Dempsey: For aspiring politicos, service experience is invaluable, but the military is not the only option

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, USA (ret.) spoke today about civil-military relations for Duke Law’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security Speaker Series.

Many will know that in General Dempsey’s 41-year career, he served multiple tours in Iraq – as well as being the Army Chief of Staff – before becoming Chairman.  What is less well known is that he also earned a master’s degree in English at Duke (and continues to have an affinity for poetry!) and is Duke’s 2016 Rubenstein Fellow.

In his remarks and extensive Q & A session, General Dempsey made it clear to the law-student heavy audience that as Chairman, he frequently sought legal counsel because the law permeated so many of the matters for which he was responsible.  He also reminded his listeners that one of the legal limitations on the Chairman is the statutory prohibition on his commanding anyone (a generic civil-military relations safeguard against untoward assumptions of military power by any single uniformed officer).

Among the many questions he fielded, one was particularly timely: what was the practical importance (or not) of military service for senior political leaders and aspirants for elected office?  Dempsey explained that he believes that service experience is very useful, but – importantly – it need not necessarily be military service.  He specifically mentioned experience in the Peace Corps and Teach for America as a couple of examples of non-military service of real value.  Dempsey’s point is that it is an orientation towards public service that matters, not – particularly – whether one wore a uniform when doing it.

This is no small matter today given that none of the remaining candidates for President has military service in his or her resume.  Keep in mind that historically, 31 of our 43 presidents were veterans (and, yes, it is 43 see here).  Eight even had what the Task & Purpose blog calls “Badass Military Records.”  Perhaps most significantly, historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton point out in their classic The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, that “presidential candidates who have never worn their nation’s uniform have always been subject to the charge that they are unfit to act as commander in chief of the armed forces.”

That, however, is changing – rapidly.  Why?  Writing in the Washington Post in 2012 (“Does military service still matter for the presidency?”), scholar-veteran John Nagl cites the rise of the all-volunteer force as operating to change the nature of what had previously been a widely-shared societal experience (for males anyway) of spending some of their youth in uniform.  “The military,” he warns “has [now] become a caste apart from the nation it protects, with many of its fighters the sons and daughters of military leaders — a family business that asks much of a few.”

Nagl has a point.  The draft imposed military experience on a mass of males who might not have ever voluntarily joined the armed forces.  Those men gained at least some measure of comprehension of – and orientation to – things militar.  Yet in a real way, they were never truly a “caste apart,” and when once again civilians, they moved on to a wide variety of occupations, including politics.

Thus, the replacement of the draft with the all-volunteer force, compounded by the dramatic decline of the size of the military in recent years, are the sort of factors that I believe have produced a situation where today only 19% of the 114th Congress are veterans, and that (according to the Congressional Research Service) reflects “the trend of steady decline in recent decades in the number of Members who have served in the military.”

(Ironically, it would seem that military service could be a great entrée to politics these days as a 2015 poll shows “military officer” as being second only to “doctor” as America’s most prestigious profession, and a 2013 Gallup poll shows military officers to be rated near the top of all professions as to  “honesty and ethics”).

In any event, Nagl added a seemingly humorous (but actually rather profound) note to his essay by saying that “the nation will elect a president who has not known the tender courtesies of a drill sergeant at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.”  More importantly, Nagl gave a stark example of what he foresees as the impact of a lack of military service:

[T]he choice to take the nation to war is the most important decision a president can make.  A commander in chief who has actually served on the battlefield has peerless personal experience and can make that decision with greater empathy.

Still, the reality is that it’s quite likely that for the foreseeable future Presidential candidates will lack the “peerless personal experience” of military service that Nagl references.  That is why General Dempsey’s thoughts about public service writ large are so important.  But is there more?

Consider what Duke Professor Peter Feaver, perhaps the nation’s top political scientist on civil-military relations, shared with me recently (Jan 26):

Having some military experience [for a candidate for President] is a plus, but it is not essential and should not become a de facto threshold requirement…More valuable than military service per se is an understanding of military institutions and evidence that the candidate has thought deeply and carefully about the role of commander-in-chief. (Italics added.)

I think Feaver’s last point is an especially good one in that someone without military service could still make a superb commander-in-chief provided that any such person internalizes Dempsey’s counsel as to public service and is willing to invest the considerable time to do the very hard work of learning about the military – everything from its culture to its doctrine to its weaponry and much more.

I might add that this is a non-delegable function; the President him- or herself must personally acquire the requisite knowledge.  This really is job #1 for any President, but especially in a 21st century world where threats are dauntingly complex, proliferating rapidly, and made all the more dangerous by advances in technology.  National security always has to be at the very top of the list of Presidential concerns, irrespective of his or her political inclinations or personal interests.  After all, as the Supreme Court put it in the 1981 case of Haig v. Agee:  “It is ‘obvious and unarguable’ that no governmental interest is more compelling than the security of the Nation.”

Which of the Presidential candidates seems most ready to make the enormous commitment of time and energy to develop the sophisticated military and national security expertise he or she would need as President?  That’s something the voters ought to carefully consider as they go to the polls this year.

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