Quora Question: Should the Commander-in-Chief Have Military Experience?

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Answer from Tom Farrier, Retired USAF command pilot:

In the U.S., commissioned officers take a service-specific version of the following oath:

“I, (Full Name) having been appointed a (Rank) in the United States Air Force, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God (optional).”

This one, copied from an Air Force “Profession of Arms Center of Excellence” (PACE) handout, is the enlisted equivalent:

“I [state your full name], Do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God (optional).”

us-military-westpoint-ed09 Courtesy of United States Military Academy

The former doesn’t mention the president at all; the latter does, but only in the context of the chain of command. The key is that members swear to support and defend the Constitution, not an individual. By law and custom, U.S. military members are subject to civilian control. So, it really doesn’t matter who the president is; what matters is the obligation to serve the foundational principles of our country, period.

I’ve seen the various graphics listing the military experience of all of the presidents from Washington to the present. Apart from those identifying the presidents who were generals, there’s really little to be gleaned from such lists. The actual service of sitting presidents is a lot less important than it used to be…as long as they have good people around them giving good advice to which they actually listen in deciding on courses of action involving the commitment of military force.

The nature of combat and the fuzziness of what constitutes being “at war” these days (which itself is kind of sticky from a Constitutional perspective, but in part reflects the fact that small groups can do damage vastly disproportionate to their numbers these days) has made the “Commander in Chief” designation much more of a legal authority than a practical indicator that the Oval Office occupant will grab a sword and musket and head out to lead troops in battle.

To me, the dearth of military experience in Congress—which is supposed to officially “declare war” (by the Constitution) and provide the funding with which to be ready for war — is a lot more troubling:

Back to my original point. presidents come and go; the Constitution has been around for more than 200 years. If you serve more than a single hitch, you’ve got a pretty good chance of having more than one Commander in Chief while you’re in uniform. If we wind up in front of him or her, they’ll get a salute and appropriate courtesies because it’s the office that matters… not the incumbent.

We have had thirteen Presidents who had no military service record prior to assuming the presidency. How do military personnel feel about that? originally appeared on Quora—the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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