Evolving Thoughts

Commander in Chief

This is me commenting on American politics again. Sorry.

I am somewhat amazed at the furore over Wesley Clark’s comment that being a prisoner of war doesn’t automatically make one qualified as Commander in Chief of the armed services, a position that the President fulfills. Not only is that true, it raises the matter of what it is that does make one qualified to be CiC. As I read American history and the Constitution, the answer is plain and simple: representing the popular will.

The president has advisors with military expertise, presumably those whose merit got them to that position in the Joint Chiefs. The President has one major qualification the military advisors do not have: The President is a civilian!

Yep, the single qualification that the President has to run the armed forces of America is that the President is not a member of the armed forces, and that is how the constitutional framers wanted it. They did not want a military dictatorship or a puppet government run by the military in the back rooms. The former is exemplified by Burma and the latter by Zimbabwe: is that what Americans want their nation to be like? Fundamentally, the constitutional writers knew that the military is good at doing one thing and one thing only – running the military in campaigns. They absolutely suck at running a country, let alone one with freedoms.

So Clark’s comment ought to be expanded: being in the military doesn’t make someone qualified to be CiC either. It amazes me that American political discourse doesn’t get this basic fact.


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 1, 2008

    Well said, but with a qualifier. The Commander-in-Chief has two constituencies: The popular will and the piece of paper called the Constitution.

    The current president has little regard at this point for either.

    While Clinton was president numerous conservative commentators claimed that he wasn’t qualified to be president because he was hostile to the military; would that it were true. We need a president antagonistic to the military, one that doesn’t see military action as the solution to the host of diplomatic problems that he or she faces.

    The cases you note for examples of military power in the executive branch are examples of commanders in chief not only in league with the military against the popular will but in defiance of any constitution.

    I’d like to add the example of Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia, who pledged a democracy but loved power and authority. (Why he never promoted himself to a commissioned office is beyond me. False humility, perhaps?)

  2. #2 Matt Hussein Platte
    July 2, 2008

    It amazes me that American political discourse doesn’t get this basic fact.

    The political discourse on this point, and many others, reflects the understanding of darn near everyone where I grew up and continue to live. They may be called the “27 per centers” (based on the number of people who still support Bush) but in some regions that 27% is a clear majority.

    It takes a long time to de-program oneself, especially before the Internet allowed easy contact with Aussies and other intelligent species.

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    July 2, 2008

    But with your middle name, you are obviously a terrorist, and so why should any American believe you?


  4. #4 Dorothy
    July 2, 2008

    It is not by chance that Americans don’t get this simple point. It is that they don’t trust themselves to know what right and what wrong what would work and what won’t.
    Putting a civilian requires self confidence, confidence that the average Joe is able to set priorities to set goals and to know how to manage this tool called the army.
    If the citizens feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues and the decisions they won’t want anyone that is like them to be the one to answer this questions.

  5. #5 SLC
    July 2, 2008

    The real issue here is the question of what makes somebody qualified to be commander in chief. In analyzing this, I would like to turn the clock back to the year 1861 in the United States at the start of the Civil War. At that time, the President of the United States was a man named Abraham Lincoln who had no experience, education, or training in military matters. The President of the upstart Confederate States of America was a man named Jefferson Davis, who was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, an officer in the Mexican War, and a former Secretary of War in, I believe, the Fillmore administration. Based on the sole criteria of experience, we would have confidently predicted that the inexperienced Lincoln was in over his head and had no chance in developing a successful military strategy against the very experienced Davis.

    What was the outcome? As General Fuller puts it well, Lincoln was a great war leader and Davis was a dried up old stick more suited to the seminary then the commander in chiefs office. What made the difference between the two men? Lincoln, despite his lack of formal education had a fine mind; Davis despite his extensive educational and military experience was a dunce. Or as Napoleon once put it, in military matters, there is no substitute for having a fine mind.

    What do we know about the two apparent contenders for the US presidency? Based on the record, we can safely infer that Senator McCain does not have a fine mind. He barely made it through the US Naval Academy and admits to knowing nothing about economics. General Clark (the former Rhodes scholar who, by the way does have a fine mind) is correct in saying that Senator McCains’ experience as a POW hardly qualifies him as a military strategist. So the question is, does Senator Obama have a sufficiently fine mind to make up for his lack of military experience? Based on his record at Harvard, and the fact that he served as a professor of constitutional law, there is some evidence that he may be a pretty smart fellow. Unfortunately, like Lincoln, we won’t know until and unless Senator Obama is elected.

  6. #6 Rose Colored Glasses
    July 2, 2008

    The last US President to actually command the US military was FDR. He directed the war.

    When he died, Truman was sworn in as President, but the military would not let him direct the war. He wanted to fire practically all of his generals for disobeying him, but the War Department would let him. He wanted to pick bombing targets, but they would not let him. He wanted to pick the atomic bomb targets, but again no.

    His successor was Eisenhower, who famously warned in his farewell speech about the growing power of the military-industrial complex, as if that would clear him of his unbroken record of knuckling under to them.

    It won’t matter who becomes President if the MIC can ignore him. If the next President goes after them, the courts won’t back him, and neither will Congress. The MIC has been incumbent for 63 years, and there really is no stopping them.

  7. #7 Soren
    July 2, 2008

    Well we know from Heinleins tutorial on how to build a successful society (starship troopers) that to be a politician you have to have served in the military.

    Since you are a philosopher John, I am curious as to why you didn’t know this?

  8. #8 Brian English
    July 2, 2008

    I think John is waiting for the time of the Philosopher/kings. Plato sketched out the plan a while back in his republic.

  9. #9 Aaron Clausen
    July 2, 2008

    It’s rather ironic that American Conservatives are trumpeting McCain’s status as a former PoW as a plus for being a Commander-in-Chief when, eight years ago (or so), they were using that very bit of McCain’s military career as a reason to question his sanity (insinuating that he was somehow severely emotionally damaged by the experience, and thus making him a dangerous wild card).

    That being said, my brief survey of my memory of US presidents suggests that the majority were not military men at all. A brief perusal suggests that of all the Presidents since the Civil War to oversee a major military action, only McKinley, Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson (the latter two’s records hardly inform us of hardened experienced soldiers) were former military men (McKinley oversaw the Spanish-American War and Kennedy of course the Vietnam War, though I don’t know if that counts because while he got the US involved in Vietnam, it was Johnson and Nixon who dominated that action).

    Lincoln (Civil War), Wilson (WWI), FDR (WWII) and Truman (Korean War) were all lawyers. Going back further, neither Madison (War of 1812) nor Polk (Mexican-American War) were military men. I guess some of it depends upon what you call “major” military action, but of all the major conflicts the US has militarily been involved in, only McKinley, Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson were military men (and Johnson’s and Nixon’s war record hardly put them in the same park as guys like McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt).

    As to the latter, I suppose he should count, although during Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency, there were no major conflicts, but he was a real-live battle experienced soldier.

    Of course there’s Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, who were all very high ranking men. Neither one of these were prosecuting wars during their presidency (I guess if you count the Cold War, a number of Presidents were involved, including Eisenhower).

    Let’s remember here that just having military experience doesn’t make one a good military commander. As I mentioned, bother Johnson and Nixon were in the military, but neither were in any sort of meaningful leadership roles. If any military experience would count, to my mind, it’s those that have had experience *prosecuting* wars; or more to the point, those who have had tactical and strategic experience. Being a pilot does not at all constitute to me the kind of experience that one would expect in someone who can manage the intricacies of a major modern war effort.

    Even for those leaders who have had this kind of experience; Napoleon and Winston Churchill come to mind, one of the major contributors to their successes were good advisors, general staffs and commanders. One can laud someone like Patton or Montgomery as being brilliant tacticians, but neither were at all suited for political life. By the very nature of the job, a military commander is at the top of the heap; and is in a fundamentally tyrannical authoritarian position. That’s how a military functions.

    As John points out, the point behind making the President of the United States the Commander in Chief was to prevent the seizure of the Republic, as had happened when Julius Caesar, very popular with his military expeditions, essentially castrated the Roman political class and, for all intents and purposes, rendered the Roman Republic little more than a ceremonial entity and setting up the long tradition of what amounted to military rule.

    The Founding Fathers were among the most educated men of their time, and the Constitution demonstrates they’re keen understanding as to the fundamental fragility of the republic they were creating. Much of what makes up the Constitution is about preventing any particular segment of the government from permanently seizing control. In the case of a civilian head of the military, the purpose was clear, no erstwhile Caesar could cross the Rubicon and take control. So effective was that that not even a very popular Douglas Macarthur could really threaten a pretty unpopular Truman.

  10. #10 mark
    July 2, 2008

    Everybody knows John McCain was shot down flying a mission in the Viet Nam war, and was a prisoner of war. Does anyone know what McCain did in the war before being shot down? Did he lead men, plan strategy, or develop policy? All we hear about is that he was a prisoner of war.

  11. #11 Susan Silberstein
    July 3, 2008

    I am not looking this up, relying on memory: McCain was a pilot and all pilots are officers, but he did not command troops. He managed to crash two planes, plus fly one into some power lines. I have no idea what the average combat/non-combat crash record was, but it does seem excessive (I do not count being shot down as one of the crashes).

    Clark is not out of line. Why is questioning a candidate’s military service as preparation for holding office any different than asking about that person’s experience as a constitutional lawyer or a university professor?

  12. #12 Aaron Clausen
    July 3, 2008

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling McCain’s service record into question (like very powerful forces in the GOP did in 1999-2000 did). I’m sure he was a very brave soldier put into a rather terrible circumstance, and the fact that he not only survived it but later went on to become a US Senator is testament to his character. But those traits simply don’t translate automagically into him being a superior Commander and Chief. As I pointed out, even very talented military leaders like Patton would never have achieved the office of President, simply because the skills and gifts required to make a good military commander do not make one a good political leader.

    It’s an apples and oranges situation. It’s rather like saying “Because he’s a good fishermen, he ought to make a good skipper.” To be sure there’s an overlap in skills, but one can be good at one occupation without being good at the other.

    Of course the GOP will trumpet anything they figure they can promote in their candidate. Underlining military experience is hardly a new a strategy (it’s a very old strategy), but the GOP has a major handicap in that McCain is essentially selling a very Bush-like agenda in Iraq. I suspect in this he’s likely quite sincere, and to some extent I think he’s probably right, and Obama is going to be incapable of doing the quick withdrawal which he’s essentially promising.

    But Obama has Nixon’s advantage, he merely needs to appear in opposition to the current Administrations (and a future Republican administration’s) policies to get a leg up. Providing there is a truly healing and unification of purpose with the Clinton camp, Obama is a powerful force, and one which will likely deal a heavy blow to McCain’s own clearly pro-interventionist leanings. Simply put, the people of the United States have grown tired of a war which has, to their mind, distracted their leaders from pressing domestic issues, with little or no apparent short-term or even long-term advantage. In effect, McCain isn’t battling Obama, but rather George W. Bush and the Republican-dominated Congress that got the US into a terrible pickle in Iraq.

  13. #13 SLC
    July 3, 2008

    Re Aaron Clausen

    Excuse me, Mr. Clausen has made a number of erroneous statements relative to Harry Truman.

    1. Truman was not a lawyer; in fact, he never went to college at all. He started out as a small businessman, in particular, failing in the haberdashery business, before going into politics.

    2. Truman was an artillery captain during the First World War and served on the front lines in France. He probably had more actual combat experience then did General Eisenhower.

  14. #14 Lee
    July 4, 2008

    It’s outrageous how the liberal democratic bloggers are trying belittle and discredit a patriot like John McCain. The main point regarding John McCain’s military service goes to CHARACTER. Admirable character is when a POW, surviving in miserable conditions, chooses to remain in prison additional years, because an early release wouldn’t be fair to his fellow prisoners. I know that Wesley Clark, Obama, and these criticizing bloggers wouldn’t have the heart to do it … they can’t even recognize the importance of such an honorable commitment… even though their very freedom of speech, to complain on this blog, was won and protected by the same people with the courage to walk the walk … not just talk the talk!

  15. #15 Dave Wisker
    July 4, 2008

    Abraham Lincoln did serve for three 30-day enlistments as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War in 1832.

  16. #16 SLC
    July 6, 2008

    Re Lee

    Excuse me, General Wesley Clark was seriously wounded in Vietnam and carried off the field of battle on a stretcher. He was fortunate to survive and spent several months recuperating from his wounds. General Clark was every bit as brave as a soldier as Senator McCain was as a navy pilot.

    Re Dave Visker

    I may be wrong about this but it is my information that Lincoln never saw any combat during his activities in the Black Hawk War. His very brief military experience there certainly pales in comparison to the military experience of his adversary, Jefferson Davis.

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