With the nomination and election of a president coming up next year,
we're going to be hearing a lot about the military service of the
candidates. Such information has been de rigueur for the better part of
the 20th century, but there will be one enormous change in the election
of 2000: the candidates will be talking -- or trying to avoid talking --
about Vietnam instead of World War II.
In every presidential election since Harry Truman upset Tom Dewey in 1946
-- with the sole exception of Bill Clinton -- the winner has served in
the military during a war. Truman was the last of the World War I
involved in World War II combat. Carter and Nixon saw noncombat duty with
the Navy, and Reagan made training films.
George Bush got his Navy wings in Corpus Christi, Texas, two weeks after
I did. We are on facing pages in the Navy yearbook called, rather
quaintly in this era of computerized jets, "The Slipstream." What
happened after we were commissioned illustrates dramatically what a large
role luck plays during a war. Because the U.S. was losing pilots rapidly
in the Pacific, my entire graduating class was sent to instructor's
school to learn how to teach the increasing number of pilots being
trained. George Bush's class was processed immediately for combat in the
South Pacific, where a substantial number of them were killed.
Not surprisingly, Bush's campaign managers spent a good deal of time and
effort contrasting his distinguished military record with Clinton's
sidestepping during Vietnam. It didn't appear to change very many minds.
The reason, it seems to me, is that because these were very different
wars, individual comparisons were not seen as valid.
While World War II was a period of unparalleled national unity, Vietnam
was a time of violent disagreement that failed our combat troops
miserably and probably damaged this country more irreparably than any
event since the American Civil War.
There was a special kind of wrenching that took place among World War II
vets with sons of military age who opposed the Vietnam War. Although I
was spared this agony because my son failed the physical exam as the
result of a serious childhood illness, I was prepared to support whatever
course he chose.
I bring this up now because of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times
that explored in great detail the military choices made by Al Gore during
the Vietnam War. It is tough reporting and useful information that I hope
will be researched with equal diligence for the other major candidates.
I also hope this information will be measured against the realities of
the Vietnam War period. That war was fought for us mostly by military
professionals and kids without clout. The young men who went to work out
of high school were fair game and were drafted by the hundreds of
thousands. The sons of middle- and upper-class Americans were protected
in college for four years and then by such early combat shelters as the
military reserves and the various state National Guards.
It was when these alternatives became overcrowded or ran their course
that Lyndon Johnson started to feel the real heat to get us out of
Vietnam. In World War II, students left college by the thousands to
enlist in the military; during Vietnam, they flocked to colleges by the
thousands to avoid military service in a war that the majority of
Americans didn't support. Bill Clinton was simply following this lead.
It's unfortunate -- and also hypocritical -- that he couldn't deal with
his opposition to that war directly and honestly. Gore did, dramatizing
the difference once more between Gore and Clinton on moral issues.
Gore's U.S. Senator father was one of the leading opponents of the
Vietnam War in Congress. His son was deeply involved in antiwar
activities at Harvard. So when Al got out of college, he had a tough
decision to make: heed his country's call to fight a war to which he was
implacably opposed, or use the clout available to him to avoid it.
After agonizing for several weeks, he joined the Army and served for five
months in Vietnam. That he has exaggerated his role in the war in public
statements is unfortunate. But the bottom line is that he made a tough
decision in which duty to his country superseded his strong feelings of
antipathy for the war.
When you're weighing the military claims of the candidates in the months
to come, consider that Bill Bradley's Vietnam service was stateside in
the Air Force Reserve. George W. Bush -- from a family that strongly
supported the Vietnam War -- embraced the safety net of the Texas Air
National Guard. So did J. Danforth Quayle, whose family newspapers poured
gasoline on the Vietnam conflict daily, but saw fit to help son Dan find
a sinecure in the Indiana National Guard.
There is one substantial Vietnam figure among the presidential
candidates: Arizona Senator John McCain. That his war service was
predestined by the achievements of his military family takes nothing away
from his heroism. But we need to look at the others with a clear eye,
too. And if the military issue is fuzzy, the hypocrisy may not be.
* JOSEPH N. BELL is a Santa Ana Heights resident. His column runs