We all know what Kerry's decision was: He voluntarily joined the Navy, he volunteered for Vietnam, and he volunteered for service in the Swift Boats. He didn't have to do any of the three; because of the extraordinarily inequitable nature of the military draft, he could easily have avoided going to Vietnam, or even serving at all.
Bush's decision is not well understood by the general public, but it's perfectly clear to any man who was of draft age (18-26) in the Vietnam era. Simply put, the best way to keep out of harm's way was to join the Air National Guard. You got to stay at home and maybe learn to fly jet planes (Duuude! What a rush!), and you'd never, ever have to go to Southeast Asia and get shot at.
But, as all of us understood, getting in the Guard, particularly in 1968, was impossible unless you had powerful connections. You needed to have on your side rich, politically connected folks who'd intervene and push you to the top of the list. That's what happened to George W., who spent his war defending the skies of Texas against the Viet Cong.
After Vietnam, men who had been draft-eligible during the war fell into several distinct groups. There were those who had volunteered, like Kerry. There were those who discreetly kept out of harm's way, like Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and yours truly. There were those who, through the luck of the draw, were drafted into combat. And finally, there were those who publicly refused the draft and opposed the war. Some of the latter went to jail, some went to Vietnam as noncombatant conscientious objectors, and some fled the country.
I admire the John Kerrys, who were willing to risk their lives for their country, even for a dubious cause. I admire the draftees, so many of whose names are now carved into a sorrowful memorial. I admire draft resisters like David Harris, who went to jail rather than submit to the draft.
And for myself, for Clinton, for Bush, for Cheney, for all of us who bobbed and weaved, ducked and evaded, I have neither admiration nor contempt. The war in Vietnam was the defining moment of our generation; those of us who sat on the sidelines, failed the test. Mark us absent; as Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, "I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived." Do I wish that I'd thrown myself into the action and passion of those days? No, I don't -- I'd probably make the same decisions that I made at the time. But I'm not running for president, and I believe that the president ought to be made of sterner stuff. Bush was a legacy admission to Yale and a legacy entrant into the Air National Guard, and he's a legacy president. He has skated; and that's why the recent spate of anti-Kerry commercials is so contemptible.
The Tom DeLays, the Karl Roves, the Dick Cheneys -- what a sorry bunch of lying propagandists! But they're doing their boss' bidding; as George W. said, addressing the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2002, "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." (Thanks to reader Jeff Wright for bringing this quote to my attention.)
Last week, listening to the Mary Matalin-James Carville dog and pony show at The Broadmoor, I was struck by one of Matalin's remarks. "These are consequential times," she said, "and the president is a consequential man." Compared to what and to whom, Mary? To World War II and Roosevelt? To the Cold War and Truman? To the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy? Those were perilous times, which we faced with brave and thoughtful leaders.
Compared to them, George W. is a draft-dodging pygmy in a green jumpsuit, playing war with his GI Joe action figures.
But in Iraq, as in Vietnam, real men and women are dying to gratify his fantasies.