The importance of Commander in Chief

Part II of the leadership comparison of McCain and Obama

How much of the President of the United States’ job has been in the capacity of Commander in Chief?

To start—but in no way to finish—answering this question, consider this (difficult) picture:
Wars of the USA

This charts all major military activity of the USA since its birth in 1776. Only wars and conflicts of importance are included; that is, not every use of military force if plotted. For example, Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan, while vastly influential, is not included. The Boxer Rebellion, because it directly used a minimal number of troops, was of tremendous consequence, and so is presented.

The political parties in power at the times of the conflicts are shaded (red for Republican; blue for Democrat; green for Whig; purple for Democrat-Republican; and yellow for Federalist or none). For example, Democrat presidents presided over the beginning of the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War. Republican presidents were there for the start of the Civil War, Grenada Invasion and both Gulf Wars.

Different wars and conflicts are colored variously, and the lengths of the activities are shown. There has only been one period in American history without major conflict: from roughly 1819 to 1831. Two men were President during this time: James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Qunicy Adams (1825-1829; both were Democratic-Republicans). Of these two men, only Adams did not govern the White House during a time of major military conflict (Monroe managed wars earlier in his administration).

Thus, of the 43 presidents so far, 42 of them had direct command over significant military events. Obviously, the military is in use even when not engaged with the enemy. Presidents regulate the military strategically and tactically, for example as a deterrent. A current instance is the placement of missile-defense batteries in Poland to annoy Russia. And the military cannot spring into action suddenly without adequate training and support in times of peace, tasks which require significant interaction.

Whether or not any conflict on this list was preventable or abhorrent or necessary or just, all of human history suggests it is rational to believe conflict and wars will happen in the future. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. All this implies the obvious: the president must have adequate capabilities as Commander in Chief as it is very likely he will have to exercise these duties. The stated desires of the occupant of the White House also do not correlate with the occurrence of conflict.

It is true that only Congress has the power to declare outright war. Therefore, you might argue, the President’s role in warmaking is limited. But it is also only Congress who has the power to pass the budget: they control the purse strings. to be consistent you would also have the say the President’s domestic role is similarly limited.

To say that these powers belong to Congress obviously does not, and has not as history has shown, lessened the powers the President has and will have in guiding policy, both foreign and domestic.

Lastly, Obama’s own view on the subject are seen at the end of this video:


  1. To point out the obvious – I imagine that this is what you were getting at when you wrote To start—but in no way to finish—answering this question – if we’re going to determine the importance of the commander-in-chief function is to the presidency, we have to also figure out how much time the president spends doing things other than act as commander-in-chief.

    Also, while Congress is supposed to be in charge of declaring war, determining the budget, etc…, which implies that the president’s role, both foreign and domestic is supposed to be limited, member of the house and senate have pretty clearly abdicated most of their responsibilities for quite some time now (see, e.g., Gene Healy’s ‘The Cult of the Presidency’). If anything, this bolsters the importance of military experience for any aspiring presidential candidate.

    Of course, as Josh pointed out in response to yesterday’s post, the ideology of the aspirant is at least as important as such ‘on the job’ experience.

  2. I would be interested also in what the daily duties of “acting as commander-in-chief” entail. I have the image in my head of someone who mostly listens to and acts on recommendations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff – in which case military experience is more relevant as a way of relating to them and/or earning their respect than it is to actually informing the decisions that have to be made. In which case military service is probably more of a boolean thing – either you have a requisite amount of it or you don’t, and it isn’t really a function of how much you have. So, under this idea, Bush’s National Guard Service isn’t enough to count, and Obama’s total lack of anything obviously doesn’t make the cut either, whereas both Kerry and McCain have more military qualifications than are required. Jimmy Carter, interestingly, would probably count as someone who has “just enough” military experience to make the grade and no more. I’m not nominating him for any foreign policy awards, though he certainly tries.

  3. Of the postwar Presidents, three were in the Army and two saw combat — Eisenhower (albeit at a very high level), and Truman (at the platoon level). Reagan was only certified for stateside duty. Bush 43 is the only Air Force officer to be President, and the rest of them were all Navy men — Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush 41.

    “Military experience” is a really broad term, though. ‘A thousand yards’ is a long way for a ground-pounder under fire, and is point-blank range for a naval officer. Each branch has a different history and a different way of seeing things. Even within the branches the experience of officers and NCOs can be vastly different. We have yet to have an NCO run for President, but with the better-educated NCO corps of the last 30 years I wouldn’t be surprised to see some former NCOs run for Congress and get themselves in position to run. Other than knowing how to salute and having a healthy respect for the perils of military bureaucracy, about the only universal that comes from military experience is the knowledge of the toll that serving takes on families, and hopefully respect for the men and women on the line.

    What’s more, military experience, like all other experience, is limited to the times and circumstances in which is was acquired. The best you can hope for from a President with military experience is that the situations they are confronted with are familiar ones and their experience has bearing on the issue. The worst that can happen is that a President with military experiences perceives a familiar pattern and acts based on their experience, only to find that the pattern was different than they expected. The folks that won WW II at the officer level did substantially less-well when confronted with an unconventional war in Vietnam — they won the set-piece battles handily but blew the additional domestic and international part of the war.

    Mostly what you’re left with if your experience doesn’t match incoming circumstances (and it rarely does) is the residue of experience — the combination of conscious and subconscious predispositions, attitudes and perceptions developed through experience that are referred to generally as ‘character’. And that’s why character matters.

  4. Joe Triscari


    This is from article II, section II of the Constitution

    “The 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;”

    While Congress has the responsibility for declaring war, the president is solely responsible for executing one. This is a separation-of-powers thing. You might say that you wish that Congress did or didn’t declare more wars or that the recent Presidents were not so promiscuous in applying military power but that’s not the issue.

    The first sentence in the job description of the office is “Commander in Chief.” What you will find nowhere in the Constitution is words on how how empathetic the President must be. Or to what degree he is healer.

    It is not a fetish to read the first sentence that defines a job and compare the qualifications to the candidates to that sentence.

    The Constitution is much more than a collection of loophole for criminals.

  5. Briggs

    Very oddly, the Obama camp attacked Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin for having “zero foreign policy experience”…

    Which is the exact same amount that Obama has. Zero.

    At least they are admitting that experience is necessary.

  6. JamesG

    Experience is of use if you have recognized your errors and learned from them. Doing something wrong for 20 years due to unshakable dogmatism is a good indicator that experience is not much use without wisdom.

  7. Briggs


    Exactly. It’s a wonder that anybody still thinks that creeping towards socialism (endlessly increasing taxing and spending and government control) is still a good idea given the history of the 20th century.

  8. JH

    So McCain believes that Palin is qualified to be the commander-in-chief if anything happens to the President (god forbid)?! Well, she has reached her 35th birthday and is a natural-born US citizen. She is therefore qualified. I guess McCain is trying to tell his supporters that any argument about experience is worthless.

  9. Briggs


    I’ll answer this in a new post.

  10. JamesG

    Isn’t is the Bush administration who have increased spending and government control massively. Open your eyes. Sure they reduced some taxes for some people but they increased the money supply to incredible levels thereby making the money in your pocket worth less. Taxation by stealth!

  11. Briggs


    You’re right. Bush has increased spending and government and instituted new regulations. All bad news.

    But it doesn’t really have anything to do with this particular argument.

  12. Captain Fatty

    The US invaded Grenada, not Granada.

  13. Briggs

    Cpt. Fats, thanks for the typo correction.

  14. TCO

    I can’t follow the chart. What are the 3 different lines for? How are events grouped? Is recent PI help noteworthy?

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