Robbins: What makes the president the commander in chief? |

Robbins: What makes the president the commander in chief?

My draft year was the last to go to Vietnam.

I did not serve. Not because I resisted serving or because I trumped up bone spurs in my heels or some such other falderal. Not because, even though I was in college, I had received a student deferment. In fact, the cadre of young men in my draft year were the first where such deferments were not offered. 

Instead, I was 1-H. I understood that the “H” meant “holding.” Essentially, I was eligible for military service but simply was not called. In those years, those of you who are old enough to remember, or who are too young to remember but have read your history, whether you were called or not was determined by the Selective Service lottery. To put it simply, I lucked out. Others to whom I may owe my life — who went instead of me — did not. By the humble caprice of the lottery, each of our lives — presuming those who went that year preserved them — were profoundly changed.

What I have been thinking about since the Atlantic published its alleged account of Trump and his no-show at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 is this: when Trump deferred his military service five times for alleged bone spurs in his heels — which, by the way, are eminently treatable — who went in his place? Did the “suckers” who saddled up for Vietnam in place of Trump — or any one of them — come home as a “loser” in a box? And if anyone of them did, would this president still express contempt for them?

I wonder if he’s even thought of it.

Not every president has served his country in the military. Most have — some having done so quite spectacularly — but others, not so much.  Twenty-nine of our 46 presidents have served, among them, relatively recently, count the Bushes I and II, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. Of that handful, George H.W. Bush, the father, and John F. Kennedy earned their bona fides as heroes. 

Of those who have served as president since the 1960s, three saw no military service: Clinton, Obama, and his successor, Trump. By the time Obama was of an eligible age and registered for service, military service was no longer compulsory, the nation having shifted to its current all-volunteer paradigm. Clinton not only won the lottery (his draft number was 311 out of 365) but also vigorously pursued and received student deferments. Trump’s draft number was also high, but he nonetheless kicked up his heels to garner his 4-F, unfit for military service.

Among those presidents who shone in military service, you can number Generals Washington, Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthur, James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Old Rough and Ready Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison and Dwight D.  Eisenhower. 

Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison rose to the rank of brigadier general. Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield served as major generals. Grant was general of the Army. Washington was commander in chief of the Army throughout the Revolutionary War.  Eisenhower was the supreme allied commander, Europe, in World War II.  Who most consider to be our greatest president, Lincoln, was a captain.  Who many consider to be our worst past president, James Buchanan, was the only one above the bunch never to rise above the rank of private.

Besides Clinton, Obama, and Trump, the presidents who did not serve in military  service include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert C. Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So, most did, some did not, and perhaps startling 11 — nearly a quarter of them — served as generals.

But begging the question with which his column began, although it is taken as an article of faith, what exactly is it that makes the president — regardless of past military service — the commander in chief?

The answer is pretty simple really. It’s because the Constitution says so. 

Specifically, Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the commander in chief clause, states that “[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”   

There is no qualification of any prior service or even any knowledge of how the jigsaw puzzle of the military fits together. The fact that you are the president is all the qualification that is required. So, even if a president considers those who serve a bunch of suckers, it is up to him, to lead.

All branches of the military answer to the secretary of defense and through him or her, ultimately to the president. As George W. Bush once famously observed he, as the president, was “the decider.”

The power of the presidency is an awesome power. The dominion to put the best and bravest of young American lives in harm’s way is a faculty that should be exercised only after deep thought, prayer, the wise counsel of advisors, and with supreme and deliberate caution.

At this moment in our history, we all should pause just a moment and give that at least a passing thought. Think about who may take your place. And the sacrifice that they may make.

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