Since World War II, most of our major party presidential candidates have served in the military. That changed when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. He was able to avoid serving during the height of the Vietnam War by getting college deferments.
But it turns out that veteran status doesn’t always help a candidate. John Kerry, the Democratic standard bearer in 2004, thought his heroism during the Vietnam War would be an asset for his candidacy. But it turned out to be a liability. That’s because a newly formed group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned Kerry’s service — with half truths and misleading statements.
This year, we have Republican candidate John McCain. The former Navy flier is a genuine war hero, having spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison and refusing to leave earlier than his fellow Americans.
We don’t believe military service is a requirement to be president. But it helps, especially when our commander in chief has seen combat. Veterans know what war is like, and they would think long and hard before sending troops in harm’s way. A veteran as president wouldn’t likely tell enemies to “bring it on,” as President Bush did shortly before the Iraq war began.
Barack Obama didn’t serve in the military, and that will surely be used against him in this campaign. In his case, he can show that he had the good judgment to be against the Iraq war from the very beginning, an unpopular position back in 2003.
McCain has supported the war all along, and that position is worthy of debate in the presidential election. But that doesn’t mean he should be criticized for his past military service.
Recently, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who was also a Navy flier, suggested that McCain has been shaped too much by the military.
“He has a hard time thinking beyond that,” Harkin told The Associated Press. “I think he’s trapped in that. Everything is looked at from his life experiences, from always having been in the military, and I think that can be pretty dangerous.”
“It’s one thing to have been drafted and served,” Harkin said, “but another thing when you come from generations of military people and that’s just how you’re steeped, how you’ve learned, how you’ve grown up.”
That’s not exactly fair criticism. If anything, his family should be praised for serving their country for generations. As for McCain himself, he deserves scrutiny for his foreign policy positions, but his heroism is beyond reproach.