May 29 was the birthday of President John F. Kennedy. Had he not been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, and survived other maladies, he would have been 99 years old. This Memorial Day weekend, the Turner Classic Movies channel on cable TV is showing a number of war movies in honor of the day. One is the 1962 film is PT 109, a dramatization of Kennedy’s World War II naval service.
President Kennedy survived World War II, but became a casualty of the Cold War.
Every U.S. President since World War II up until Bill Clinton took office in 1992 served in the military. George W. Bush was in the Air National Guard briefly, but Clinton and Obama were not in the service, and, barring an extreme event of some kind, the next President will not be a veteran.
Dos it matter? To my mind, and I am a veteran, military service contributes to a person’s growth and breadth of knowledge. One learns both the extent and limitations of his abilities. Those qualities should contribute to a President’s competence in office. But they do not all the time, perhaps. Some of the most effective Presidents were veterans. Some veteran Presidents were not. At least two of the more highly rated Presidents—Franklin Roosevelt and Wilson—never were in the military. Nevertheless, if all other qualities were equal, which they never are, I would consider military service a plus in deciding how I would cast my vote for President.
Memorial Day is not a day to honor all veterans. We have that day in November. Today is the day to honor those who died in America’s wars. Those who, in Lincoln’s words “gave the last full measure of devotion.” That devotion was not, as is so tritely said, that others may live. It was that they believed in the idea of liberty imbued in the American character so they would not want to live if it were to be lost. They gave real meaning to Patrick Henry’s sentiment “give me liberty or give me death.” For this we should be grateful and honor them.