TURES COLUMN: Does Military Experience Make A Better President?

Published 10:00 am Saturday, May 25, 2024

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As we celebrate Memorial Day week, we focus on the sacrifice of those who served and some who remain buried on the battlefield.  It’s also a good time to think about the value of military service, as my students did in a class where we evaluated our political leaders.

This Spring Semester, I taught a large class of American Government students.  Only a handful were political science majors.  The rest were from the sciences, business, and education, as well as film, art, and sociology.  One of the most important lessons we learned was testing hypotheses in class.

While covering the presidents, I introduced them to a ranking system for presidents put together by C-SPAN, which assembled surveys by presidential historians: https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2021/?page=overall taken in 2021.  I had them compare the top ten and the bottom ten in the rankings in terms of military service.

We also brainstormed arguments about what might be the benefits of serving in the armed forces, such as getting a greater understanding of how the government works, developing a greater sense of mission, courage in being under fire, a greater sense of the rules, having to work together with others, even allies from another country or non-governmental groups.

Contrary to what you think about college students, they really took to the assignment, foregoing political bias, and getting into the numbers.  This assignment certainly helped them write their analytical papers on a variety of topics, some of which I’ll share in subsequent columns.

So I compared the scores of the two groups of presidents: those who served in the armed forces in some capacity versus those who did not do so, and their C-SPAN presidential historian scores.  Those with military experience did a little better (551.0323) than those presidents who did not serve in the military (544.6154).

It seems a little unfair to rate those with such a short time in office (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James Garfield etc.) with the others.  And while the majority of presidents on our list did serve in the armed forces, some did not rise to the rank of officer, where the benefits of leadership might be most telling.  So I re-ran the numbers the other day.  Presidents with armed service experience still outranked those who did not (578.8846 to 544.6154) but the results still missed being statistically significant.

You’ll certainly find a few at the bottom with military experience, like Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and John Tyler, who had a “my way or the highway” kind of approach that poisoned their relationship with Congress and other entities, and doomed their presidencies to ineffectiveness.  And though FDR did not serve and ranks well in the C-SPAN survey, he did have some political experience as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under the Wilson Administration that helped his successful presidency, making him a bit of an outlier.

But you’ll find many at the top who did absorb those lessons from combat and command, who made our nation proud in their military service and their leadership in the Executive Branch.  This Memorial Day, let’s pay the respect our armed forces deserve, and perhaps encourage those from the military to continue to enlist in providing their valuable experience in a variety of political offices, not just the presidency.