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To Hell With the Chief!

by Dave Lindorff

America doesn’t need a commander in chief. It needs a wise, level-headed leader who has the courage to tell citizens that if we just avoid unnecessary wars, we can cut military spending by $500,000,000,000 per year and still have the mightiest military in the world—and more importantly, a much stronger society and economy.
What is all this nonsense about us electing a “commander in chief”?

Okay, I mean we all know it’s President Bush’s favorite title. He thrills to being a “war president,” and loves strutting around in front of guys in uniform and getting saluted. But really, what is this all about?

The Constitution says that the President is the commander in chief of the army and the navy, and of the militia if it is called to national service. But that is really just for the sake of having a civilian at the top of the food chain.

President cum commander in chiefs do not actually run the military. They aren’t trained to do that any more than they run education, or run the weather service or NASA. Running the military, like running any federal agency, is what the head of that agency does, and in the case of the military, that’s what the Joint Chiefs of Staff do. A president certainly makes critical decisions in choosing who heads each agency, and in broad policy matters by discussing options with department leaders. The same is true in the case of the military with regard to the Joint Chiefs. But presidents decidedly do not act as top generals.

The idea that Americans, when they go to the polls, whether in a primary or in a general election, are choosing a commander in chief, as our feckless media pundits are wont to tell us, or as candidates running for president are fond of saying in these trying times, is not only overwrought rhetoric—it is downright dangerous, and idiotic too.

What voters are electing is the leader of the country—the person who is responsible for administering the federal bureaucracy that protects our environment, regulates our commerce, funds our education system, builds our roads, and, oh yes, chooses the top brass that runs our military.

Great presidents in wartime—Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt--were great not because they were generals. Certainly Lincoln and Wilson had no significant military experience, and Roosevelt’s military experience was limited. And generals who have been presidents have been a mixed bag. General Grant was by all accounts a poor president; Eisenhower a good one.

Our current commander in chief, because he is obsessed with this one little aspect of his job description, has plunged the country in to the most disastrous war of its history—a war fought entirely on borrowed funds. Faced with a handful of rag-tag terrorists, he has bloated the military with 30 percent more money over the course of his tenure, so that today, the American military budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is about to equal the amount the government spent on the military in World War II, when the entire nation was mobilized to confront two powerful adversaries in a global conflict involving millions of American troops.

What a pathetic picture!

America doesn’t need a commander in chief. It needs a wise, level-headed leader who has the courage to acknowledge that you can’t solve problems by throwing ordnance at them, the courage to tell the citizens of the country that we don’t need to spend $1 trillion a year on war and preparations for war, and that in fact, if we cut that spending by two-thirds or three-fourths, we’d still have the mightiest military in the world—and more importantly, a much stronger society and economy.

What America needs is a president who sees the military as an option of last resort, not an option of first resort.

Let’s banish this commander in chief nonsense from the campaign. Bush has already made the title laughable. That is the response we should have when we hear someone say that title in public/

A guffaw.

Lindorff speakingAbout the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at

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This story was published on February 7, 2008.