A century ago, to honor the 53,000 Americans killed in action and another 63,000 who died during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared Memorial Day. Every president from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush served in war (although Jimmy Carter graduated from the Naval Academy just after World War II ended). Of the presidents since, only George W. Bush served in uniform in the Alabama Air National Guard.
Bill Clinton received a series of deferments during the Vietnam War. Donald Trump was physically disqualified by a family doctor for bone spurs, avoiding that war. And Barack Obama grew up during the all-volunteer force when there was no requirement to serve.
The issue of service, given Trump and possible presidential candidate Joe Biden, who also was physically disqualified because of childhood asthma, may or may not surface in the 2020 campaign. Since the draft is long gone, this is likely to be the last time service may be relevant to presidential elections, even though several announced candidates have worn the uniform in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.
During the 1988 campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle’s service in the National Guard was briefly raised as an attempt to circumvent Vietnam. In 1992, Clinton’s deferrals were a major issue — Clinton was labeled a “draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer.” But his VP Al Gore had served in Vietnam as an enlisted man.
In 2000, Bush’s time in the Air National Guard became a minor issue. Dick Cheney’s number of deferrals from Vietnam was, of course, raised. However, his time as Secretary of Defense during the 1990-91 Gulf War could not be denied. Still, politicians who avoided Vietnam could not entirely erase that fact.
Trump is another matter. Given the amount of time he has spent on the golf course, even using a cart, and bragged about how he waged his own battle against sexually transmitted diseases while 58,000 of his countryman gave their lives in Vietnam at the very least is bad taste. Yet, as someone who served in Vietnam, as much as I would like to use his draft avoidance against him, I do not blame Trump for avoiding that war.
My much younger brother was enrolled in Army college ROTC. After I returned from Vietnam, having concluded that the war was unwinnable (and told some of our most senior elected officials so), I urged my brother to give careful consideration to his choices.
Fortunately, the number he received in the draft lottery was so high that the North Vietnamese would be rolling into Washington before he was called to go. Still, he was on a path to receive a commission. And in the late 1960s, that path would have led straight to Vietnam, where the life expectancy of a Marine second lieutenant landing in a hot zone was measured in hours.
Advising him never to volunteer for anything at ROTC summer camp and stand on as many lines as possible, for the first time in his life he heeded my advice. One line was for X-rays. It turned out that my brother, who was stronger than two horses, had a congenital back problem that was disqualifying for military service. Like the president’s bone spurs, this problem never bothered him. But the Army had declared him medically unfit. And his draft number was an unnecessary insurance policy.
I am an equal opportunity critic, regardless of who or which party sits in the White House. Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have drawn arrows and praise from me. While the current president has gotten a few positive comments — there have been some — on this matter of draft avoidance, as much as I would like to call his deferments cowardly or at least unpatriotic, hypocrisy is not in the cards. If I cajoled and persuaded a brother not to serve, it is neither consistent nor fair to use a different standard for any other American of that age.
On this Memorial Day, it is important to remember how quickly attitudes can change. During the Vietnam War and for some time after, our military was disrespected. People in uniform were more than occasionally spit at or held in contempt. Indeed, the great majority of Americans who served in Vietnam, most who never fired a shot in anger, did so under the most difficult circumstances lacking support from the home front.
Today, the military is rightfully held in high regard. Perhaps Americans realize that while we have not and will not “win” in Afghanistan or Iraq, it is not the fault of our military who have performed with continuing professionalism. Hopefully, our elected leaders will also realize that.