Skiing Through Vietnam

Does it matter if a candidate dodged the draft?

Dean didn't serve. So what?
Dean didn’t serve. So what?

Howard Dean, age 18, walked into his draft physical with a set of X-rays, walked out with a bad-back deferment, and spent most of the next year on the slopes in Aspen, Colo. George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and was lackadaisical about fulfilling even that mild commitment. John Kerry was a battlefield hero and then a leader of the antiwar movement. Wesley Clark joined the Army, served with honor and splash, and never left until he was personally booted by the secretary of defense.

Does this ancient history matter to a decision about who should be president four decades later? Yes, of course it does. Anything that casts light on a candidate’s character and wisdom matters. Vietnam was the great personal moral issue of their generation’s lifetime, so far. How they each dealt with it is legitimately revealing. To take the most obvious example, there must be more to John Kerry than meets the eye. If anything, the senator of 2003 seems callow compared with the youth of 1969.

All the candidates are of the Vietnam generation. And most of them avoided the war one way or another. They did this by signing up for some safer form of service such as the National Guard, by falling into one of many draft “deferment” categories (marriage, graduate school, unconventional sexual preference, ingrown toenails, allergies to fish, excessive fondness for novels, and so on), or by the luck of the lottery that replaced those deferments toward the end.

But the question is not a simple “Were you there when your country needed you?” Two things complicate that question in the case of Vietnam. The first is that your country did not especially need you. Vietnam was not World War II, which required the mobilization of the entire society. In the end, less than 10 percent of men who were of draft age (18-26) during the Vietnam War actually served in Vietnam or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The challenge to draft boards during Vietnam was not how to fill the ranks but how to screen out most potential draftees. For most men, avoiding service in Vietnam required even less effort than Howard Dean made. In fact the experience of not serving in Vietnam is far more representative of the candidates’ generation than the experience of serving there.

The second complicating fact is that Vietnam War was a bad war. In 2003, despite the unending controversy about aspects of Vietnam, that basic fact is not even controversial. Some people believe the war was evil to its core, some believe it was merely mistaken, some take the even milder view that it could have been a good thing if the country had truly been behind it. But almost no one thinks that the enterprise as it actually played out was a good idea. So in judging the presidential candidates on all this, there are two factual questions. “What did you do to help fight the war?” is one. The second is, “What did you do to help stop it?

Based on these facts, we can start awarding merits and demerits. What is your obligation, as a fighting-age citizen in a democracy, regarding a war that is morally wrong? Your first obligation is to decide what you think. So you get a small demerit if you couldn’t be bothered to form an opinion (as seems to be the case with George W. Bush), and a big demerit if you favored the war and nevertheless left the fighting and dying to others. No demerit, in my view, for mistakenly supporting the war if you acted on that mistaken belief by joining the fight or even (close call) if you passively accepted an opportunity not to serve.

Similarly, you get no merit point for simply being right about the war at the time. In the youth culture back then, this required no special wisdom or courage. But you get a big merit point if you were active to the point of sacrifice (i.e., more than a couple of sunny marches) in the antiwar struggle. And if you were working hard to spare others the killing and dying, you get no demerit for taking steps to spare yourself.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates fall in a different category: They probably opposed the war at least vaguely, but they did not interrupt their lives to stop it. What you should do about the draft was a much-discussed quandary back then. Even now it’s easy to see both sides. On the one hand, it seems strange to say you are morally obligated to go and kill people in a cause you believe is morally wrong. On the other hand, democracy cannot function if everybody feels free to second-guess. And when 9 out of 10 among your age cohort aren’t serving, finding someone else to put in your place will not be a major Pentagon challenge.

My own path through this thicket back then reached the conclusion that you have no obligation to seek out military service, but you also have no right to avoid it if it seeks you out. Some might find that formulation a bit Solomonic for their tastes. After arguing about all this continuously for four years and then episodically for four decades, I can state with absolute conviction that absolute conviction is impossible on this topic. So there are no demerits for reaching, and acting on, a different conclusion.

Anyway, thank goodness that’s all settled at last. Now let’s continue the ‘60s-retro theme of this election and talk about Medicare.