Attitudes Toward Military Service

I find the op-ed unconvincing in the NYT today by someone who avoided the Vietnam War draft and now repents for doing so. He fails to address the hatred and vitreol directed against returning Vietnam veterans, and the moral sef-righteousness displayed by those who did not go. He does not address the way that the war was portrayed as inhumane slaughter, and returning vets as baby-killing perverts. Even at the relatively conservative University of Alabama, which I returned to, the only vets who got positive feedback from other students were those who confessed to committing atrocities. Veterans who did not commit atrocities were very conflicted by feeling that after sending them to Vietnam, where they thought they gave honorable service, their country now denouced them as war criminals. Serving in Vietnam was only part of the “sacrifice”; returning to a hateful US was another part. While the op-ed writer wishes he had “served” he still feels morally superior to his war-criminal cohorts who did in fact serve.

Relatively few Vietnam veterans have had much political success. Three who did, all started out with silver spoons in their mouths. John McCain’s father and grandfather were senior admirals. John Kerry’s mother was a Forbes heiress. Al Gore’s father was a senator. They did not come back to the same obliquy as other vets. Both McCain and Kerry went into some Navy VIP program for returning VIP veterans. McCain in particular was treated as a returning hero, unlike the vast bulk ofther returnees, including some who were also combat heros. They all ran for President, but they were all rejected by their country. Veterans don’t always make good Presidents; General Ulysses Grant was one the worst in history. The same could have been true for one of these three. Al Gore actually won more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election, but the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to Bush. Bush, of course, avoided going to Vietnam by using his family influence to get into the Alabama National Guard, where he spent the war skipping even his National Guard duties, drinking heavily, and becoming an alcoholic. Of course, Bill Clinton, like Donald Trump, avoided the draft, and Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama were never subject to the draft, and did not volunteer to serve.

America now appears to have come full circle, and venerates military service almost religiously. If you look closely, however, you find that the best people don’t volunteer to serve. How many graduates of Harvard or Stanford are serving in the military? How many children of the top 20% of the population, much less of the 1% or 0.1%? No, nice people don’t serve in the military. And the press is always quick to note if someone in the news for some horriible crime has served. They protray the US Marine Corps as the breeding ground for mass murderers.

There was a period, right after 9/11, when nice people went into the militarr, because it looked like America was really under threat. But the political and military leadership botched the wars so badly that military service became a bad thing again. A lot of the praise for the military today is because people want some other fool to go fight so that they don’t have to. It’s selfish, not loving. If we reinstated the draft there would be a sea change in attitudes toward military service.

This is not to take away the honor of the sacrifice made by soldiers, particularly those killed or wounded in action, like Captain Khan. But it is to say that a lot of the furor about dishonor to the gold star parents is politically motivated, not genuine sympathy for those involved. It’s more like, “Thank goodness that’s not me, but shame on anybody who says that out loud.”

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