Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Navy captain and a former assistant secretary of defense.
As we honored the 20 million living veterans on Nov. 11, 2020, and began the peaceful transfer of power to the new administration, I was reminded of something that happened to me in 1966 while I was serving as a naval flight officer in Vietnam.
One of my responsibilities was to coordinate air operations with the swift boats. To make sure I did this effectively, I was asked to ride on a mission one night. During the operation, I asked the commander, a lieutenant junior grade like me, why he had volunteered for such a dangerous mission. (Riding on that boat was the scariest thing I have ever done.) He told me that he was from Alabama and wanted a career in politics at the local and national level and that volunteering for such a dangerous mission was necessary, politically, in his state.
If he is still alive, I wonder what he and the millions of others who were drafted for that war think about the recent presidential election.
Since WWII, the largest military conflict in which the U.S. has engaged was the war in Vietnam, which lasted well over a decade. At the peak of that conflict, the U.S. had more than 500,000 troops deployed there, most of whom were draftees or draft-motivated volunteers. As a result of that lengthy conflict, almost 60,000 military personnel were killed and millions more suffered physical and mental wounds that affect them to this day.
All eight presidents from Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to George H.W. Bush in 1988 served in the military during WWII (though not all saw combat). And some, like John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, were genuine, brave heroes who survived near-death experiences.
However, unlike WWII, none of the Vietnam-era men who were drafted or volunteered to go to that war have been elected to the White House.
Since Bill Clinton -- who was elected in 1992 and 1996 by defeating two WWII heroes, and who avoided the war in Vietnam by falsely claiming to have joined the ROTC -- none of our presidents who could have gone to Vietnam actually served there.
George W. Bush, who succeeded Clinton, used his political connections to get out of going to Vietnam. He joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1965, when it became clear that President Lyndon B. Johnson would not activate the Guard for the war.
In the general election of 2000, Bush beat Vice President Al Gore who, though he opposed the war, enlisted in the Army in 1969 so that someone else would not have to go in his place; he was sent to Vietnam.
In the 2000 primary, Bush beat Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was not only a Navy pilot but a war hero who was captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese.
And in 2004, Bush beat another Vietnam veteran, war hero and swift boat commander, John Kerry, by claiming, among other things, that Kerry may have earned only two instead of three Purple Hearts, a position that was eventually discredited. Kerry actually was awarded not only three Purple Hearts but also the Silver Star and Bronze Star with valor.
In 2008, McCain lost the presidential election to Barack Obama, who was too young to be subjected to the draft during the war in Vietnam.
Both candidates in the most recent election, President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, received questionable deferments in 1968.As is well known, Trump got a doctor who was a tenant in one of his father’s rental properties to claim that he had bone spurs. That same year, Biden received a deferment based upon the fact that he had asthma in high school -- in spite of the fact that, according to his book, he was an outstanding athlete and served as a lifeguard.
Like Clinton, Bush, Gore, Kerry, Trump and Biden, I received a draft notice during the war in Vietnam. Growing up, I had contracted polio. When I took my draft physical (my draft board was the same as Trump’s), the examining physician detected the fact that I had had polio and told me that I would not be able to go into the military unless I got a waiver. Since I did not want to disappoint or dishonor my family (my brother also went to Vietnam), I applied and got the waiver, something I am sure Trump and Biden could have easily done. Moreover, I would not trade my four years on active duty as a naval flight officer in the '60s, even for the White House.
I often wonder not only what that swift boat commander is thinking but what these presidents think about the fact another, probably less well-off person had to go in their place and likely may have been killed or wounded. What about the two years they would have had to spend away from pursuing their careers? For example, if Biden had been drafted in 1968 and spent two years in the Army, could he have run for councilman in New Castle, Delaware, in 1970 -- something that formed the basis for his Senate run in 1972? Would Bill Clinton have been able to get elected governor of Arkansas in 1979?
Hopefully, after the end of the Biden administration, the brave men and women who volunteered to fight the global war on terror will be able to follow in the footsteps of the WWII veterans when it comes to being elected to the highest office in the land.
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