10/28/2012 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

Presidents at War

When President Obama gave challenger Mitt Romney a schoolboy lecture on post-World War I weaponry in the third presidential debate, his surprise attack underscored the unheralded fact that neither candidate for the presidency in 2012 is an expert in the real-life game of battleships or, for that matter, a veteran of any branch of military service.

Barack Obama was in high school in Honolulu when Hawaii served as the advance staging area for men and materiel in the Vietnam War. Mitt Romney spent the four peak years of his eligibility for Vietnam duty in France. With a double-the-usual draft-deferral hazardous duty tour, he went door-to-door in France as Elder Romney, the apprentice Mormon missionary, a point that only Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau seems to have grasped in this year's unparalleled muckraking campaign.

There was a time, a very long time, when it was virtually impossible to be elected to any office in America unless you were a veteran, if not a war hero. A significant percentage of presidents parlayed their combat exploits into the presidency, including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes (yes, Rutherford B. Hayes), Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. After every war except Vietnam, military laurels have benefited veterans in their quest for the nation's highest office.

Yet this year, for the first time since World War II, a span of nearly 70 years, neither candidate for the presidency has seen a day of military service unless, that is, you count President Obama's four years as commander-in-chief, which began with his learning how to crack a perfect salute as he skipped off Marine One.

Not since 1944, when Republican Thomas Dewey ran against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has neither party's candidate lacked some sort of service record. Indeed, FDR, elected that year to a fourth term, was himself one of the majority of wartime presidents who had led Americans into conflict without having gained any first-hand experience as a serviceman. Of America's 11 wars since the Revolution, six wars have claimed the lives of men and women serving under commanders-in-chief who themselves never donned a uniform.

Yet each war, until now, seemed to reinforce the tradition of choosing a candidate with a stellar war record. James Madison, who never fired a shot, triggered the War of 1812. Indian and Redcoat slayers Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison did the fighting in that conflict and ended up in the White House.

Abe Lincoln arguably precipitated the nation's bloodiest conflict but on the stump joked that the only blood he personally had seen drawn was by the mosquitoes that bit him during his month or so as a volunteer militia captain in the Black Hawk War. When Lincoln became the first presidential victim of an assassin's bullet, hard-drinking, gun-toting Andrew Jackson Johnson, succeeding him, carried the rank of brigadier general from his stint as military governor of Tennessee.

Every president for more than a half century after the Civil War had proudly worn his Union Army uniform. After Johnson came cigar-chomping General of the Armies U. S. Grant, hand-picked by Lincoln to crush the Confederacy unconditionally. Marching behind him up Pennsylvania Avenue came Major General Rutherford B. Hayes. Decorated for bravery after he was seriously wounded at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the long struggle, Hayes survived five wounds during four years of combat. His successor, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, also had survived combat but was gunned down by a disappointed office seeker at Union Station, leaving his veep, Brigadier General Chester A. Arthur, to fill out his term.

William McKinley had served under Hayes in combat and, in his turn, whipped up enthusiasm for America's first imperial war, the Spanish-American War, conquering possessions in the Pacific and the Caribbean as U. S. Navy gunners sank Spanish fleets in two oceans. On land, Teddy Roosevelt led the charge up San Juan Hill and, after McKinley's assassination, into the White House.

In the 20th century, the bloodiest century in all history, Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner who had seen defeated Confederate troops shamble past his parents' house in Staunton, Virginia, led America into World War I in what he promised would be "the war to end all wars." Five million Americans were called up to fight "over there," among them Kansas farm boy Harry Truman, an artillery captain who personally fired poison gas shells back at the Germans, and a West Pointer, also from Kansas, named Dwight Eisenhower, a colonel when World War II engulfed the planet.

Truman succeeded FDR in time to end the second world war by authorizing the detonation of atomic weapons over Japan and, only five years later, presided over the undeclared Korean War, most memorably firing America's beloved war hero, General Douglas MacArthur. Truman was eased out of the Oval Office by Five Star General Eisenhower.

The tradition of veterans running for president and often winning continued unbroken with two veterans of World War II in the Pacific: Richard Nixon, a rear-area poker-playing Navy supply officer, and Jack Kennedy, wounded hero -- in real life and on film -- of the sinking of the flimsy plywood, high speed Patrol Torpedo Boat 109.

After Kennedy, the nation's youngest president, ramped up American involvement in Vietnam, his assassination led to the embattled presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. A member of Congress when World War II began¸ he had joined the Navy as a lieutenant commander. Accounts vary of why Johnson, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission for General MacArthur, was aboard a B-26 during a bombing mission when it was attacked by Japanese fighters, but Johnson consequently received the Silver Star. As president, he would consign nearly two million servicemen to America's least popular war.

The drumroll went on as more veterans took the oath of office: Gerald Ford, a Navy artillery office aboard the embattled USS Monterey in the South Pacific, was followed as president by former nuclear submarine commander Jimmy Carter, who was shouldered aside by Navy fighter pilot George H. W. Bush.

Even when they were not successful presidential contenders, the losers in recent years have touted their war records. Robert Dole's visible evidence of wartime service was an empty sleeve. Al Gore was a uniformed military journalist attached to a combat regiment in Vietnam. And George W. Bush, his stay-at-home Vietnam years still a subject of controversy, fought against not only Gore but then a Swift Boat commander named John Kerry.

In the Constitution, the Founding Fathers conceived the principle of civilians controlling the military. Few presidents who have experienced firsthand the horrific carnage of a war have chosen to launch one. Once the warrior Dwight Eisenhower became president, he negotiated an end to the Korean War. In his most famous speech, he called for a national policy of redirecting nuclear energy into Atoms for Peace and in his last radio broadcast he condemned what he named the "military-industrial complex."

At a time when there are more veterans of America's military involvements -- some 12 million -- than at any time since World War II, it is all the more striking that they will have no comrade representing them in the Oval Office to determine whether the United States pursues war or peace for the next four years.

Willard Sterne Randall, a presidential scholar and biographer, is the author of 13 books, including six Founding Fathers biographies, most recently Ethan Allen, His Life and Times. He recently retired as distinguished scholar in history and professor at Champlain College in Vermont.