Soon after Ronald Reagan assumed his presidency, something new appeared with his image on the television screen. When given a salute by uniformed military personnel, Mr. Reagan would return it, shooting his right hand up to his bare head, his smile suggesting that this was something he liked to do. This unnecessary and unseemly habit was adopted by Mr. Reagan's successors, including Bill Clinton and especially George W. Bush, who steps off his plane and cocks a jaunty salute.
This gesture is of course quite wrong: such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform. But there is more to this than a decline in military manners. There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes playing soldier. It also represents an exaggeration of the president's military role.
In the past, even presidents who had once been generals employed civilian manners. They chose not to emphasize their military achievements during their presidential tenure — in accord with the American tradition of the primacy of civilian over military rule. Of their constitutional prerogatives these men were of course aware. Lincoln would dismiss and appoint generals, and Truman knew that he had the right to fire MacArthur. During World War II, while Churchill often wore a uniform or at least a military cap, Roosevelt remained determinedly in his civilian clothes. Indeed, none of the presidents who governed this country during its great wars defined themselves as commanders in chief — not Washington, not Lincoln, not Wilson, not Roosevelt.
Yes, Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution says: "The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States . . ." Thereafter that very paragraph lists other presidential powers that have nothing to do with military matters. The brevity of the mention of a commander in chief — it is not even a full sentence — suggests that the country's founders did not attach very great importance to this role.
But about 20 years ago the militarization of the image of the presidency began. It started with Mr. Reagan, who had no record of military service and who spent World War II in Hollywood (something that he tried on occasion to obscure). There were his fervent, sentimental and sometimes tearful expressions when meeting or speaking to American soldiers, sailors and airmen. There was, too, his easy and self-satisfying willingness to employ the armed forces of the United States in rapid and spectacular military operations against minuscule targets and "enemies" like Grenada, Nicaragua and Libya. President Bush, too, enjoys immersing himself in the warm bath of jubilant approbation at large gatherings of soldiers.
Like the boy soldier salute, the sentimentalization of the military is juvenile. Television depictions of modern technological warfare, for example, make it seem as if a military campaign were but a superb game, an occasional Super Bowl that America is bound to win — and with almost no human losses. ("We'll keep our fighting men and women out of harm's way" — a senseless phrase that emerged during the Clinton years.) The exaggerated vesting of the president with his supreme role as commander in chief is a new element in our national history.
When the Roman republic gave way to empire, the new supreme ruler, Augustus chose to name himself not "rex," king, but "imperator," from which our words emperor and empire derive, even though its original meaning was more like commander in chief. Thereafter Roman emperors came to depend increasingly on their military. Will our future presidents? Let us doubt it. And yet . . .
John Lukacs is author, most recently, of ``Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian.''