January 19, 2008

Military experience, the Presidential campaign and the war in Iraq

Although the economy may soon emerge as the key topic for the upcoming Presidential elections, the war in Iraq still is an important factor in choosing a candidate. Of concern to me is the increasing lack of military service among our elected leaders, from state governments to the U.S. Congress and the Presidency. Fewer and fewer elected officials have ever worn the uniform.

During the Cold War and compulsory service – the draft – many more of our leaders had experienced life in the military. Whether you serve in combat or not, service in the armed forces provides invaluable insight into the capabilities and more importantly, the limitations of the military. In the past, military service was considered almost mandatory to be a viable candidate for political office. That does not appear to be the case today. Approximately one-third of the members of the House and Senate are veterans - the percentage declines after every election.

The current candidates

Taking a look at the front runners for the Presidency in 2008 does not appear comforting. On the Democratic side, none of the leaders - Senator Barack Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John Edwards - have served in the armed forces; they are all lawyers. Senator Clinton has the added stigma of attempting to prohibit military officers from wearing their uniforms in the White House while her husband was the President. Of course, the Clintons now deny it, but I have it from two fellow military officers. I’ll take their word over a Senator – after all, Congress has achieved the lowest favorable ratings of any institution in the country.

On the Republican side*, consider the backgrounds of Governor Mitt Romney, Governor Mike Huckabee and Mayor Rudy Giuliani: none have served in the military. Senator John McCain, as we all know, was a career officer in the U.S. Navy (retiring as a captain), a pilot shot down over North Vietnam and prisoner of war for over five years. So, of the seven people from which we will elect the next President of the United States, only one has ever donned the uniform of their country, let alone heard a shot fired in anger.

When you are responsible for ordering young Americans into harm’s way, or responsible for declaring war (which today takes the form of an authorization for the President to use military force), service in the armed forces should seem to be a desirable quality. It provides an insight you can’t get from “reading about it.” Until you are involved in the massive logistical efforts of moving a fighting force halfway around the world, then feel the tension and fear when steel starts flying and people start dying, it remains an academic exercise.

“End the War”

It is with discomfort that I hear the rhetoric of the three Democratic candidates talking about ending the war in Iraq. I hope the words I hear are just rhetoric and not resolve. “End” the war is not the word they need to use – they need to say how they are going to “win” the war. Promising to “end the war on January 9, 2009" is just what the remaining insurgents and the Al-Qa’idah terrorists in Iraq want to hear. Hold out until then, hope a Democrat wins the election and victory for the jihad is assured.

I hope that both Senators Clinton and Obama really mean that they will continue to fight the terrorists and insurgents as necessary until a phased withdrawal is plausible. Pulling the plug prematurely is not only contrary to our national interests but dangerous for the troops involved. We should not declare defeat and go home. I am not sure Senator Edwards appreciates the difference.

Last fall, Senator Obama said that he would leave a residual force to fight terrorists, train the Iraqi army and protect the embassy. That’s what the troops are doing…. Let them completely finish that job before you pull the rug out from under them. They have paid too high a price to not be allowed to win.

So, Senators, rather than trite campaign slogans, how about a commitment to an American victory? Do you want to win the war in Iraq or not?

* I have omitted Congressman Ron Paul since I don’t consider him in the top tier of candidates, but want to point out that he did serve as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon for six years, both on active duty and in the Air National Guard.