Back in 2008, I stood on the steps of the Capitol and helped lobby for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which hadn’t been voted on yet. After the event, attended by celebrities, several dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like me, Senator Jim Webb, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and many others, the crowd dissolved and I got to share a special moment with a former U.S. senator and Korean War veteran. I do not remember his exact words, but he shared a sentiment like this: “If it were up to me, I’d pay for 100% of all your guys’ tuition so you could get educated and eventually elected to office, and we could fill Congress with a bunch of members who wouldn’t be so eager to sign off on war.”
Fast forward to 2012, we're approaching yet another presidential election, and I think there might be some wisdom in his words. We have been slogging through a decade-long and seriously unpopular war, and its current overseer of almost four years Barack Obama (who authorized the “surge” in Afghan troops) never served in a combat zone. Is it possible for President Obama or Mitt Romney, two candidates who never served, to lead the military prudently and effectively? Do they have the necessary credentials to manage U.S. foreign policy, especially war?
I don't want to suggest that one can’t be a great president and be solid on foreign policy without ever having served in the Armed Forces and going to war. Depending on your political affiliation, you probably regard at least one or two modern presidents who never served with high esteem. Of course, a president’s advisers on their cabinet influence their foreign policy decision-making in many ways. President Reagan (who never deployed) had his war hero vice president, George H.W. Bush. President Clinton had his Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, who, even though he might not have been a hero of the same stature, had served in the Occupation of Japan. And, no doubt, all presidents have had many veteran military advisors who have influenced their foreign policy-making.
But there are many intangible life-lessons gained from signing up and serving that Obama and his political opponent Romney don’t possess. Even if one doesn’t go to combat or deploy, there’s a proud national history and sense of service that our veterans get ingrained in them. There’s a great personal strength that comes from completing the rigors of bootcamp and, even if you never fire your weapon at an enemy, having the courage to put yourself in a situation by signing up where you know if you were called upon to do so, you would. You would’ve done it for yourself, your fellow countrymen, and for the government and its citizens who, through the democratic process as a whole, would have ordered you to do so.
I can’t exist within the minds of Obama or Romney. But I can exist in my mind and empathize with the warriors out there in Afghanistan today. And I can listen to their stories and understand, truly understand. When I have students who are fresh of the battlefield and are just starting up college tell me at office hours after my lectures, “I don’t know what the f*** we are doing there,” with a pain in their eyes, I get it. When I talk to officers who have just returned and are unsure “if anyone in the chain of command understands the purpose (of our being in Afghanistan) or the mission,” I get that, too.
Maybe it would be better if either of our current candidates, especially in wartime, had ever walked in their boots, too.