Saturday, May 14, 2005


Reflections of Leadership

I have been having several extended debates with The Liberal Avenger and many of our readers over at our joint blog, Debate Space. One of those debates, discussing and comparing military service and Vietnam era draft avoidance in the context of Bush, Cheney, and Clinton, touched on the differences in how leaders are perceived by soldiers.

That debate helped me to understand the popularity of both Bush 43 and Reagan, and I thought that train of thought very important, so I reproduce it here.

Military men and women have a very keen eye for fair weather friends. Bush had the great advantage of having biological and philosophical antecedents with rock solid military credentials: Ronald Reagan and Bush 41. Kerry had no such advantage, in Clinton, Gore, and Kennedy (Ted).

Question from LiberalAvenger:

What were Ronald Reagan's rock solid military credentials?

Dadmanly responds:

I never would have guessed this term "credentials," would have so many shades of meaning. If this debate has taught me anything, it is that people have many different senses of what it means to be credentialed.

I meant that Ronald Reagan was given great credit by the military, not that he was some big military hero. He was extremely popular with soldiers, much like Bush 43.

As to his actual military service, quoting from a CNN biography:
During World War II, Reagan's poor eyesight kept him from combat, and he was assigned to make military training films. He was discharged as a Army captain in 1945, but not, he later said, before developing a disdain for the inefficiency of the military's bureaucracy.
I think I figured out why Presidents like Bush 43 and Reagan were so popular with the troops, and why others like Clinton and Carter (and even to an extent Bush 41, believe it or not).

Military members believe strongly in the mission of and purpose for the U.S. Armed Forces. They tend to be conservative, and they share none of the reluctance to use the military to support or fulfill U.S. National Security objectives as long as those objectives are sound. They also tend towards the macho, and strong figures like Reagan or Bush, while otherwise polarizing and divisive, were and are nothing if not powerful and assertive. I need not describe some of the frequent stereotypical comments about others for you to surmise correctly what those might have sounded like.

Reagan was a staunch anti-communist. As a cold warrior in the 80's, I can vouch that the prevalent feeling in the U.S. Military was likewise anti-communist, especially those of us in the know about Soviet and Communist activities, and in tune with what was a very strong "heartland" animosity towards the communists. Ascribe its source where you may, but also consider it one of the earliest precursor to the "Red State - Blue State" divide. (Only then, the point of divide was antipathy towards the "red" menace.)

I fault Reagan for many of the failings foreign policy wise as his next two successors. Much was left unattended to. But there is no question that standing up (with strength) to the Soviets and pushing against their interests was rather (though not universally) popular with the military. (As I stated, I hated him at the time, but have I think a wiser awareness now.)

It may seem counterintuitive for someone not in service, but soldiers don't restrict themselves to narrow personal interest. Once you are the type of person who is willing to serve, with all that that entails, you are likely to be quite ready to place the national interest above your own. Sure, there are grumblings from some about "we have no f'ing business being here," but that's the exception, and within military culture, that kind of negativity and resistance is frowned upon.

Reagan and Bush 43 conveyed a strong sense of valuing the military and being willing to use it without fear or hesitation, and showing deep conviction that doing so was the right thing to do for America (whether or not it was or they had to follow through, placing their soldiers boots where their mouth was). This then dovetails with my observation about (macho) military perceptions of strength and strong leadership.

Not to be partisan -- I don't mean it that way -- Republicans of late have done better with image and perception in this regard than Democrats. Not that that's all it is, its fueled and supported by real issues and real decisions and stances. But I am often impressed by how much nonverbal communication goes on that all of us underestimate. Military men and women are trained to be obedient, and respond in an instant to the commands and directives of those in authority over us. I think that's why we're so attuned to some that fit that communications model, and tune out or can't hear or respect those who don't communicate strongly in that way.

We know strong leaders, and we respect strong and forceful leadership. Any amount of indecisiveness, uncertainty, or even "nuance" could get us killed. Hence all the stories, mostly apocryphal, about fragging during Viet Nam. Soldiers grouse about poor leadership and uncertain or flawed leadership more than any other single thing, and some will translate those complaints into mental "lists" of who the first one to get it will be. Those comments go away when leadership is strong, decisive, but fair and always mindful of the cost of decisions upon soldiers.

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