Not All Men on Horseback


Notwithstanding repeated pronouncements over the past several years that the Vietnam War is behind us, the issue of one's military service (or lack of it) during that most divisive war in modern American history will almost surely be raised in the 1996 presidential campaign, as it was in the '88 and '92 campaigns.

In 1988, it was revealed that Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, then a Senate defense hawk with a record of strong support for the Vietnam War, had volunteered for service in the Indiana National Guard during the war.

This seemingly patriotic and courageous act was in fact nothing more than a means of escaping the prospect of being sent to Vietnam, since practically no guard units were mobilized during the war. The guard was packed with white, affluent and well-connected young men who did not wish to be unduly inconvenienced by a war for which there was plenty of poor, uneducated -- and truly courageous -- cannon fodder already available.

Luckily for Mr. Quayle, his presidential running mate was a genuine war hero who could easily have spent World War II behind a stateside desk but chose instead to become a torpedo bomber pilot, one of the most dangerous combat specialties of the war (certainly when compared with being a clerk-typist along the Wabash).

In 1992, it was revealed that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton had avoided military service during the Vietnam War via a series of perfectly legal educational deferments. Yet, during the campaign Mr. Clinton made statements at variance with each other and with the facts regarding precisely when, how and why he sought to avoid the draft.

Luckily for Mr. Clinton, his vice presidential running mate, Al Gore, was a bona fide Vietnam veteran.

In 1996, Republican attempts to revive Mr. Clinton's war record as a political issue could well backfire. With few exceptions, today's leading Republican politicians and cheerleaders who came of draft age during the Vietnam War also avoided military service by barricading themselves behind one educational or family deferment after another.

The list of those who preferred to let others serve in their place includes former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Republican presidential aspirant Phil Gramm and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who at the time was an anti-war student activist.

The only prominent Republican presidential candidate with a truly heroic record of military service is Bob Dole, who served valiantly with the tough 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II and suffered a near-fatal wound. But Mr. Dole is probably the last World War II veteran with a serious shot at the White House.

If lack of military service in Vietnam on the part of men eligible to serve during that war is permitted to become a barrier to elective office, the national political pickings will be slim indeed. The fact is that only a small minority of those eligible to serve actually performed military service, and of those that did, only a fraction -- saw combat in Vietnam.

Of the total of almost 25 million men who turned draft age during the Vietnam War, 9 million entered military service; and of those 9 million, only 2.1 million were actually sent to Vietnam, and of those, only 1.6 million actually engaged in combat. Moreover, a disproportionate number of those who ended up doing the fighting were economically, socially and educationally disadvantaged -- the direct result of a highly inequitable Selective Service System that sheltered college campuses.

The American electorate will have to learn to live with presidents and other elected politicians who lack wartime or even peacetime experience in uniform.

Jeffrey Record is a visiting professor at Georgia Tech's School of International Affairs.

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