Combat Experience

In a little over a month, U.S. voters will elect a commander-in-chief with no military experience, combat or otherwise. The recipient of this power will follow another commander-in-chief with no military experience. In fact, of the 43 presidents we have elected so far, only 11 have lacked a military service record. With the exception of Bill Clinton, the last purely civilian president was elected in 1932. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as commander-in-chief during the height of World War II.

Voters have been somewhat undecided about how much emphasis to place on military experience when choosing a president. The McCain campaign touted the candidate’s military background and its importance during a wartime election. But despite McCain’s combat experience, the electorate gave the contest to Barack Obama. Just as Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, an active combat veteran in World War II.

Digging a little deeper into our election history, we find that between William Howard Taft’s victory in 1908 and the election of Harry Truman in 1948, there was not a single U.S. president with a military background. This period also happens to overlap with both World Wars. Since both wars worked out in favor of the U.S., is it safe to assume that a president can still be a successful commander-in-chief without ever spending a day in uniform? Let’s delve a little deeper into what “commander-in-chief” actually means.

The commander-in-chief is the head of the military forces but holds no rank. Whether or not the president has military experience, he or she is considered the civilian head of the military. The highest military rank is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advises the president and the Secretary of Defense. Operational command, or the power to actually deploy armed forces, remains in the hands of the president. But each president plays this role differently.

Way back when, George Washington actually led troops into battle while serving as president. Woodrow Wilson, who was president during WWI, played a very passive role, leaving most of the decisions to the generals. Franklin D. Roosevelt made crucial strategic decisions throughout WWII. Every administration falls somewhere on the spectrum between micromanagement and military autonomy. But, as we learn from the FDR administration, the degree to which a president plays an active role in military action is not solely a product of having a military background.

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