The brouhaha over what President Bush did or didnt do in Alabama during the war in Vietnam misses the point. Even if he put in all the time required by the Air National Guard, the real question, which nearly everyone evades, is: what obligation did a young man have with respect to that war?
Every respectable politician must say (if he is to remain respectable) that when ones country calls one to war, one goes. In 1968 men were being drafted and sent 10,000 miles from home to shoot Vietnamese, so it was said, to save Vietnam from communism. But there were legal ways to avoid the draft. You could go to college. After that you could go to graduate school. (That eventually became a less-sure out.)
Or you could join the National Guard. This is not a slur on the Guard. Its units are being sent to war today regrettably. But during the Vietnam war, this was not so. Everyone my age (54) knew in the late 1960s that if you got into the Guard, you would not be sent to Vietnam. Thats why people joined or tried to join. Not everyone could get in. You needed connections. A Bush in Texas, needless to say, had connections.
President Bush said he supported the war in Vietnam, although he thinks it was a mistake to let the politicians run it. (Reality check: Wars are waged by governments. Therefore, all wars are political, as Clausewitz taught us.) He supported it, but he opted out of volunteering to go even when he joined the Guard. Why? I suppose his reason was something like Vice President Cheneys reason for taking student deferments from the draft: he had other priorities.
Thats okay, but I imagine all the other draftees did too. (As a potential draftee, I certainly did; luckily I was medically deferred.) What they didnt have were connections or academic credentials. Too bad for them. Colin Powell, a Vietnam vet and now secretary of state, used to resent it that privileged kids were able to avoid Vietnam. He doesnt talk that way now.
In my view, the problem back then was not that the rich and well-connected could get out of what is preciously called service. The problem was that the unrich and unconnected couldnt. In other words, the problem (or one of them) was the draft. By any reasonable definition, the draft is slavery. It may be for only two years (if the draftee survives), but it is slavery nonetheless.
What about this alleged obligation to fight when your country calls? I have news for you: countries dont call. Governments do. No wait; thats still too abstract, too elevated. During the Vietnam war, it was Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon who were calling. Two corrupt political men were sending kids to kill and die in a jungle theyd never have gone to otherwise. (We shouldnt let the pro-war members of Congress off the hook either. They could have stopped it.) If were going to de-romanticize war, we can start by getting clear about who does the calling.
Now we have a different question. Was a young man morally obligated to obey Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon when ordered off to war? I cant see where this obligation would come from. Back then an 18-year-old couldnt even vote. But even if he could, why would that impose an obligation to abandon his life on command?
The upshot is that no one should be faulted today for having avoided Vietnam, however he accomplished it. (Yes, that includes Bill Clinton.) Any society dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if it is to have any integrity, must acknowledge that the draft was criminal and that avoidance was justified.
President Bushs flaw lies not in having avoided Vietnam. It lies in his not saying forthrightly that he should not have had to face that necessity and that no American should ever have to face such a necessity in the future.