It is arguable that the unprecedented advancement in technology, and massive rise in populated urban cities, made the 20th Century one of the bloodier and more war driven eras of human history. From the early start to its closing years, it appeared as if every decade brought some kind of turmoil to some part of the world. Wars based on independence, patriotism, bigotry, and exploitation—the last of which often being a necessary component for all the former—molded together by leaderships determined to fight for their causes to the definitive end. Casualty estimates falling somewhere between one hundred to two hundred million, with the finishing results often bringing no resolutions to the primary causes of the conflict (the keyword here being often, rather than always). Yet, despite these off-putting statistics, war continues to be seen by many as an effective way to counter threatening quarrels.
The greater majority of world leaders, as well as many of the citizens under their headship, agree that in times of trouble manpower can accommodate better than the agonizing process of diplomacy. Painful as it may be to witness a youth go to his death in battle, such an act is seemingly justified, as long as the desired outcome lies in accordance to the greater good of humanity.
Politicians are often eager to be associated with the consequences of war endeavors–especially if the feedback is positive–even though they themselves will personally see no physical action throughout the fighting they are advocating. Does this serve as a double standard on behalf of the ruling heads of the world governments? A failure to live up to their implied duties as Commanders-in-Chief? Or is it a clear prerogative role that enables the men in charge (little emphasis should be placed here on the generic usage of men) to lead efficiently without the distraction of being placed in sudden physical danger?
I think it is worthwhile to consider the question of whether or not world leaders should be required to lead their troops into battle upon declaration of war, and consider the impact it could have on the entire conduct of modern warfare. But to do so efficiently one must ponder both sides of the argument.
The idea of having leaders physically lead their countries into the battlefields was not as radical in the past as it is today. Then again, it wasn’t just the idea of a leader that was different; it was the idea of war itself. The time of war bands, followed by unabashed drunk boastings over the previous night’s victory, have been abandoned through the course of socio-technological development. What once were simplistic battles in far off fields, amongst a few hundred men, has evolved into sophisticated variants of tactics and strategies, dramatically escalating the intensity of both civilian and military casualties. Perhaps the change was in part due to the trend away from absolute sovereigns in the last few centuries. A King, who ruled over a population of mostly uneducated peasants and had no one to answer to, had little-to-no worry over the domestic stability of his kingdom, in comparison to the threat of being overthrown by a neighboring sovereign. And, therefore, could weigh the risk of leaving his castle for the sake of vanquishing an opposing force firsthand (after all, how would a totalitarian monarch keep up the impression of his ferocity to his subject, if not by personally leading the charge against his would-be usurpers). However, such features of medieval governing are in modern terms far too one-dimensional and impractical to satisfy the needs of contemporary warfare. Besides, the inevitable regicide that could come about from such a system creates a perpetual threat of instability for the legislative body, and by extension the greater populace.
During World War I, the dimwitted czar of Russia–Nicholas II–decided to appeal back to [what was to him] a not-too-distant era, and rode to the battle lines to personally command the Russian forces. The bewilderment of the experienced Generals he was displacing could only have been matched by the deep lack of insight Nicholas had towards the state of his own empire. Revolutionary forces in Russia must have been thrilled to, at long last, be given the opportunity to displace the czar, and transform Russian society away from the czarist model (though the Bolshevik faction that emerged from the subsequent rumble soon became a mirror-image of the old order, and no less despotic to boot). The instability Nicholas created within his empire by clinging to a nostalgic ideal caused him to be overthrown and helped add fuel to the fire for the growing social unrest which brought on the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent rise of the Soviet Union.
A reasonable conclusion that can be made from such examples is the issue of whether it is sensible to expect bureaucratic politicians of being qualified–and not needing to be qualified–to do the job of their Generals. By such standards the requirements to hold office will broaden to only include an elite few, thus swinging everything into a highly restrictive oligarchy. The face of politics itself, it might be argued, will dramatically change as government positions will have to be held by people who are also able to serve in combat. The shift would exclude several noteworthy candidates based on a biased standard of age, strength, physical limitations, and (more than likely) a lack of military experience. If the Continental Congress would have passed such a law in 1787, men like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, would never have been considered for nomination in a presidential race—FDR having been physically handicapped; Reagan never having served oversees due to his nearsightedness; Clinton and Obama never having served at all; and W. Bush never having seen combat during his National Guard service. Modern political thought tells us that in order for government to work there needs to be separations of duties and roles. Forcing the responsibilities of one man to stretch out from his intended duties as a governing head to the hazardous conditions of a soldier can result in needlessly exhausting the nation’s executive, and in turn hurt the efficiency of his domestic responsibilities.
Acknowledging the reality of the physical limitations that governing men have is something that cannot be overlooked in an issue that brings to question the legibility of their position. While there certainly is truth in the claim that an unfair transition of power could arise from broadening a world leader’s obligations during wartime to include combat duty, there also exist numerous flaws in the argument. On the issue of ageism and the dispute of how men sent into battle are moderately younger then the common range of governing heads, the concern always leans towards the problem of placing power in the hands of someone lacking the maturity for effective leadership. What this argument ignores is that, at least in recent history, most Generals have been well past their 50s upon assuming their rank (e.g. Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton), so unless an individual is approaching on the verge of senility and dementia, their mental/physical capacity appears to play little role in their ability to lead troops into battle successfully (otherwise the entire commanding rank of most countries should be asked to resign immediately, on account of “old man syndrome”).
However, even if a concession is made to the argument, it is still baseless as it misses the entire point of the proposed stipulation. If every world leader was obliged to personally go into combat upon his/her declaration of war, the probability that the demographical makeup of politics would change is highly unlikely. A more plausible outcome will be a sharp decrease in the occurrence of war altogether. Few, if any, politicians will be eager to resort to sending out troops if they know they’ll be forced to fight amongst them. In 1999, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated, “What’s the good of having the world’s strongest military if you don’t get to use them.” Surely, she would have been less zealous in her tone if President Clinton was forced to be one of the men being sent into the frontlines of the battlefield (along with herself).
Pacifists and anti-war protesters are fond of talking about the need to end warfare so as to decrease bloodshed. But I think that as long as the blood that is shed comes from a distant, unnamed, personnel, this argument will have no affect on policymakers whatsoever. A better thing to bring up is how, for the individuals most willing to see other citizens shed blood, they ought to be given a fair shot to shed it themselves. Let all the warring commanders-in-chief of the world earn their leadership rank by offering to sacrifice their own lives in the battles they deem to be so vital to the preservation of society; or, as Napoleon would say, “I command, or I am silent.” I imagine the silence of the artillery shells that would follows would be deafening.