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August 24, 2004

The Vietnam Service of Bush, Kerry, Edwards, and Cheney: Not All That Different

Kerry has made a big deal of his service in Vietnam, and Democrats sneer a lot at Bush and Cheney. It turns out, though, that Kerry and Bush actually made very similar choices regarding combat service in Vietnam. Cheney and Edwards also made similar choices, though a different one than Kerry and Bush. Kerry and Bush chose to volunteer for military service that had little likelihood of seeing combat in Vietnam. Cheney and Edwards chose not to volunteer, and were not subject to the draft under the standard rules.

The brief story is this. Bush served in the Air National Guard, safe from combat duty because the National Guard was not called up. Kerry served in the Navy, which he thought was safe from combat duty for non-pilots, but after he volunteered for small-boat duty, the Navy unexpectedly started sending small boats into combat. Cheney was exempt from the draft for a year because he was married and then because he had a child, and he didn't volunteer, though he could have. Edwards was exempt from the draft too-- maybe because they'd ended it by the time he was old enough, maybe because he was a college student-- and he didn't volunteer, though he could have. None of them engaged in the same kind of dishonorable evasion as Clinton, unless Kerry is unable to refute recent evidence of fraud in manufacturing two of his Purple Hearts in order to escape the combat zone.

What I hadn't realized until recently was Kerry's position. Here is the Washington Post's (R) report on how he got into combat.

When Kerry signed up to command a Swift boat in the summer of 1968, he was inspired by the example of his hero, John F. Kennedy, who had commanded the PT-109 patrol boat in the Pacific in World War II. But Kerry had little expectation of seeing serious action. At the time the Swift boats -- or PCFs (patrol craft fast), in Navy jargon -- were largely restricted to coastal patrols. "I didn't really want to get involved in the war," Kerry wrote in a book of war reminiscences published in 1986.

The role of the Swift boats changed dramatically toward the end of 1968, when Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., commander of U.S. naval forces in South Vietnam, decided to use them to block Vietcong supply routes through the Mekong Delta. Hundreds of young men such as Kerry, with little combat experience, suddenly found themselves face to face with the enemy.

I'd just assumed that Kerry volunteered to join Swift boats rather than stay safely on the big ships offshore, because he wanted to see action. But it seems he admits that is not the case. Rather, he thought the Swift boats wouldn't see action. Kerry had a lot of yachting experience, and he no doubt thought it would be more fun to skipper his own small boat instead of serving as a flunkey on a ship. Navy policy changed, and Kerry found he had inadvertently volunteered for combat. He accepted that, as he had to, and served enthusiastically in combat for four months before getting out as quickly as he could.

How about Edwards? Did he have the chance to volunteer? Yes. He finished NC State in 1974, so he could have volunteered in 1970, fresh out of high school. But he did not. That's fine-- but don't criticize Cheney for not doing what Edwards failed to do.

How about Cheney? As even a web post critical of Cheney makes clear, he did not have to do anything special to be exempt from the draft, unless getting married at age 23 and having a child after you get married is special. He is no more to be criticized than some 35-year-old who was exempt from the draft but failed to volunteer. He is less to be criticized than the many, many 19-year olds who were not drafted and did not volunteer, since Cheney had already entered the adult world and would have found a stint in the military much more disruptive than an unmarried teenager would have.

The liberal response is, I think, something like this from the article posted above.

Quite frankly, I would have done the same thing as Cheney (if I wasn't 9 at the time). The difference between the Veep and me is that I wouldn't have the temerity to criticize someone who not only served in Viet Nam, but was wounded three times and won several honors for courage and bravery.
A second liberal response is that Cheney favors the war in Iraq, even though he did not volunteer to serve in the War in Vietnam.

Both of these are bad objections, even aside from the fact that their objection is not to Cheney's behavior but to his policy views. First-- why is it wrong for someone who doesn't deserve medals and doesn't claim to deserve them to criticize Kerry if he didn't deserve medals but did claim them? Actually, I don't think Cheney did even that. Cheney just criticized Kerry's foreign policy positions-- fair game regardless of who did what back in 1968. Second, Cheney may well have opposed the Vietnam War even while supporting the Iraq War. I, myself, think service in the Vietnam War 1965-68 was largely a waste of time due to the incompetence of President Johnson and his military leaders, even though I strongly believe we ought to have defended South Vietnam with the more effective policies of Richard Nixon. In particular, the Johnson policy of drafting large numbers of young men and sending them to Vietnam was a mistake-- a mistake Cheney and Bush have avoided in the Iraq War. Also, a conservative who supports a war is like a liberal who supports bigger government. We shouldn't criticize the conservative if he fails to volunteer his services for the war, and we shouldn't criticize the liberal if he just pays the taxes he owes and doesn't kick in extra because he supports big government.

Most of this Cheney stuff is digression, though. The bottom line is that Bush and Kerry volunteered for relatively safe and pleasant-- though still time- consuming-- forms of military service, and Cheney and Edwards chose not to volunteer. All four choices seem reasonable to me. The only dishonor would be in Kerry manufacturing evidence of wounds in order to get out of Vietnam with 7 months of his 12-month tour of duty still to go.

(See my Kerry in Vietnam archives for more posts)

Posted by erasmuse at August 24, 2004 11:31 PM

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