Eric Alterman reminds us that choices matter
It’s amazing and a bit disgusting that our election seems to be turning on a war that took place thirty years ago in which the man who served honorably both in the war and in the anti-war movement is on the defensive against the man who supported the war but took a pass on any service or sacrifice it might have involved, but there it is. Given that we have no choice but to engage the issue, let’s think about it for a moment and see if we can isolate the kinds of decisions that faced young men in those dark days when American leaders—as they are doing today—unjustly sent America’s youth to pay for their own folly and ignorance.
Recall that only privileged Americans had a choice as to whether to fight in Vietnam. The sons of poor and working-class people did not have access to educational deferments and hence were unceremoniously sent to the firing line. Given that, here are a few categories of the choices faced and the choices made, in what I judge to be descending order of moral fortitude.
A taxonomy of positions on Vietnam:
Category A: Exhibiting the strength of one’s moral convictions.
1. Supported the war and served in Vietnam (John Kerry, John McCain)
2. Opposed the war and served in Vietnam because it would have been unfair to force someone less fortunate to take one’s place (Al Gore)
3. Opposed the war and dedicated oneself to anti-war movement at some personal risk, including conscientious objection. (This position is not as dangerous as serving in a war, but it is nevertheless just as moral. The war was evil. Putting oneself at legal and physical risk as many did to try to end this evil strikes me as an unimpeachable moral position, though given America’s political culture, it would also be untenable for any contemporary presidential candidate to hold.)
Category B: Exhibiting the strength of one’s moral convictions after protecting one’s posterior
* Opposed the war, protected self, and then worked for anti-war movement (Bill Clinton)
This position seems to me to be the minimum necessary to consider oneself a moral being. Risking one’s person for one’s principles is a lot to ask for most of us, but the least one could ask is that if we identify an evil that is literally killing people, our peers included, one lifts a proverbial finger to stop it, say, by working for the presidential candidacies of Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern.
Category C: Having no convictions to protect save self-protection
* Opposed the war, protected self, let others worry about it (Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman)
This is the position of those who merely opted out of the question, accepted their college deferments and went on with their lives and did not feel any sense of responsibility for their peers and countrymen.
Category D: Contradicting one’s alleged convictions in the service of protecting one’s posterior
* Supported the war, preferred to let others fight and die for it (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney)
This seems to me to be the least defensible position imaginable. Bush and Cheney both used their privileged positions to protect themselves; Cheney says he did it because he had “other priorities.” Bush says he did it because he wanted to “better himself” by learning to fly planes. Whether he deserted his post or not—and I think he did—it is incontrovertible that he wasted the government’s million dollar investment in his training by allowing his qualifications to lapse while he was still supposed to be on active duty.