Sunday, September 26, 2004


Rear Echelon Types

Is it fair and accurate to call Bush a draft dodger?

In wartime, the majority of men and women in uniform are not combat troops. War is such a vast logistical undertaking, that it requires literally an army just to handle logistics for the minority of troops who will actually be doing the shooting and getting shot at. For every combat soldier there are anywhere from 5 to 8 "rear echelon" types, soldiers in various support roles who get nowhere near the fighting. During Vietnam, George W. Bush was about as "rear echelon" as you can get.

Althouse writes a thoughtful and interesting post (dated 9/23) about draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, but I need to disagree with the following comment in the blog:

The subject came up in connection with calling President Bush a draft dodger for joining the National Guard. One thing you can say here, and I've said it myself, is that calling Bush a draft dodger for joining the National Guard offends all the many people who have served in the National Guard. Another thing one could say is that joining the Navy, as Kerry did, is "draft dodging," by the same token, because it is another option men chose in preference to being drafted. ...[E]very young man I knew back in the Vietnam era sought to avoid the draft, and no one felt the slightest need to feel ashamed of doing so.

Let’s hold aside the question of taking offense on behalf of folks in the National Guard. (I say, let’s let them take their own umbrage -- I actually know a Guardsman who is quite irritated at Bush for the current administration’s "back door draft" policy of extending Guard tours of duty, and who thus may not be offended by the remark.) Althouse is technically quite right that Bush is not a draft dodger, in most senses. But the comment misses the larger point.

It may help to look at different meanings of the "draft dodging" epithet:

1) Breaking the law and evading military service (going to Canada, etc.).
2) Bending the law by fabricating or exaggerating one’s lawful eligibility to avoid the draft (e.g., letter of unfitness from a psychiatrist).
3) Taking advantage of exceptions in the draft law to which one is lawfully entitled (e.g., Dick Cheney’s and Bill Clinton’s student deferments).
4) Proactively getting into "safe" military service ("W" Bush volunteering for the National Guard).

Most people who use the term "draft dodging," have categories 1 and 2 in mind. Cheney is not a draft dodger under category 1 and 2, and Bush is not a draft dodger under categories 1 through 3.

The implications of the Althouse comment are that Bush and Kerry are in the same boat, in category 4. But that is neither fair nor accurate. While undoubtedly the Navy during Vietnam was a less dangerous service than, say, the Marine Corps, it was still combat duty that entailed assignment to a combat zone. The Texas Air National Guard was not. Moreover – and I cannot stress this enough – KERRY WAS SHOT AT IN COMBAT BY ENEMY SOLDIERS TRYING TO KILL HIM. Bush used his father’s influence to get assigned to part of the military in which there was an extremely low likelihood of getting within the same continent as actual fighting, and as events unfolded, he was able to take part in local political campaigns and go to business school without being shot at in combat by any enemy soldiers trying to kill him. Isn’t that a fairly significant ground to put Bush and Kerry in different categories? To call Kerry a "draft dodger," you would have to create a fifth category:

5) Someone who volunteered for less dangerous active military service during wartime, perhaps sort of hoping not to get shot at, but who ended up in combat where he did his job with courage even as enemy soldiers were shooting at him and trying to kill him.

Hmm, sounds like draft dodging to me.

I am quite comfortable with a definition of draft dodging as breaking or bending the law (categories 1 and 2), in which case neither Bush nor Cheney (nor Clinton) are draft dodgers. Many people whom many of us love and respect were category 1 and 2 draft dodgers, and as Althouse says, it was not a source of shame in many circles. But there is this difference. Bush and Cheney were not opposed to the Vietnam War, yet they found ways to avoid fighting in it. They were quite happy to let others fight that one for them. Bush found a safe way out of harm’s way that would enable him, in the future, to run for public office and have campaign biographies showing pictures of him in uniform.

I suspect that most category 1 and 2 draft dodgers during Vietnam were opposed to the Vietnam war. It is one thing to get yourself shot at by enemy soldiers trying to kill you when you believe that the war is a fundamentally good cause. It is quite another to put your life on the line for a war you believe your country should not be fighting. I like to think that I would have done whatever duty I was called on to do in World War II, but had I been of draft age during Vietnam, I’m afraid that I probably would have sought options in categories 1 through 4.

If people call Bush a draft dodger, they may be using badly chosen language, but are getting at the underlying truth: Bush and Cheney have an attitude toward war that is disturbing in a President and Vice President. Being in the rear echelon lets you have it both ways – you can tell everyone you did your duty, and be quite hawkish about sending the poor front-line slobs to get themselves shot at in the next war. There is no shame in dodging the draft for an unjust war.

The shame is in advocating wars that you yourself would not fight.

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