Will we ever have another veteran as president?

Will we ever have another veteran as president?
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It is unlikely that we will ever have a veteran of the Vietnam War as president. Although there are 24 democrats currently vying for the 2020 nomination, the three that are military veterans all served in the post-9/11 era.

Of those that came of age in the Vietnam era, Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says lawmakers should censure Schiff Schiff says committees will eventually make impeachment inquiry transcripts public Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses MORE received five student draft deferments, and Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Krystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' MORE filed for conscientious objector status (although his petition was ultimately rejected, by the time of the ruling, Sanders was too old to be drafted). Similarly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE also received several student deferments and ultimately received a medical disqualification.

Prior to the 2020 election, we’ve had several presidential candidates we had who served in Vietnam. The most successful of those, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate MORE in 2004 (who renounced the war) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Meghan McCain: It's 'breaking my heart' Warren is leading Biden in the polls The Hill's 12:30 Report: Video depicting Trump killing media, critics draws backlash MORE in 2008 (who embraced it), both lost their elections.  


So, what does the “bamboo ceiling” tell us about our presidential politics, particularly at such a tense and divisive time in our history?

First, and most importantly, it tells us that military service matters less than it used to in evaluating the qualifications of our commanders in chief. In a recent Politico and Morning Consult poll, only 12 percent of registered voters stated that it was “very important” that the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential be a military veteran.  

This is “tragic” according to Commander Kirk S Lippold, who served as the commanding Officer of the USS Cole when it was bombed by al-Qaeda. “If you’re going to serve in an elected position, you’d better understand not only what it means to serve, but what it means to send young people in to harm’s way. And, the only way to truly understand that is to serve oneself,” he added.

Indeed, for most of our nation’s 243 years, military service and the presidency went together like DC and politics.  From George Washington — whose military career spanned over 40 years in three different armed forces — to George H.W. Bush — the last American president to serve in a combat zone during his World War II service — overall, 29 out of the 45 presidents of the United States have had military experience.

"Which specific set of experiences and character traits make a great leader is always being contested in our electoral politics, but the American people historically have appreciated in their politicians the qualities of leadership and service to others which military service fosters,” states Rebecca Burgess, Director of the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute, “that appears to be evolving due to the nature of the conflicts we’ve been involved in as well as the evolving role of the commander in chief.”


Second, it tells us that the Vietnam War changed our perceptions of who veterans are and what they are capable of.  Whereas Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower and Kennedy — just to name a few — were regarded as strong, mission-oriented leaders, during the Vietnam era, the public perception changed to one of veterans as victims, often struggling with mental health issues such as PTSD.  

Although there are many veterans who are struggling and in need of assistance, such a perception does not, and should not, account for all veterans. There are many veterans who are still the mission-oriented leaders we tend to think of the majority of pre-Vietnam era veterans as.

A number of post 9/11 veterans are seeking to change this perception, as evidenced by the candidacies of Pete Buttgieg, Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThird-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart Poll: Almost half of voters say debates are best gauge of candidate's standing The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis MORE (D-Hawaii) and Seth MoultonSeth Moulton2020 Presidential Candidates Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid Mass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year MORE (D-Mass.). However, it remains unclear whether such candidates, or the myriad of organizations that have popped up recently to help more veterans get elected to public office, will be able to achieve this goal in light of the increasing civilian-military divide.

"‘The one percent’ is mainly a reference to the economic elite,” writes James Fallows, national correspondent at The Atlantic, “[b]ut it could also apply to the total proportion of Americans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other foreign theaters during the post-9/11 ongoing wars.”

Some political commentators, such as Mike Lofgren, have expressed skepticism as to whether to attach any historical significance to the declining role of veterans in politics.  “The question is not whether their service is admirable, but whether they [post-9/11 veterans] bring, as a group, some distinctive perspective that alters the political dynamic on Capitol Hill and the institution’s civic reputations,” he stated, “from what I have seen, I’d have to say no.”  

Finally, and more conclusively, the lack of a president with service in the Vietnam War tells us that it is more important for the nation to come to terms with its past engagement in military conflicts than it is to continue fighting about its divisiveness after the fact. As recently noted by the Washington Post, “the cultural and political gulf that opened between [those who served] and those who avoided involvement in a bloody, unpopular and losing war remains a festering national would half a century later.”

Although the nation has not yet had time to process the impact of the post-9/11 conflicts — in large part because we are still fighting them — there are glimpses of bipartisan unity that we did not see during the Vietnam era, which bodes well for the future of politics.

For example, the conservative Concerned Veterans for American and the liberal VoteVets recently joined forces in urging Congress to finally revoke its authorization of military force passed after September 11, 2001, an idea that currently has renewed significance as the country debates the use of such funding to authorize military force in Iran.

Nonetheless, it seems that the most lasting impact of the Vietnam War is, unfortunately, a shift in our nation’s relationship with the military and veterans, which extends into the presidency.  

As summarized by former U.S. Army captain and author Matt Gallagher: “If a Global War on Terror veteran does someday lead the White House, it’ll be in spite of their time in uniform, not assisted by it.”

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.