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 BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE received five student draft deferments, and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries The hidden connection between immigration and health care: Our long-term care crisis Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll 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 TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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 KerrySchumer to donate Epstein campaign contributions to groups fighting sexual violence Trump threatens Iran with increased sanctions after country exceeds uranium enrichment cap The 'invisible primary' has begun MORE in 2004 (who renounced the war) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe peculiar priorities of Adam Schiff Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Lindsey Graham: 'Graham wants to bring back 1950s McCarthyism' Meghan McCain knocks Lindsey Graham for defending Trump's tweets: 'This is not the person I used to know' 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 GabbardDemocrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses Jack Dorsey maxes out donations to Tulsi Gabbard presidential bid Sanders praises Gen Z for being 'profoundly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic' MORE (D-Hawaii) and Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur Moulton2020 Democrats call Trump's tweets about female Democrats racist Biden proposes tax increases for wealthy as part of health care plan 2020 Democrats push tax hike on wealthy investors 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.