Mr. President Goes To War – 5 Badass Commanders In Chief


While it’s still far too early to predict who will win the 2016 presidential election, it is a safe bet that neither he or she will be a war hero. Being a veteran used to be an almost essential part of a prospective president’s CV — even The Great Emancipator served for a few months during the Black Hawk War.

But of the last five U.S. presidents, only one served in combat. And of those in the running this time, none even served in the reserves or National Guard. And that’s fine – military service is not a categorical prerequisite for the presidency. But it sure helped shape the character of the fine men we’re discussing today. Before these presidents took the Oath of Office, they took the Oath of Awesome. (Which, I readily admit, was a pretty awful joke.)

GRANTUlysses S. Grant

Any man who could ably serve as both a warrior and a president while in fact blackout drunk is deserving of much admiration indeed. We all know that Grant was one of the most successful generals of the Civil War, eventually rising to the command of the entire Union Army (after President Lincoln sacked a succession of tepid, ineffective generals), but did you know that during the Mexican American War of the 1840s, Grant is said to directed his men to carry a disassembled cannon up into a church steeple, reassembled the weapon, and then rained fire down on the enemy an action which helped seal American victory at Chapultepec? All that while drinking whiskey out of a boot! Probably…

George H.W. Bush as a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II. Handout George H.W. Bush Presidential Library

George H. W. Bush

President Bush, the senior, of course, chose to defer his acceptance to Yale because his country needed men like him, dammit. He become a navy pilot at the age of 19, setting what was then a record as the youngest to serve in that role. During a fateful mission in September of 1944, the TBM Avenger Bush was piloting was ravaged by Japanese antiaircraft fire. Bush, being a certified badass, decided to complete his bombing run despite the smoke and flames slowly engulfing his plane. Then he flew out over the sea and instructed his crew members to bail out, an action he completed after they were out of the plane. The other two servicemen were never found, but Bush was rescued from the water by a U.S. submarine. Then he went skydiving in his 80s. A few times.

jacksonAndrew Jackson

Jackson served in both of America’s first major conflicts, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, distinguishing himself in particular with his valiant leadership during the Battle of New Orleans, an action that took place weeks after the latter war had been resolved via treaty. Information was slow to travel back then, but it’s a commonly accepted belief that Jackson would have kept right on fighting even if he had known. Old Hickory, you see, loved fighting. Thus he plunged back into combat in the First Seminole War. His orders were to fight the local natives who were in uprising and stop runaway slaves from sheltering in Spanish-held Florida. Jackson being Jackson, he instead led his men in an all-out invasion of the Spanish territory, eventually forcing the Spaniards to surrender and cede Florida to the United States.

POF/PSF/PT109-1 Lt.(jg) John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109 in the South Pacific, 1943. Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

John F. Kennedy

For a guy who wasn’t allowed to serve in the army due to a bad back, JFK sure figured out how to be a badass warrior during WWII. He signed up with the Navy instead and eventually took control of a Patrol Torpedo boat, the PT-109. On his 31st mission commanding the small but able craft, just as the PT-109 commenced an attack, Kennedy’s boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy gathered the survivors in the water, and when he and his men agreed not to surrender, he towed a wounded man to an island by clenching the strap of the guy’s lifejacket in his teeth. After the crew’s rescue and despite re-injury to his back, Kennedy took command of another PT boat. He led multiple missions, including one in which his boat and one other rescued nearly 90 stranded marines. Later in the same year, 1943, a doctor finally advised Kennedy that he was no longer fit for service due to his back issues. He was discharged with honor.

washingtonGeorge Washington

George Washington was the O.G. in so many ways. The first president was also the first certifiable American badass. He served in the 7 Year’s War (AKA the French and Indian War), he led American troops to victory during the American Revolution, and then he nobly surrendered his military rank before taking on the mantle of executive power. And then, in the first half of the 1790s, Washington became the only sitting president to lead troops in conflict when he mounted up and led a contingent of militiamen against people rebelling against a new tax. No shots were fired during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, because when George Washington takes the field, the battle is pretty much a foregone conclusion.