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The Fog of Military Service
by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
The news that George W. Bush may have abandoned his duty for a period of time while in the National Guard may have short-term effects on polls and possibly longer-term impact on the presidential election. But, it also symbolizes what is the “baby-boomer” generation's “Munich” example (see below).
Bush's service record brought back into the bright lights doubts about the president's character that many Americans have been willing to dismiss or forgive since September 11, 2001: use of family connections for business purposes and a track record of mediocre accomplishments, to name a couple. For almost an entire week, the Bush team seemed almost in siege mode.
No one debated whether George Bush saved anyone's life, or saw combat, or helped take an enemy position or lead such an assault. Instead, it was about whether he successfully fulfilled the minimum requirements of his National Guard obligation.
But, just as interesting was the controversy that was not raging. No one debated whether George Bush saved anyone's life, or saw combat, or helped take an enemy position or lead such an assault. Instead, it was about whether he successfully fulfilled the minimum requirements of his National Guard obligation. His defense? That he showed up, and that his pay stubs and dental records prove it. That's certainly taking a big stand on a small patch of ground.
Yet, the flare-up, though damaging, was probably well timed in the eyes of Team Bush. It was an opportunity to “plumb the depths” on an issue that was likely to surface in any campaign against Sen. John Kerry. So, better to deal with it now, rather than nearer to November. In mid-February, at any rate, polls show that about half of all Americans did not consider Bush's military record a problem. Whether it influences the vote may depend on whether the election is a close one. Bush's Guard service may remain an underlying question during the campaign, especially if what appears to be his avoidance of service in the Vietnam War is perceived as connected to other doubts about his credibility, such as why we went to war in Iraq. To Bush's campaign advisors, that connection may be the land mine on the campaign trail.
Kerry's war experience, despite its sharp contrast to Bush's, may not help him as much as he hopes when voters get ready to punch chads. Kerry enlisted in the Navy during the war, saw action, was wounded three times, and won several medals for bravery. He also turned his boat around while under enemy fire to rescue a comrade. But, Americans aren't ready to vote for a president on that basis alone.
Also in February, the Washington Post published a round-table discussion of five Vietnam War veterans, four men and one woman, who discussed this very question. Their opinions were not uniform. Taken together, they suggest that even Vietnam veterans are ambiguous about the war.
One veteran admired Kerry's war service, but was repulsed that Kerry, a vet himself, publicly opposed the war while soldiers were still fighting it. Another felt the fact that Bush joined the Guard was clearly an attempt only to save his hide, as well as being an option that poor, less educated teenagers didn't enjoy. Another said that during the war many vets were assigned their missions, whether in Germany or in Vietnam, without regard for their wishes; so few should get points for assignments made by some unknown sergeant. But they all agreed that what happened thirty years ago isn't necessarily the best yardstick for a voter in 2004.
After World War II, the generation that fought it and lived through it decided that the war's greatest lesson was the error of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at a 1938 meeting in Munich. Chamberlain's action, in effect, gave Hitler a green light to Nazi Germany's expansion. The West's consensus about the Munich conference guided its conduct of the Cold War all the way to Gorbachev's perestroika.
Today, America is mixed on the relevance of military service because we remain mixed about Vietnam, and the generation that lived during the war and fought the war probably always will be. Most Americans seem to hold several conflicting views simultaneously, while being incapable of reaching judgment on a few of the foundational issues.
I expect that most Americans now believe the [Vietnam] war was wrong. But in what way? Among the many answers are: we didn't know how to win a guerrilla war, the generals didn't let the soldiers do their job. . . Fewer people are willing to say it was an immoral war, and fewer still that all wars are immoral.
I expect that most Americans now believe the war was wrong. But in what way? Among the many answers are: we didn't know how to win a guerrilla war, the generals didn't let the soldiers do their job, it was the right war in the wrong place, we intervened in a civil war in which we had no right to be involved. Fewer people are willing to say it was an immoral war, and fewer still that all wars are immoral.
Most of us seem unwilling to take one single stand on the foundational question, partly because of the implications for the soldiers who fought it. After all, they are our brothers, fathers, sisters, and children who died in action or went missing. If the war was fundamentally immoral, how should we view those who engaged in it, most of whom likely felt they had no other options? If the war was fundamentally moral, how do we justify Agent Orange, My Lai, Tiger Force, and “strategic hamlets”? Consequently, most of us reach conclusions, often contradictory, on some of the lesser issues and suspend our judgment on the big moral questions.
One veteran in the Post's roundtable discussion, however, said something utterly prescient, and it is probably the prism through which so much of our confusion becomes clarified: “Service to country is the highest form of citizenship.” The identity of most Americans – religious or not, Christian or not – remains firmly rooted in the land that most of us have been accidentally born into. The national trauma that was Vietnam some 30 years ago and our inability to reach moral conclusions about it even today have not put a dent into America's civil religion.
Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is a Witness contributing editor, and his regular online column is The View from Sardis . He lives in Berkeley, California, and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .