The Reckoning

The 2012 Field: A Band of Civilians

Romney battleship
Civilian landlubber Mitt Romney with the the retired battleship the USS Wisconsin.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Irony—the cheap sunglasses of writing.

But in this case, I can’t resist donning the shades: The last time our two major parties nominated presidential candidates who had not served in the military was 1944, in the midst of the most violent war the U.S. ever fought. Neither Franklin D. Roosevelt nor his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, had ever marched across a freezing cold parade ground to a lousy breakfast of mass-produced chipped beef on toast (“S.O.S.” to us insiders). Somehow, the alleged “character issue” therein never arose.

Now, almost 70 years later, we’ve done it again. None of the four horsemen of the duolypse that is our two-party system has ever served a day in the U.S. military. To my mind, that’s neither good nor bad—it’s always been a false issue. The military, as anyone who has served it in can tell you, contains some brilliant leaders, some self-promoting nuts, and a lot of average Joes and Janes besides (not to mention the odd Lee Harvey Oswald or Tim McVeigh).

Maybe we’re finally over this GI Joe fixation. Now that the generation of Americans that was subject to an active draft* is passing gradually from elective viability, maybe this ridiculous issue will just go away. Perhaps this will be the single good precedent established in the otherwise vile campaign of 2012. Because after decades of considering those whose career didn’t include a stint in uniform as akin to treason, no one seems to care much this year that we have a band of civilians, as opposed to brothers, vying to lead us.

Before we add this milestone to the Wikipedia page for 2012 presidential election, however, we need to consider a more likely reason for this reasonableness. Tactically speaking, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has anything to gain talking about the topic. Obama, of course, is too young to have been subject to the Vietnam draft and too much a product of the late baby boom to have considered volunteering for the demoralized, post-Vietnam force of his youth. He’ll rest on his drone record and perhaps getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. He didn’t have that luxury vying against former POW Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Romney, in the great tradition of Dick Cheney, had better things to do during the Vietnam War—in his case, a marriage, lots of kids, and a Mormon Church-sponsored evangelizing mission to Paris (that’s France, not Texas). Twice, his university studies earned him “2-S” deferments—the Vietnam-era “free pass” for people lucky enough to be able to afford (and maintain good grades) in college.

Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan are a generation apart—meaning that Biden’s deferments have been attacked in the past by his unsuccessful electoral opponents. The fact that his son is an Iraq War vet sets him apart, though, from about 99.9 percent of Congress. (And was not lost on the Obama campaign, which has added former Army Maj. Beau Biden to the campaign show.)

Ryan, like Obama, never faced the prospect of a draft. To the extent that he has faced criticism for not serving—and let’s face it, any politician who regularly stands in front of town-hall crowds is eventually criticized for just about everything—there’s no significant record of it, though Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did allude to the fact after he felt Ryan had called him a liar at budget hearings in 2011.

It’s never been clear whether military service has been regarded as a prerequisite for a presidential candidate or whether the fact that America finds itself embroiled in war almost constantly renders this merely a question of physics. But the history can’t be denied:  George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower are only the highest ranking of this group.  (Wikipedia maintains a full list of who did and didn’t serve.)

In the 20th century, the prevalence was even more striking. William McKinley volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War and fought at Antietam, to this day the bloodiest single battle in American history. His vice president (and, as fate would have it, successor) was the original Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt. Truman fought in World War I. Eisenhower defeated Hitler, of course, and John F. Kennedy won the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his PT-109 bravery in the Pacific. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes all served, as did many of their opponents—George McGovern flew B-24 bombers in World War II; both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis served in the Army during the mid-1950s.  

Until recently, those who did not serve appeared vulnerable. Candidates without medals, chevrons, or epaulets have tried to make up for it with their vice-presidential picks. Bill Clinton notably chose Vietnam vet Al Gore in 1992, in part because Clinton himself faced sustained attacks on his own alleged “draft dodging” during Vietnam for accepting precisely the deferments that saved Romney, Biden, and millions of others from the war.

Having a military record didn’t prevent attacks either. George W. Bush faced charges of manipulating the system and avoiding combat through his father, a congressman and eventually CIA director (not to mention the 43rd president of the United States). Reagan took flak for service that entailed making war movies in Hollywood, though historical records suggest he took no steps to avoid service overseas. (Oddly, Nixon never faced such complaints, though he spent his war largely in sunny California, too.)

Nor did exposure to combat save you from enemy fire on the home front. Enemies found ways to challenge the war records of McCain (shot down, tortured, and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese), George H.W. Bush (who ditched his carrier plane in the Pacific after being hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire), and most notably, Kerry, a Bronze Star winner who was wounded and subject to the slanderous “swift boating” ad blitz of the 2004 race.

Hopefully, as an issue, military service will dwindle from here in as a litmus test for the presidency. In this modern age, it’s just not realistic to disqualify more than 90 percent of the U.S. population on this basis. It would be like insisting that all our presidents go to Harvard or Yale! (Sarcasm intended, by the way.) More seriously, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that, at any time, only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is serving and that citizens with a history of military service represent a decreasing share over the overall population. Seems like a rather closed gene pool from which to choose.

But it’s almost certainly true that having a military record—at least since Vietnam—has been a very mixed blessing. The sad fact is that modern campaigning and the unhinged nature of our media today seem to favor candidates with the least “searchable” previous life, whether that means the lack of a military record (Obama) or the ability to withhold tax returns (Romney). In a world that struggles to distinguish between opinion and truth, any public record can be manipulated into a disadvantage because your enemies will never present it in context.

Kerry found this out the hard way in 2004, as did George W. Bush for his Vietnam-era National Guard service. Obama got the birthers in 2008, and now Romney’s business and tax records are in the crosshairs. Had he chosen Saigon over Paris when he was young, I doubt it would matter much. There would simply be more grist for the mill.   

*The actual draft had been suspended in 1973, with the U.S. withdrawal, and then Gerald Ford abolished the selective service (registration) requirement in 1975. But by the time I turned 18, Jimmy Carter had re-established it. Not many seem to know it, but it’s still a requirement of men who reach age 18 to register for the draft. (Return to the annotated sentence.)