The Free Press, Mankato, MN


February 19, 2013

Our View: War heroes passing the torch

— Can it be truly said that the World War II generation made this country what it is today?

In many ways, yes. But in 2013, when many of today's Americans can't tell the difference between the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Bunker Hill, another era is about to be ended. Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, at 89 the oldest senator and the last veteran of WWII in the Senate, recently announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014.

For those who would lead in government, it never hurts to have served in the armed forces. In fact, it was better if they did. It means less than it did half a century ago, and less than it did before that. Even so, a Senate without a single WWII veteran marks the end of an era.

Consider our long record of leadership. Our first presidents were those who led the fight against the British in the revolutionary era, beginning with General George Washington. His successors were founding fathers like himself: Adams, Jefferson. We've had many war heroes who've become presidents since then: Andrew Jackson and Dwight D. Eisenhower among the more successful; William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant among the least successful. But throughout most of our history as a nation, military service has helped push candidates further ahead.

John F. Kennedy's torpedo boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in 1943, and the story of it no doubt benefited his presidential campaign in 1960. Zachary Taylor, who was president from 1849 to 1850 until his untimely death from acute gastroenteritis, assumed the office almost entirely because he'd been a professional soldier for 40 years. He had no platform, and his Whig party avoided letting him discuss the nation's issues at all costs. He had served in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War in Illinois and the Seminole War in Florida and served honorably in the Mexican War, too, they reminded voters.

That was judged to be good enough. The voters agreed. He won.

With no more Lautenberg in the Senate after 2014, we see almost to the end of World War II-era leadership in our national government. There are just two WWII vets remaining in the House, according to the Houston Chronicle in a 2012 report: Republican Ralph Hall (age 89) of Texas and Democrat John Dingle (86) of Michigan.

It was a good run, WWII generation.

Today, the passing of the torch does not necessarily go to the fighting man, but to whomever is judged most worthy on issues that matter most to the most voters. We don't assume, any more, that to be successful in battle you will be successful in government.

In some cases, it's a good thing. But in the context of national leaders who decide if we go to war, those who have served in combat and have seen the horrors of war have a better appreciation -- and hesitation -- in making such a commitment. And for that, we do see such service as an attribute.

The world is a difficult place. And those who have experienced more of the world have a greater appreciation of the effects some decisions can have.

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