Last week The New York Times ran a follow-up on a decades-old story of President Trump’s exemption from the military draft. Though Trump and I have little else in common, our experiences regarding the draft are similar. Citizens of pluralist democratic societies have political obligations, including the responsibility to serve in the military if required by political circumstances and the law. Both Trump and I – like many young men of our generation – avoided fulfilling that obligation. Should we feel guilty, repent, and/or make amends?
Trump and I were born within two months of each other. Upon graduation from high school in 1964 (when the U.S. was beginning to put “boots on the ground” in Vietnam), we both registered for the draft but received deferments until we graduated from college in 1968. By then, the U.S. had become more deeply involved in Vietnam, college campuses were afire with anti-war protests, and like many of our peers, both Trump and I hoped to escape the draft. Like many other college graduates at that time, we succeeded.
Although Trump was athletic and in excellent health, he was classified 1-Y (as having a “temporary” medical exemption). Apparently, Trump received a 1-Y classification because a podiatrist who felt indebted to Trump’s father (Dr. Larry Braunstein) furnished a letter testifying that Trump had bone spurs in his feet. While Trump has acknowledged that such a malady was a minor and temporary condition, he was not called back for another physical. A year and half later, Trump’s physical limitations became a moot issue as the U.S. instituted a lottery as a fairer method of meeting its military needs. Trump was lucky to get a high enough lottery number that ensured that our military needs would be satisfied by enlisting others receiving lower lottery numbers. That would have been the end of the story had Trump not sought political office, campaigned on the issue of building up America’s military strength, and made a number of offensive remarks about those who had served in the military (such as disparaging John McCain being captured and held as a prisoner of war for many years by the North Vietnamese). As a result, Trump’s political adversaries have used his “draft dodging” story to raise questions about his fitness to serve as the country’s commander in chief.
While I count myself among Trump’s opponents, making an issue of his “draft dodging” might mark me as a hypocrite, as I too escaped the draft. During my final semester in college, I looked into alternative ways of fulfilling my political obligations. The most noteworthy of these was to apply for the Navy’s Officer Candidate School (OCS). In March 1968, I took my physical and interviewed for admission to OCS. I passed the physical and believed my interview went well. I thought my interviewers would be impressed with my leadership experiences, my understanding of political obligations, and my command of the facts surrounding our military involvements in Vietnam and around the world. I thought I was particularly articulate in explaining why I would resist orders from any rogue officer who might command the massacre of children, women, and other civilians (as Lt. William Calley had done at My Lai).
Before hearing about admission to OCS, I was ordered to report for my Army physical. My father had an appointment with Doc Mielke, our family physician, and commented to him that I was depressed and fearful about going to Vietnam. Prompted by his own son’s recent return from Vietnam and his stories about the foolishness and atrocities of our involvement there, Doc Mielke recalled that I had a history of childhood asthma and gave my Dad a brief note, stating that this childhood condition might well reemerge in the jungles of Vietnam, and that, if drafted, I should be assigned to a job in an air-conditioned office. When my dad, gave me this letter, I rolled by eyes and exclaimed, “Yeah, that’s going to help me a lot!,” but I did not discard it.
Upon arriving in Milwaukee a few weeks later for my Army physical, I was told that to speed things along (given the simultaneous arrival of busloads of other potential draftees), my previous Navy physical would suffice and that I would not have to retake the physical. But shortly thereafter, I was told that the record of my Navy physical could not be found on the premises and that I would have to walk about a mile to the Navy facility to get their record of that earlier physical. Upon arrival there, two things happened. First, I learned that I had failed my “psychological” interview – apparently the military did not cotton to leftists like me who questioned authority. Second, I was given a Xeroxed copy of my prior physical.
Upon returning to the Army facility with my Navy physical, it was noticed that I had only a Xeroxed copy of that physical, and that an original was required. The normal procedure in this situation was to give the Xerox copy to an officer charged with redoing it by hand, and I would just have to wait until that was completed. After a long wait, I was finally told that the officer in charge of this task was taking an “extended coffee break,” and now that most of the other recruits had been processed for the day, I should quickly re-do the physical.
So I did. As the process was nearing completion, I was asked if I had any other matters to report. Only at this point did I reach into my back pocket and produce Doc Mielke’s letter. The attending officer rolled his eyes and attached it to the rest of my paperwork and told me to go to the final stop in the process.
On doing so, the Major charged with making the final determination of my eligibility for the draft greeted me: “Paul, what brings you back?” Amazingly, this was the same guy that had found me well-qualified physically for the Navy OSC. And since I was also the last guy through on that earlier occasion, we had chatted about the war, the military, political obligations, etc., and he seemed to recall that conversation better than I. In any event, as I answered that I was now here for my Army physical, he began to page through my paperwork and noticed Doc Mielke’s letter. “You didn’t have this letter when you came through for your OCS physical.” “That’s true,” I responded, “I am willing to serve our country, but I have deep reservations about this war and how the Army is violating civilian rights in Vietnam.” The Major simply looked at me and smiled, “This is your lucky day,” and he stamped my paperwork 1-Y, and told me that this meant that I would be called for another examination only if there was a true national emergency. And the odds against my serving in the military became even slimmer when – like Trump – I received a high lottery number at the beginning of 1970.
What repercussions flowed from Trump’s and my military exemptions? Trump has claimed to feel a bit guilty for his good fortune but he is not the sort of guy who repents. My sense of personal guilt was ameliorated by knowing that many others in similar circumstances received exemptions and deferrals that kept them out of Vietnam, and putting this story out now is the closest I have come to repentance. But I have suffered from two kinds of group-based guilt. First, as an American, I have felt implicated in the hideous crimes and oppressions resulting from my country’s involvements in an unjustified war. Second, as a white, educated male, I recognize that I had escaped threats to my life and liberties that less fortunate young men had endured.
I also remain unsure that I have made amends for my good fortune. I can point to three kinds of “service” that I have subsequently rendered as perhaps being adequate “make-ups” for being exempted from serving in Vietnam. On several occasions during the late 1970s, I taught at the United States Army Command and Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, contributing to the analytical, research, and statistical skills of those at the highest ranks of our military. Twenty-five years later in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I participated in CIA analyses of future strategic threats against the U.S. And throughout my teaching career, I have urged students to focus less on their citizen rights and more on their political obligations. In this regard, I have tried to make young people question the justice of our relying on volunteers rather than conscripts as a means of manning our military.
But the adequacy of any amends made for avoiding one’s political obligations are better judged by our fellow citizens than by ourselves. Having never stood for public office, my “draft dodging” story has never been scrutinized by the press or my fellow citizens. Should you do so now, I would not contest the judgment that I benefitted more from my draft exemption than the country and my fellow citizens have benefitted from my make-ups.
Perhaps Trump’s term of office as the U.S. President is an adequate make-up for his exemption from the draft, but this is not for Trump to decide. American voters and/or their representatives must be his jury and render a verdict about the effectiveness of his presidency. The evidence accumulated thus far points to a negative judgment.