Military Clothing for Presidents? No, Sir!

W.J. Astore

A reader reminded me yesterday of an article I wrote a decade ago about U.S. presidents donning military flight jackets.  And he sent along this image of President Trump dressed up for his recent visit to the troops in Iraq:

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Here’s my article from 2010 on this subject.  You can see how much U.S. presidents listen to me.

This past weekend, President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, during which he doffed his civilian coat and tie and donned a “Commander-in-chief” leather flight jacket provided to him by the Air Force. I suppose the president believed he could better connect with the troops by wearing “less formal” garb; I suppose as well he thought he was honoring the military by wearing the flight jacket associated with Air Force One. But as snazzy as the president may have looked in his flight jacket (and I liked my jacket when I was in the Air Force), his decision to don it was a blunder.

No, I’m not saying the president is a military wannabe; I’m not saying the president is a poseur. What I’m saying is that the president, whether he knows it or not, is blurring the vitally important distinction between a democratically-elected, thoroughly civilian, commander-in-chief and the military members the president commands in our — the people’s — name.

Though the president commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.

Whenever the president addresses our troops, he should, indeed he must, appear in civilian clothing, because that’s precisely what he is: a civilian, a very special one, to be sure, but that’s what he is — and what he always must be.

We must wean ourselves from Hollywood illusions that our president should parade around like the ultimate fighter pilot (even if, once upon a time, he flew fighters, like George W. Bush did). This is not the set of “Independence Day.” Neither is it a photo op.

President Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln visited General George McClellan during our Civil War, he didn’t don a military greatcoat; instead, with army tents and uniformed men all around him, Lincoln dared to look incongruous in his dress civilian clothes, complete with top hat.

Incongruous? Perhaps. But look closely at the photo: Never was Lincoln’s authority clearer.

lincoln-mcclellan

And that’s the point: Lincoln knew he was a civilian commander-in-chief. Precisely by not donning military clothing, he asserted his ultimate civilian authority over McClellan and the army.

Please, President Obama (and all future presidents): Put away the flight jackets and other militaria when you address our troops. Appear as the civilian commander-in-chief that you are. By doing so, you remind our troops that they are citizens first, and soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen second.

As our wars grow ever longer, that’s a reminder that should loom ever larger.

Addendum (12/18): Besides taking multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, it appears Donald Trump had the help of two podiatrists who rented space from his father.  Those doctors appear to have done Young Trump a favor by diagnosing him with heel spurs, which disqualified him from being drafted.  And yet Trump the draft dodger is now proud to wear military clothing and to boast that “nobody does military better than me.”  What a country we live in!

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Another shot of Trump in a flight jacket.  Why didn’t Melania get one?

8 thoughts on “Military Clothing for Presidents? No, Sir!

  1. W Astore,
    You were, and are, spot on in this column.

    Sady, I believe, this level of understanding will not resonate with the general public. Witness the media hype about “Mission Accomplished” and President Bush swaggering on the carrier with his “manhood” on full display. All the jokes and talk was all about that in the media, not your extremely important understanding. At least Bush did fly (as dubious as his NG tenure was…courtesy of Poppy.)

    Donald “bone spur” Trump on the other hand had a number of deferments-never having served at all. (BTW, I served my 6 year commitment in the army and NG from 1958-1964. It started as peacetime, and at the time I believed I was really serving the country. Today, if there was a draft, I would be a CO and do jail time if needed.)

    Now, most folks abhor a coward. For ordinary folks, it is a deep emotional issue. You stand up and fight when you have to, and consequences to yourself are not even considered. Old “bone spur” here is a coward, double time, it seems. He is still too frightened to stop being a coward, as the article below declares. (Add to this, he is afraid of the rain and of getting his orange hair wet. So if it is raining he cancels appointments and Presidential visits, as happened recently.)

    Ah, but give him a chance to show off his non existent “manhood” and he poses with special forces troops (exposing them!) and brags about his military accomplishments. “Where is my CIC jacket?” he seriously intones.

    The people in the streets that don’t get the importance you write of, understand cowardice, and as venal as that may be at first, it opens the door to discussion. Lets show “bone spur” for who he is, and then talk about what Lincoln knew. The public will be ready then, IMHO.

    Paul

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  2. thank you for an inspiring, informative and edifying jolt of reality, sir astore. your blogs are so well written and accurate, they are the first ones i read w/ my a.m. coffee, followed by tomdispatch.

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  3. Agree whoeheartedly. I would go further and suggest the same for USO performers and other entertainers; like Bob Hope donning fatigues on his many Vietnam tours.

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  4. Isn’t this how American elites have always behaved? Civil War they could pay for someone else to take their place, in the 20th century they find doctors willing to certify a disqualifying condition – or, in GW Bush’s case, get daddy to finagle a spot in an NG interceptor squadron with almost 0% chance of being deployed overseas. Or there’s Dick Cheney, or or or!

    Meanwhile, my father had to end his time in college early to avoid getting drafted when deferments were ended. Because Vietnam was a graveyard for poor black men and whites alike – but I’m guessing that kids of DC elites, if they served at all, got sent to Germany.

    Story of America from day one: the rich, privileged white elite vs. everyone else.

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    1. That’s true. The rich could buy substitutes during the Civil War. I think Ted Kennedy was sent to West Germany rather than to the Korean War. Of course, he lost his oldest brother in World War II, and JFK was also almost killed.

      WWII was the last war where there was some equity in service between rich and poor. But even in WWII, those with resources and motivation found ways to get exemptions from the draft.

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  5. There has been a very strong tendency to the over the top hyping of the Warrior Cult. At one time we had “Heroes” like Sgt. York and Audie Murphy and others. Now with the TV Media and Professional Sports, everyone seems to be a “Hero”.

    I guess in a way it is fitting these days, but still disgusting to see Presidents play acting as soldiers by wearing some leather jacket with all sorts badges on it. Then again look at our Generals and Admirals weighted down by ribbons and medals for just “being there”.

    Not to miss out Professional Sports has get in on lets pretend we are soldiers by some phony ass camo gear. Oh yeah and which stadium can roll out the biggest flag??

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