• What Mayor Pete Won’t Tell You: The Role of Military Service in the 2020 Election

    June 8, 2019

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    Posted in: 2020, Afghanistan, Trump

    What is the role of military service in the 2020 election?

    As another Memorial Day passed, Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized Trump for reportedly considering pardons for several service members accused of war crimes, calling the idea “slander against veterans that could only come from somebody who never served” (those pardons never happened; fake news?) The 37-year-old Democrat mocked the president, saying “I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Celebrity Apprentice when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan.” Mayor Pete defended NFL national anthem protests noting “Trump would get it if he had served.” He claims he “put his life on the line” for those rights.

    He gets away unchallenged with these shots because critical thought on military service is the third rail of journalism. But context matters. Pete Buttigieg did all of six months in 2014 as a reservist deep inside Bagram air base, mostly as a personal driver for his boss, locked and loaded inside a Toyota Land Cruiser. It is unlikely he ever ate a cold meal in Afghanistan.

    On the campaign trail, Pete refers to himself “as the first veteran president since George H.W. Bush.” Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton was a platoon commander in the initial company of Marines to enter Baghdad in 2003, returning for a total of four combat deployments. Tulsi Gabbard did two full tours in the Middle East, one inside Iraq. She volunteered to become the first state official to step down from public office to serve in a war zone, 10 years before Pete. So if you wanna measure for size, bro, the line forms behind Seth and Tulsi.

    Everyone at war has different experiences, and unless you’re the dude who held bin Laden’s still-beating heart in his hand (and then took a bite out of it), someone had it tougher than you. But Mayor Pete is milking it for all it is worth politically, stretching a short tour into civics lessons he suggests one just can’t get any other way.

    But if Mayor Pete is going to make much of his service as part of his public biography, and especially if he wants to invite comparisons among himself, other candidates, and other presidents, then his short military tenure cannot be treated as bullet-proof. As one vet put it, “If he’s going to use his combat time as a discriminator, then it gets to be evaluated.”

    Veteran (Bosnia, Iraq 2004-6, 2008-11, Afghanistan 2011-12) and now podcaster Pete Turner writes “I give Mayor Pete all the credit in the world for deploying. However, there is a difference in the quality and severity of the types of combat veterans. Mayor Pete is more of a combat tourist than a warrior. People with one short combat tour, with access to that delicious fresh baked bread they made daily at the Bagram Air Force base, need to ease up on their warrior status.”

    “He went to war, that’s commendable and honorable. But that’s where it stops. People with his pedigree of deployment acknowledge that they spent a short tour and barely got away from their desk. They certainly don’t lean on that service as a credential for presidential candidacy.”

    Mayor Pete, however, might be the first to suggest even a little service produces a better man than none at all, clearly his opinion of the man dubbed “President Bone Spurs.” Buttigieg, alongside the New York Times (who interviewed the aging daughters of the now-dead doctor who diagnosed Trump), has called that medical diagnosis a fraud and “an assault on the honor of this country.”

    Maybe so. But for those who like comparisons, current front-runner Joe Biden received five student draft deferments, the same number as Dick Cheney, and in 1968 when his student status was wrapping up, was medically reclassified as “not available” due to having had asthma as a teen. In his autobiography Biden describes his active childhood, being a lifeguard, and playing high school football. His Vice Presidential physicals mention multiple aneurysms. Asthma, no. There’s no record of the New York Times tracking down Biden’s dead doctor’s daughters to investigate medical draft fraud.

    If military service is important and Vietnam-era medical deferments open to question, maybe Mayor Pete should also be talking about Biden alongside Trump. And if you are learning about Biden’s multiple deferments for the first time, ask yourself why.

    Left out of all of this is context. American men of a certain age all had to make a choice about Vietnam. They made those choices not in the jingoistic context of 2019 when we all Support Our Troops and wave away concerns about righteousness with slogans like “Love the Warrior, Hate the War.” Instead, 60% of men in the Vietnam generation took active measures to qualify for a deferment, while up to 90% National Guard enlistments (domestic service instead of Vietnam) were draft-motivated. Trump’s (Clinton’s, Cheney’s, Biden’s, Sanders’, Bush’s, et al) story is “surprisingly typical of his generation,” wrote one historian.

    The Vietnam-era military was not a widely loved institution. Many veterans, at least when they spoke about it back then, were more ashamed than proud, and actively encouraged young men to avoid serving. Families were weary of sending sons to Vietnam, from where over 58,000 Americans never came home (compared to under 7,000 dead in the 18 years of the War on Terror and its sequels.) The military was wounded by failure in Southeast Asia, drugs, and racism. Vietnam was the era of fragging, soldiers killing their own officers, in numbers far lower than movies would have you believe, but which left officers living under threats far greater than any Lieutenant Buttigieg could conceive of in Afghanistan.

    Down one path or another more than 15 million men of Trump and Biden’s generation sought to avoid military service in Vietnam. So in that context Buttigieg should also mention Bernie Sanders, who applied for conscientious objector status until he aged out of the draft. Mitt Romney received both student and religious deferments to avoid Vietnam.

    When Bill Clinton’s student deferments ran out, he sought help to faux register with a local reserve unit, and then to hide his draft paperwork until he left for England. Clinton as president refused to discuss in detail his various maneuvers to avoid service, which allegedly included an attempt at renouncing his citizenship at the American Embassy in London. Clinton wrote to one man who purposefully delayed his case to thank him for “saving me from the draft.”

    Context matters. As the New York Times said when he was running for president, “Bill Clinton worked to avoid the draft, at times cleverly, but in ways that accorded with accepted common practice among others of his generation. Against that history, this Vietnam echo looks like an irrelevance that ought not distract New Hampshire voters from judging Bill Clinton on his merits… to single him out as some sort of devious draft-dodger does him, and the anguish of Vietnam, an injustice.”

    The Times’ 1992 point is more valid when talking about Trump than the hit pieces they write in 2019. During the Vietnam War-draft era, most who could afford college or to pay the right doctor could get a deferment. Others took a middle road, the George W. Bush‘s and Dan Quayle‘s who joined National Guard units and got credit for some form of service without the stain of Vietnam on their nice clothing.

    For those without money, failing their physical by gaining or losing substantial amounts of weight, or claiming to be gay, worked. Bruce Springsteen made his own success outwitting Army doctors a reflective centerpiece of his Broadway show. One hundred thousand Americans left for Canada, breaking the law to avoid service (President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon to them.) Some 3,250 refused to cooperate with the draft and went to prison.

    In the end only 2.2 million men were drafted during the Vietnam War period out of an eligible pool of 27 million, meaning some 9 out of 10 found an alternative. And in the end no Vietnam vet (see John McCain and John Kerry) has ever been elected president, and two who dodged the draft were.

    Like hauling out old yearbook photos to sanctimoniously judge them in the Pure Light of 2019, Pete Buttigieg is wrong to compare his service to anyone but his peers, because the real questions didn’t end when the draft did in 1973. It would be more important for Pete not to use Vietnam-era actions as a hypocritical political cudgel, but to tell us why he volunteered to serve and why Obama, and now Booker, Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, and the rest did not. Though a draft didn’t force them to decide, they decided. Though they did not face the legal issues of an earlier generation, the more important existential ones – what do you owe your country, what is the value of service, who goes in your place when you stay home to focus on college and career – get sharper as they get even easier to dodge.

    The post-Vietnam candidates now seeking the presidency followed much the same path of privilege as the one Buttigieg selectively despises, but have done so without their choices being questioned. Maybe it’s time to do that.

    Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      I think it is finally possible today to share the particular response to what I consider the biggest crucible of manhood most of us still living and of a certain age faced- the Vietnam draft. Our responses to the draft are varied but most of us are past the need to judge one another. Buttigieg’s inflating of his “service to country” is the perfect ante to start the game of draft response reconciliation. There will be no winning or losing or bluffing- just everyone’s cards on the table for all to study.

      06/8/19 9:32 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      2

      Buttigieg’s clueless inflating of his warrior status suggests he has an entitlement complex like Obama had. Maybe America wants a follow up feel good atoning -this time for the historic mistreatment of gays? Buttigieg could be counting on the gay vote which might be way more substantial than most assume. But still, why isn’t Gore -America’s own Jeremiah-running instead of Biden? ‘Tis a puzzlement.

      06/9/19 10:48 AM | Comment Link

    • Adam said...

      3

      Interesting post, thank you. But it’s incorrect to say 9/10 people avoided the draft, because 27 million were eligible but only 2 million drafted — the majority of the discrepancy there would be people who were *eligible* for the draft, but not drafted (yet) by the time the war ended, because their number in the lottery had not come up.

      Also I think it would be worth mentioning, as the article you linked states, that due to long waitlists National Guard service was only realistically an option for families with political connections (or the wealth that always guarantees political influence).

      The burden of the draft fell most strongly on working class people who couldn’t afford college or political influence, or a plane to England (and disproportionately on black people, if only because they are disproportionately working class) — but then again, with our all-volunteer army we have now, that contrast is even greater.

      06/10/19 1:36 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      4

      Third time around! Being a warrior for empire post Vietnam has no cachet whatsoever with well informed citizens so why is Buttigieg playing up his “in harm’s way” status? Is he that clueless? Maybe! Political ambition seems to cloud the rationale thinking of humans. But maybe he’s on to something since about 10% of Americans are well informed.

      06/10/19 3:56 PM | Comment Link

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