As another Memorial Day came and went, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was criticizing President Donald Trump for reportedly considering pardons for several service members accused of war crimes. He called the idea “slander against veterans that could only come from somebody who never served.” 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 also defended NFL national anthem protests, declaring, “Trump would get it if he had served.” He claimed he’d “put his life on the line” for those rights.
Buttigieg gets away unchallenged with these shots because critical thought on military service is the third rail of journalism. But context matters. Buttigieg did all of six months in 2014 as a reservist deep inside Bagram Airfield, 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, Buttigieg 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 that entered 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 Buttigieg. So if you wanna measure for size, bro, the line forms behind Moulton and Gabbard.
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 his service for all it is worth politically, stretching a short tour into civics lessons he suggests can’t be learned any other way.
But if Mayor Pete is going to make his service such a part of his public biography—and if he wants to invite comparisons among himself, other candidates, and other presidents—then his short military tenure cannot be treated as bulletproof. As one veteran put it, “If he’s going to use his combat time as a discriminator, then it gets to be evaluated.”
Veteran and podcaster Pete Turner writes, “He went to war: that’s commendable and honorable,” continuing, “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 that even a little service produces a better man than none at all, which clearly informs his opinion of the man dubbed “President Bone Spurs.” Buttigieg, alongside the The New York Times (which 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 frontrunner Joe Biden received five student draft deferments, the same number as Dick Cheney, and in 1968, when Biden’s student status was wrapping up, was medically reclassified as “not available” due to having had asthma as a teenager. 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. And 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 be talking about Biden as well as Trump. And if you are now learning about Biden’s multiple deferments for the first time, maybe you should 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 with slogans like “Love the Warrior, Hate the War.” Sixty percent of men in the Vietnam generation took active measures to qualify for deferments, while up to 90 percent of National Guard enlistments (domestic service instead of Vietnam) were draft-motivated. Trump’s—as well as Clinton’s, Cheney’s, Biden’s, Sanders’, Bush’s, et al—story is “surprisingly typical of his generation,” according to 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 their sons to Vietnam, a place from which more than 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. That occurred in numbers far lower than movies would have you believe, but it was enough to leave officers living under threats far greater than any Lieutenant Buttigieg ever conceived of in Afghanistan.
Down one path or another, more than 15 million men of Trump’s and Biden’s generation sought to avoid military service in Vietnam. 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. As president, Clinton 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 had purposefully delayed his case to thank him for “saving me from the draft.”
Context matters. As The New York Times said when Clinton 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‘s 1992 point is more valid when talking about Trump than all the hit pieces they’ve written in 2019. During the Vietnam war draft era, most who could afford college or to pay the right doctors could get deferments. Others took a middle road, the George W. Bushes and Dan Quayles 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 physicals by gaining or losing substantial amounts of weight and claiming to be gay both 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 for 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 nine out of 10 found alternatives. And in the end, no Vietnam vet (see John McCain and John Kerry) has ever been elected president. Two who dodged the draft were.
Like hauling out old yearbook photos to sanctimoniously judge them in the Pure Light of 2019, Buttigieg is wrong to compare his service to anyone but that of his peers, because the real questions didn’t end when the draft did in 1973. Instead of using Vietnam-era actions as a hypocritical political cudgel, Buttigieg should tell us why he volunteered to serve and why Obama, and now Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and the rest, did not. Though a draft did not force them to decide, they still 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 even as they get easier to dodge.
The post-Vietnam candidates now seeking the presidency followed in the same path of privilege as those Buttigieg selectively despises, but have done so without their choices being questioned. Maybe it’s time to change that.