Bone spurs, childhood asthma, and exemptions from military service

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.


These Truths: A book review

These Truths: A History of the United States, released a couple of months ago, is a big book.  Written by Jill Lepore, reflecting her lectures as a distinguished professor of history at Harvard and her many essays in the New Yorker, it contains  almost 800 pages of text and almost 2000 footnotes. But its magnitude is only partially measured by its length and scholarly depth.  It is a book of great scope and importance.

Its scope encompasses major aspects of American history from Columbus’ initial voyage through the beginnings of Trump’s presidency.   Its importance is the themes it revisits during various periods of that history.  I will stress two of her themes here.

First is the blindness that many Americans have shown toward minorities of all types; beyond discriminating against Native American, Africans, Latinos, Asians, women, gays, and other “minorities,”  we have systematically oppressed them throughout our history.  We might decry that Trump has given voice to racism and sexism and that we now normalize his crude statements and his biased objectives and policies, but Lepore makes clear that Trumpism has been a regular reoccurrence in American history.  Second, is the limited and declining respect that Americans have had for truth.  Partisans have always purposely misled and lied about objectively true facts, but today we live in a country where respect for truth has declined to the vanishing point, leaving us with little common ground upon which we can mediate or resolve our differences.  While she does not absolve liberals from contributing to our current crisis, she stresses that “conservatives had pulled up the ship (of state)’s planking to make bonfires of rage…demolishing the idea of truth itself.”

Against claims of white nationalists, she points out that the English were late settlers of America.  Not only had native Americans established rich cultures in America, but the Spanish and Africans were more prominent than northern Europeans in the origins of our country.  For every European to settle in England’s America between 1600 and 1800, 2.5 Africans were brought here through slave trade.  The immorality of slavery was recognized by most of the framers of our Constitution, but resistance to it was attenuated and limited, even by those of more liberal temperament who gave priority to economic needs (for slaves to pick cotton, the new country’s most profitable export crop) or who feared that political stability would be jeopardized by full inclusion of blacks into citizenship. The Civil War and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments did little to end the oppression of minorities, and the civil rights movements of the 20th centuries have not ended various racial oppressions, as revealed by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Of course, minorities have not always been united in their protests against white male oppression.  Lepore does an excellent job describing the internal conflicts within the black community and among women.  As an example, she highlights the role that Phyllis Schlafly has played in the conservative feminist movement and in enhancing support for Trump.  As she does with other prominent historical figures, Lepore treats Schlafly with considerable respect, even while highlighting her divisive role in our society.

Moving beyond large conceptual trends and forces that depend on the particular theories and lenses of historians, Lepore presents and emphasizes the acts, thoughts, and written records of specific people.  The diminished capacity of elections to hold politicians accountable is brought out by how Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker created Campaigns Inc. to enlarge the role of propaganda and public relations in manipulating citizen votes.  The tragedy of 9/11 is brought to life by the brave but desperate messages sent by a passenger and flight attendant on the hijacked planes.  But the people that she includes in her history are seldom portrayed as heroes or villains.  Lepore believes that history must focus on documentary evidence and facts, and that it is for readers to reach their own judgments about the positive and negative roles that various people have played in our history.

If there are villains for Lepore, they take the form of large social groupings.  Perhaps most prominent in this regard are the postmodernists and poststructuralists in academia, who gave prominence to the idea that everything is a lie and that “there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge.”  Postmodernists have given intellectual support for reformulating liberalism away from earlier emphases on freedom and equality to its current focus on identity.  In so doing, they have moved the agenda of the left from relatively inclusive and even universal concerns toward the fragmented concerns of increasingly narrow aggrieved interests.  And each of these identity groups derive their distinct ideas and interests from particular grievances that are not easily aggregated into some sort of common understanding and inclusive political agenda.

But perhaps Lepore does not mean to judge negatively such groups as  postmodernists or particular identity groups.   Perhaps the real causes in the decline of America are the reduced role of  newspapers and the rise of the Internet – especially such recent sources of public opinion as Facebook and Twitter.  At their best, newspapers have provided factual accounts of the news, and they have encouraged readers to compare alternative treatments of community issues in ways that enable reasonable accommodation of diverse views.  While the Internet provides access to a huge menu of ideas and facts, bloggers post non-vetted “facts” and “conspiracies” in order to get an audience (at least among partisan followers). The narrow-casting that occurs on the Internet and other media end up sorting people into tribes that emphasize extreme ideas and that fail to recognize such broad community issues as the widening economic distress that breeds widespread frustration and now has America embroiled in a domestic cold war.

Lepore’s themes of minority oppression and indifference toward truth (understood as insistence on verifiable facts and exposure of falsehoods and hysterical conspiracies) are not exactly new revelations, but her presentation of these themes is done in such an interesting, insightful, informative, and literate fashion that this big book is difficult to put down.

Pluralism and Tribalism

Pluralism and tribalism both stress that people have different interests and identities arising from their particular group involvements and that such differences result in political conflict, but these perspectives  are very different. Pluralist societies have many cross-cutting group involvements such that no particular interest or identity predominates; indeed,  in pluralist societies, groups realize that their limited size and power precludes domination and thus they seek cooperation, accommodation, and compromise with other groups.  Tribal societies have cumulative group interests and identities, such that one set of interlocking groups is strongly loyal to one tribe (or party or ideology) while another set of interlocking groups is strongly committed to an opposite tribe.  Tribes seek domination over their tribal opponent; in pursuit of domination, they stereotype, marginalize, and oppress those groups that are part of the opposite tribe.  Two dominant tribes –  liberal Democrats and conservative  Republicans – are prominent in an increasingly polarized America today.  In prior pluralist America, loyalties to opposing parties and ideologies were much weaker, as people’s other group identities played larger roles in their conceptions of the good life, a good society, and good government.   I am a committed pluralist and abhor tribalism.  Here I expand on these judgments.

Pluralism has many meanings, and political scientists have not always lauded pluralism.  When colleagues at political science conferences inquired about my current research interests I would typically respond that I was still working on pluralist theory, which often generated retorts about my concerns being  “regressive,” “archaic,” and “far removed from the cutting edge” of disciplinary research.  For many political scientists, pluralism meant “orthodox pluralism,” a perspective that focused on how individuals join groups that represent their personal interests,  that focused  on the existence of a vast array of such groups in America, and that claimed that the distribution of power among these groups is relatively equal or at least widely dispersed.   Counterclaims that our political processes are really dominated by a few powerful groups  fueled disciplinary understandings that pluralist practices undermine the attainment of democracy and justice in American politics.  Critics charge pluralists with being naïve and providing theories that sustain an illegitimate system that really favors elites.

I never challenged such criticisms of “orthodox pluralism,” and instead sought to reformulate pluralism so that it could accommodate such criticisms when warranted by normative concerns and empirical evidence.  I have argued that a more complete understanding of pluralism contains (at least) three main components.

First, there is moral pluralism, which assumes that individuals have different understandings of “the good” — of what they and others want and need to have a good life. Normatively, moral pluralism encourages tolerance of our different conceptions of the good life.  Empirically,  moral pluralism recognizes  that different moral values are nevertheless emphasized in particular  social circumstances and political environments.

Second, there is social pluralism, which assumes that individuals are members of social groups that often generate and reinforce moral differences and that facilitate pursuit of our diverse moral convictions.  Social pluralism also assumes that we have different social identities.  Some of these social identities (such as those based on our nationality, locality, partisan orientation and religious affiliation) directly express these moral differences.  Other social identities  (such as our class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity) have tendencies that are widely perceived (and sometimes misperceived) as representing a particular set of moral concerns.  Social pluralism gives rise to conflict as each group seeks to have its values and principles recognized, rewarded, and furthered in society.

Third, there is political pluralism, which assumes that the differences arising from moral and social pluralism will inevitably be major bases of the conflicts that arise on concrete political issues in our political communities.  Political pluralism emphasizes the need for governmental structures that can resolve our moral and social differences with as much consensus and fairness, and as little violence and oppression, as possible.  For a further discussion of moral, social, and political pluralism, please see “On Pluralism,” at

Tribalism is a very limited and degenerate form of pluralism.  It assumes that members of various groups are now part of opposing collectivities (e.g., parties, teams, and communities) that have polar opposite characteristics and values.  Some collectivities are virtuous, and others are villainous.  It assumes that collectivities can be characterized as “us” and “them.”  It assumes that politics is a bloody battle between the virtuous us and the corrupt them.  Of course, in this understanding the good guys must prevail and the corrupt guys (and their naïve gals) must be vanquished.

In recent years, pluralism has been diminished as tribalism has grown.  Of course, America has always had its tribes.  I was (and, at least to some degree, still am) part of the (Green Bay) Packer tribe.  I have identified more with Christianity and the Democrats than with Islam and the Republicans;  etc.  But in accordance with pluralist thought, the force of my tribal loyalties was and remain limited.  As orthodox pluralism asserted, I have so many group (and tribal) memberships and identities that they are cross-cutting.  The Packer tribe is open to Republicans and Democrats, to Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.   The diversity of the Packer tribe enables members of the Packer team to choose  whether or not to take a knee when the National Anthem is played, indicating to their fans whether they identify more with the Black community or with the American nation.  Pluralist tolerance is recognized as stronger than loyalty to a particular social identity.

As a pluralist, I am loyal to many teams; not only am I part of the Packer tribe, but I also have identified with the Appleton (High School) Terrors, the Beloit Buccaneers, the Wisconsin Badgers, the Kansas Jayhawks, the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, and so forth.  Only when these teams meet in head-on competition do I have to decide which team to root for, and I seldom got too invested in who wins these competitions.  I never get too upset I if one of my teams has a losing streak, as the victories of my other teams supply solace.

As a pluralist,  I identify simultaneously with the global community, the United States, the two states in which I reside (Kansas and Wisconsin), and in the towns were I most (have) often reside (Appleton, Lawrence and Townsend).  I didn’t have to decide which community deserves my greatest allegiance, as I can stress whichever communal identity seems  most relevant under various circumstances.  While I might sometimes stress my allegiance to one or another of my tribes or communities, I do not lose sight of my other allegiances, and this helps me appreciate and respect the various allegiances of others.

Many explanations have been offered for why pluralist tolerance and accommodation have decreased while tribal intolerance and hatred have increased.  Probably the most prominent theory focuses on technological changes.   A half century ago, members of different communities and tribes nevertheless consumed common understandings of what was happening in social and political life by watching network news and reading commentators that were committed to objective interpretations of events.  But today, we consume narrow-casted, rather than broadcasted news, and commentators are more interested in appealing to their narrow audiences than to the general public.

Another perspective has now been offered by a  research group called More in Common.  Their report, Hidden Tribes, shows that only a small number of Americans belong to the two tribes who cling most strongly and cohesively to extreme views on the central political issues of our time:  Progressive Activists on the left comprise only 8 percent of all Americans, and Devoted Conservatives make up only 6 percent of all Americans.    At bottom, the basis of the polarization between these two tribes is their preoccupations with historical injustice, which they perceive differently.  The Progressive Activists emphasize racial and gender oppression and thus focus on the deep and centuries-old problem of white male privilege.  The Devoted Conservatives emphasize the marginalization of their Christian religious beliefs and their resentment of the special treatment they see flowing from liberal governments to minorities and immigrants since the 1960s.  According to these researchers, most Americans are exhausted by the culture war between these small ideological tribes and support compromise on our main issues.  However, they also report that a third tribe they call Traditional Conservatives, who comprise 19 percent of the population are much closer to Devoted Conservatives than to more moderate tribes, and thus perhaps a third of all Americans contribute to our polarization.  A fourth engaged tribe, traditional liberals, who comprise 11% of the population are absolved from their contributions to polarization as their shared concerns with progressive activists are moderated by their greater tolerance of conservatives and religion and their willingness to compromise.

While such theories of tribalism have merit, I have another “pet theory” – probably little more than speculation –  about the cause of our tribalism:  our becoming increasingly focused on sports and using sports as a metaphorical basis  for understanding social and political life.   Just as we must be devoted fans of our favorite teams, so we must be loyal to our tribe – and increasingly the tribe we are loyal to is a political party.  Just as we cheer or boo the players and referees in sports, so we cheer or boo politicians and even those “referees” who seek to stand above the fray and apply penalties to those who break the rules of the game.  Every sporting event is a bloody battle that must be won.  When  our team loses, we become dismayed and lose sight that there will always be another game and another season.

But pluralist politics is not sports.  One team does not need to win while the other must lose.  In the long tradition of public philosophy, preoccupations with tribal, class, and partisan victories are disruptive of political stability.  Genuine politics – or good governance – is a search for common ground, for solutions to issues that maximize public support and acceptance among as many citizens (and across as many “factions” -groups and tribes – as possible).  If we date modernity to the 17th century, “republicanism” is the label that philosophers and statespersons have given to such an idealized form of politics.  But today’s Republicans have lost sight of their historical roots and see politics as a game that is more brutal than that played when the Packers confront the Bears.