History shows that successful military leaders don't always make good political ones

Political analysts are buzzing this week over rumors that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is seriously considering a high-ranking former Army general as his running mate. And while many on the right — and even some on the left — are applauding the move, history shows former military leaders don’t necessarily make good political ones.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former top spy for the military, has been a vocal Trump supporter since he left the Army as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, and has recently taken on a role as a foreign policy advisor for the campaign. But lately, his name has been floated by Trump associates as a potential vice president for the Republican real estate mogul.

“I like the generals. I like the concept of the generals. We’re thinking about — actually, there are two of them that are under consideration,” Trump told Fox News in reference to his VP vetting process.

A pick like Flynn might appeal to a broad political spectrum. He’s a registered Democrat, has leaned pro-choice on abortion, and has criticized the war in Iraq and the toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But he’s also been a critic of Hillary Clinton and her handling of classified information and was forced to retire after publically denouncing the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

And while a no-nonsense, general officer style might work in a service environment and appeal to voters looking for something new, history shows plenty of landmines for military men who turn their focus from the battlefield to the ballot box.

Michael-Flynn-Stanley-McChrystal

(Photos: US Department of Defense)

While two of America’s most senior officers in history, General of the Armies George Washington and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, enjoyed successful careers as presidents after military service, their compatriot General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant led an administration marked by graft and corruption.

On the list of generals-turned-president, Andrew Jackson and Rutherford B. Hayes were respected in their times, but Jackson’s wife died due to illness aggravated by political attacks during his campaign.

Zachary_Taylor_half_plate_daguerreotype_c1843-45

Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor was a hero in the Mexican-American War but he struggled as a president. Photo: Public Domain

Zachary Taylor ran as a political outsider and then found himself outside of most political deals cut during his presidency. Benjamin Harrison’s administration was known for its failure to address economic problems which triggered the collapse of 1893. James A. Garfield’s assassination early in his presidency is sometimes cited as the only reason he is known as an inconsequential president instead of a bad one.

So, why do successful general officers, tested in the fires of combat and experienced at handling large organizations, often struggle in political leadership positions?

The two jobs exist in very different atmospheres. While military organizations are filled with people trained to work together and put the unit ahead of the individual, political organizations are often filled with people all striving to advance their own career.

This is what happened the first time the UK started using U.S. troops on board its ships. (Library of Congress)

Painted: The British burn the White House in 1814, also known as the last time strongpoint defense was the most important thing a vice president could know. (Library of Congress)

And while backroom deals are often seen as a failure of character in the military, they’re an accepted part of doing business in politics. One senator will scratch another’s back while they both look to protect donors and placate their constituencies.

Plus, not all military leaders enter politics with a clear view of what they want to accomplish. They have concrete ideas about how to empower the military and improve national security, but they can struggle with a lack of experience in domestic policy or diplomacy after 20 or 30 years looking out towards America’s enemies.

These factors combined to bring down President Ulysses S. Grant whose administration became known as the “Era of Good Stealings” because of all the money that his political appointees were able to steal from taxpayers and businesses. It wasn’t that Grant was dishonest, it was that he failed to predict the lack of integrity in others and corrupt men took advantage of him.

Of course, at the end of the day it’s more about the man than the resume, and Flynn and McChrystal both have traits to recommend them. McChrystal was seen as largely successful as the top commander in Afghanistan where he had to work long hours and keep track of the tangled politics of Afghanistan.

Security plans in Helmand Province

Gen. Stanley McChrystal may have more experience with Afghan politics than American. (Photo: Operation Resolute Support Media via Flickr)

Flynn has spent years in Washington as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Beltway may be full of duplicity and tangled deals, but it isn’t much worse than all the terrorist organizations and hostile governments Flynn had to keep track of for the Department of Defense.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that neither man will end up next to Trump at the podium. The rumors say that McChrystal has not been contacted and is not interested in being the next vice president. Flynn appears to be more open to the idea but registered as a democrat for years, something that would make him impalatable for many Republican party leaders.

If one of them does end up on the presidential ticket, they should probably buff up on their Eisenhower, Washington, and Grant biographies, just to be safe.

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