War Stories

Background Smackdown

Don’t judge a war leader or his critics by their résumés.

Any fair assessment of the U.S. war effort to date should credit President Bush with two key decisions: 1) the strategic one of making war against al-Qaida and its Taliban protectors rather than continuing to merely wage piecemeal counterterrorism against al-Qaida; and 2) the tactical one of waging this war with a small number of in-country U.S. special operations soldiers supporting local anti-Taliban forces with close-in targeting for U.S. precision weapons. Both of these go creatively beyond previous, less successful U.S. approaches. Even if it turns out his aides deserve credit for fashioning those strategies, it was Bush who made them reality.

Because Bush’s personal military background was a stretch of somewhat diffident service in the Air National Guard, having nothing to do with special operations or strategic bombing or counterterrorism, this entails something important: A president’s ability as a commander in chief is not limited to or predictable from his own prior military experience. Students of history, mindful that Abraham Lincoln had served only a few (probably noncombat) months in the Illinois militia and that Franklin Roosevelt was a lifelong civilian, know this. But the rest of us seem to forget, especially during elections, when the discussion of a candidate’s military record is usually ridiculously simplistic, overlooking such questions as: Military service might show that a person is patriotic, but does it mean that if he was drafted? It might show that he understands combat, but what if he were put out of the war for good by wounds he received in his first minutes of action? It might show that he is brave, but then wouldn’t experience as a race car driver do the same thing? The simple truth is that fitness to lead the entire military simply can’t be read off someone’s résumé, primarily because it involves many skills and personality traits that aren’t required in regular military service, especially as a lower-ranking member.

There is another corollary to this: One’s own narrow military experience—or even the utter lack thereof—doesn’t disqualify someone from being a competent critic of military policy. The nonsense that it does was behind much of those dismissive discussions of Al Gore’s service in Vietnam as an Army journalist and much of the defense of Bob Kerrey’s actions in the Thanh Phong raid. If a president’s command ability can exceed his own biography, so can a critic’s. Anybody might have the right military idea. The emphasis should always be on the idea and not on who put it forth. And now because of the latest turn in his own career, George Bush can never deny this.