[Before the brouhaha over Wesley Clark's recent comments started, I had planned on posting something about military experience and presidential leadership. I guess it's even more overdue that I thought.]
For the next several months, we're going to hear a lot of debate over how much personal military experience matters when making presidential decisions about foreign policy and national security. Already, it's clear that the typical discussion in the mainstream media makes a lot of incorrect assumptions, so I thought I'd add some perspective.
Certainly, being in combat does teach you important lessons. For example, every infantryman learns quickly exactly how boring the time leading up to a battle can be, and how terrifying it is when it starts. The average ground-pounder also sees how confusing battle can be. The unluck soldiers also learn how quickly a battle can unravel because of bad information, poor training, or weak leadership.
Leaving aside any existential lessons about life and death, do you really learn anything that is relevant to the job of President of the United States? Yes, to a limited degree. You certainly get an appreciation for how difficult the "management of violence" is. The obvious conclusion is to be conservative in your expectations of what soldiers can do, when chance and violence intersect.
Military experience provides lessons about the means of warfare. It doesn't necessarily teach you anything useful about its ends. There are exceptions. Soldiers who have been stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan may have learned something about how counterinsurgency is the ultimate expression of the adage, "All politics is local." Someone stationed at NATO headquarters may absorb by osmosis many of the important dynamics of alliance politics. However, these are hardly all the experiences you might wish someone to have before becoming the commander-in-chief.
In fact, many people go through their military careers being dumb about warfare. Here are a few quick examples from the American military experience:
- Mark Clark, the general whose unimaginative, prickly leadership style helped turn the Italian campaign in a slow, bloody crawl up the peninsula.
- William Westmoreland, who vainly tried to treat the Vietnam War as the sort of conflict Americans preferred to fight, instead of the type it really was.
- George McClellan, who had bursts of inspiration at the theater level of strategy, only to fumble these plans when handling the operational and tactical specifics.
- John C.H. Lee, who as the general responsible for supply and logistics in the European theater of WWII, whose laxity and ineptitide almost single-handedly set the war effort back several months (and many thousands of lives).
And we're just getting started with the generals. If you keep going down the chain of command, you'll find countless officers and enlisted men who "saw the elephant" but didn't understand what they were seeing.
While you might prefer your presidential candidates to have served in the military, service is no guarantee of good leadership. For example, while many historians have overlooked Grant's virtues as a general, there's little disagreement that he was a mediocre president.
We also have to be careful not to confuse gratitude with praise. We may be grateful that someone served in the US military. That is not the same as saying that they were good at the military profession, or that they will excel in a different role related to the waging of war.