Military Experience of US Presidents

23 Apr

The military regularly ranks as the most trusted institution in America on public opinion surveys. Veterans are regularly deified by politicians of every stripe as heroes rendering extraordinary service to the country. Even when politicians are articulating their dissent over a war, they frequently take the time to praise the veterans and to reiterate America’s commitment to its veterans.

The unique status of the veterans and the military in modern American consciousness can perhaps be traced to the revolutionary origins of the United States. The military success in the “War of Independence,” and the “Second War of Independence,” and the heroism of the founders, is an essential part of America’s collective memory (and an essential part of the school history curricula). Tony Judt, writing for NYRB mentions that one of the reasons militarism continues to persist in the US is because,

“Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. [Judt makes a reference here to South’s defeat in the Civil War and subsequent reaction as the exception that proves the rule] Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.”

Another possible reason for this continued ‘heroification’ of military and veterans is because as a country of immigrants, people do not have the shared history to rally around. In its absence, people have opted to rally behind things that exclude no one. That instinct has been buttressed by generations of strategic political actors and mass culture producers.

The other unique fact that brings the above arguments in sharp relief is the disproportionately (compared to other countries with volunteer armies) large number of veterans in the US. According to the Statistical Abstract of United States for 2004-2005, the country had 24.9 million veterans. The large veteran population is a result of two things: 1. having one of the largest standing armies in the world, and 2. the preponderance of personnel who serve the army only for a few years (many a time as a way to have their college tuitions paid.)

Given the factors outlined above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the American presidency has been dominated by men with prior military experience. The sheer numbers, however, are still surprising. For 137 of the 219 years the country since its independence, the country has had a military veteran as a president. 29 of its 43 presidents have been veterans. And the longest time America has gone without electing a veteran is 32 year, starting with Taft in 1913 and ending with Roosevelt’s death in 1945. (Incredibly, during this time, the country took part in the two World Wars.)

There are three potential concerns about the numbers. Eight years of George W. Bush’s “service” in the National Guard have been excluded. Five years of Lincoln presidency have been included; Lincoln participated very briefly in the Black Hawk War of 1832. And Millard Fillmore’s tenure isn’t included as his experience in the military was after he had left his presidency. One can question the inclusion of some other presidents, including Madison, whose service was brief again. But such tinkering is unlikely to impact the overall numbers much.

Note: Data on military experience of UK PMs and US Presidents.