Friday, May 09, 2003

President AWOL; Some Background

Orcinus has a summary of the hoohah over Georgie Bush's military record. It's good. Go read it.

Basically, Georgie's photo op on the Abraham Lincoln dredged up the story of his military service, and this time the story seems to have gotten enough legs for the Republican propaganda machine to have taken a bit of notice. The Ornicus post has pointers to most of the relevant "hard" info. Georgie could end the whole thing by simply releasing his military records, but to do so would be absolutely un-Republican.

However, a lot of the "soft" info has gotten lost in bad or selective memory or wishful thinking. The Vietnam war was not a pleasant national experience. Herewith, some recollections:

"Don't Get Shot"

Remember, we had this thing called "the draft". This seems to be one of the things that has dropped into the memory hole. It was the central item in the life of any male from the age of about sixteen to 26, or until he got a permanent deferment or went into the military. Basically, the Government would tell you to report for duty, and you did, Or Else. Draftees generally got the really nice jobs, like clearing minefields. Nobody has ever adequately explained to me how this isn't "involuntary servitude" as in the context of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court's response to challenges to the draft translate as "pthhhht!"

Basically, the idea that college boys had (not men; can't vote, can't drink, can't sign contracts) was to avoid getting shot (some believed in the war and signed up; we're not talking about them). The options were:

  • Get a deferment. Student deferments were easy to get, but didn't last forever. Medical deferments are the best; ideally, you could get a letter from your own doctor about any medical condition that would keep you out. Ideal ailments were those that didn't show and tended to come and go. Rush Limbaugh's "pilonidal cyst" is about ideal.
  • "Conscientious objector" status got a lot of play, but is effectively impossible unless you were a devout, lifelong Mennonite or a member of a similar religious group. And yes, they took the "lifelong" and "devout" parts seriously. Also, COs tended to get drafted anyway and get shipped to non-combatant jobs in combat zones (medical, generally). Basically, you still got shot at but you couldn't shoot back.
  • Go to jail. The "politically correct" option. Nobody I knew took this option. The problems are obvious, starting with the sad fact that the sentence for draft evasion was wildly variable - up to 25 years depending on how nasty the prosecutor and judge wanted to get.
  • Arrange to be out of the country on your eighteenth birthday. If this is the case, you register for the draft with the local American consulate. You'd still be officially part of the draft pool, but the "overseas" draft quota was zero. This is how Bill Clinton stayed out of the draft. If I remember correctly, you had to be out of the country for an appreciable time - day trips to Canada or Mexico didn't count.
  • Go to Canada. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. Canada was not pleased at being an escape hatch, and had all kinds of restrictions about who could hold a job. Other countries (Sweden was popular) were even stricter about who they let in.
  • Draw a high number. In an attempt to make the draft "more fair" (there was considerable evidence that the draft was anything but random. Protest on Monday, drafted on Tuesday.), the Selective Service established the "draft lottery". Every man of draft age got a number, based on his birthday. Guys got drafted in numerical order. Draw a high enough number, and you're effectively exempt. Unfortunately, this is a gamble, and, near as I can tell, nobody was ever able to "game" the system. Also, there's the problems that "high enough" depended on the particular draft board you'd registered with.
  • Get drafted. Not good. The draftee hitch was two years instead of the standard Army three or Navy or Air Force four, but you were treated like utter garbage by the entire military organization. Basic training was cheap, and there was an effectively infinite supply of draftees. You're an expendable munition.
  • Join up. A bit better chance at a "good" stateside job, but it's three or four years chopped out of your life. Also, there's no guarantee that you won't end up in 'Nam. They need file clerks/radio techs/whatever there, too. The fact that you're not carrying an M-16 through a rice paddy doesn't mean that you can't get caught in a rocket or mortar attack.
  • ROTC sounds like a good idea, until you look at it too closely. After all, if you're going in anyway, you might as well go in as an officer. Unfortunately, what they wanted were infantry officers - exactly what you don't want to be.
  • National Guard. This is the ticket! It's military, so you're not officially "evading your commitment". The commitment is six years instead of four, but it's "military lite". Basically, the politicos gave an ironclad guarantee that the Guard would never be sent to Vietnam. The downside? There's a waiting list. A long waiting list. And VIP's kids bypass the list. Nice political plum to hand out - "support the war and your sons won't have to fight in it".

Effectively, for most guys, there were only two ways to avoid getting shot:

  1. Get a deferment.
  2. Join the Guard.

The first took money and you really had to have a "deferrable" problem. The draft boards generally didn't check up on letters describing medical conditions, but doctors could get into really serious trouble for writing fake letters. For example, Ménières syndrome was regarded as the "perfect" problem. Episodically disabling, but essentially impossible to prove. Even if you had it, the draft board probably wouldn't accept it. Too many fakes.

The second one took political "pull". This Georgie Bush had in abundance. Not only did he get in, ahead of the waiting list, but he got fighter pilot training, the biggest plum the Guard can offer.

Fighter Jocks

I've known a few fighter jocks. The one thing they have in common is a total obsession with flying. They'll do anything to stay flying.

Georgie got the E ticket. And he blew it off. To me, this is one of the most puzzling aspects of the whole affair. The usual hypothesis is that either

  1. The Guard had started requiring drug tests at pilots' physicals.
  2. Georgie was doing "community service" for an offence that was expunged from his record. He couldn't get back in time to take the physical.
Both are true, but I don't like either as an explanation. The first falls on the fact that early drug tests were a joke. They might detect opiates or barbiturates. Anything else, forget it. The second falls because this would seem to be a "legitimate excuse"; Georgie almost certainly could have rescheduled. The military does not like losing pilots to administrative problems.

The only thing I can think of that makes sense is that Georgie simply got tired of his shiny new toy and went on to other things. Another thing that supports this hypothesis is that he never got a private pilot's license. This fact alone tells me that he was never a "real" fighter jock. Also that he had serious pull. Your friendly average military type (of whatever rank!) doesn't have the option of simply blowing off an assignment, especially one that involves some very expensive training.

The Guard

During the Vietnam war, the National Guard did not have a good reputation. Their exemption from duty in Vietnam did not sit at all well with the other services. I have no personal knowledge of what went on in any Guard unit, but muckraker extraordinaire Jack Anderson did many columns on the Guard. They described incompetent officers (mostly silly-incompetent, not nasty-incompetent), enlisted men who screwed off all the time and smoked vast quantities of pot, and crooked but amazingly incompetent supply officers. The Texas Air National Guard came in for particular criticism. We have no equivalent of Jack Anderson any more. Alas for American journalism.

The Current Military

Let's just say that nobody with any brains is pining for a return to the Good Old Days of the draft. The current military, from absolutely all reports I've heard, is vastly superior in every respect to the Vietnam era military. The only ones pushing for a new draft are boneheads who want a whiter military. (Am I saying that the people calling for a new draft are racists? Yes. Also stupid.)

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