civilization has placed a premium on military service as a credential for political leadership.  In brutal primitive times, with ordinary citizens constantly facing threats from nature and warmongers alike, there was some sense in this.  Orienting governance around security policy was often necessary and appropriate.  Ancient peoples really did inhabit a world where quality of life could not be sustained without regional military supremacy.  Fortunately for us, the 21st century is not a world fraught with turf wars and pillaging hordes.

Yet it seems not all of us are mentally up to the challenges of inhabiting more enlightened times.  For some Americans, the aggression of nineteen men with boxcutters justifies a perpetual siege mentality every bit as extreme as the militarism of the Roman Empire.  Our quality of life in the modern United States is more gravely undermined by the expenses of militaristic governance than any plausible consequences of ending a unilateral arms race.  That is not to say we should leave our nation defenseless or even abandon plans to expand the numbers of active duty troops in our armed forces.  However, it is to say that an entire society deeply dedicated to military supremacy is a society that fails to engage adequately on a wide range of issues each more crucial to quality of life than new high tech weapons systems conceivably could be.

Still, the citizen-soldier archetype resonates in Presidential politics.  On one level perhaps it should.  Honorable military service reveals character traits that many voters legitimately demand of their leaders.  It is foolish to contend that military service is the only way to become a good person.  However, the crucible of war is a meaningful test.  Integrity, loyalty, and determination are difficult to fake on the battlefield.  Courage and selflessness may also be evident (though history is thick with tales of courage and selflessness that ultimately turn out to be propaganda pieces rather than events that actually occurred.)

There is no doubt that Senator McCain served honorably in wartime, endured much abuse as a prisoner of war, and went on to fulfill command responsibility.  The value and dignity of his service is only questioned by those setting up straw men — no significant critic of McCain has characterized his military record as less than honorable.  His supporters raise the specter of that criticism because it galvanizes their movement to believe he has been “attacked” in this way.

The worst of what has actually been said by anyone of consequence was a remark General Wesley Clarke made in response to a question about this link between military service and political leadership.  In a moment Senator Obama accurately characterized as artless, the general said, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”  The response from McCain’s supporters has been intense.  Yet what precisely is their concern?  Did John McCain never ride in a fighter plane?  Did he never get shot down?  Did General Clarke overlook something in the Constitution about military service as a credential for the Presidency?

While that remark was crude, it seems insane to reject a crude truth in favor of elegant spin.  In reviewing the documentary Carrier, I was struck by the apolitical nature of life among naval aviators.  Whenever the subject of justification arose, an overwhelming majority of pilots (as with the ship’s crew) took an agnostic view.  Rightly, military personnel in time of war do not agonize over the nuances of foreign policy.  They do their duty because it is their duty, not because the majority of them have strong opinions about which flavor of foreigners deserves to be bombed under order of the current regime. The order alone is all that is needed to act.

Provided that orders are not sadistic or inhumane (like running an extermination camp or a torture chamber,) the morality of military service demands fulfillment of duty.  Military culture frowns upon questioning orders, though questions and discussion that do not interfere with diligent and prompt fulfillment of orders do no harm (and sometimes quite a bit of good.)  Still, my broader point is that a history of being a good soldier only proves that one may retain characteristics of a good soldier.  When Senator Jim Webb attempted to clarify a crucial distinction between executive leadership and front line combat, he too was denounced for attacks on McCain’s service that Webb did not actually make.

The only real attack here, an attack entirely justified, is an attempt to change thinking about the relationship between being an effective warrior and being an effective national leader.  The very issues that naval aviators habitually avoid deliberating are those that merit tremendous time and attention from a U.S. President.  If anything, the “my country, right or wrong” attitude that helps combatants stay strong while pursuing nebulous objectives or dealing with incompetence spilling down the chain of command is an attitude that weakens one’s ability to exercise sound judgement in an executive role.  I believe even the most jingoistic Americans would, all other things being equal, rather see U.S. policy in the right than in the wrong.  A dutiful President must agonize over nuances of political decisions in precisely the ways a dutiful combatant must not.

One aspect of legitimacy in the tale of Cincinnatus is that he was a patrician with a history of political activism.  Though he was virtually conscripted to serve as head of state, his selection was not a consequence of skill with sword and spear.  It was because he had demonstrated thoughtful judgement and sound leadership in previous efforts to shape Roman policy.  His service was noble and selfless, but it was informed far more by his past political life than his past military activities.  It was the strength of his wisdom, not the strength of his belligerence, that preserved Rome during a time of great troubles.

Perhaps the closest analogs in American political life would be John Fitzgerald Kennedy and John Kerry.  They both seemed influenced by the perception, especially common among young men, that miltiary service builds reputations useful in later pursuit of public office.  That perception remains valid even today.  However, at its heart is a prejudice like the belief that tall men make the wisest leaders — an archaic misconception that resembles racism without race.  It is a prejudice that allows ignorance to be substituted where enlightenment belongs.  Still, both men risked life and limb, sustaining injuries that would cause lifelong pain, to make good on a promise to serve this nation in time of war.  That merits honor to be sure, but does it have anything at all to do with positions on security policy and foreign affairs?

The disturbing aspect of the experience debate is not that someone dared to raise such questions.  It is that the very idea of suggesting military service does not equate with executive excellence was so easily mischaracterized as a personal attack.  It is a question most civilized nations have long since asked and answered, liberating them from perpetual militarism for its own sake.

In assessing the character of a candidate, performance under fire is certainly a legitimate factor.  In assessing the quality of a candidate’s politics, performance under fire is entirely irrelevant.  So long as a contrary view remains popular, voices in the public square do well to attack it.  Real men do not cower behind the ad hominem defense when it is so clearly their opinions, not their persons, that are subjected to withering critique.  To employ that unresponsive evasion fails to address the attack even as it reveals something else — the poor character of the man who would employ such a tactic.

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