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Still the Litmus Test of Worth

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It seems like a rite of passage for political candidates after so many wars and so many years:  A person’s worth and integrity is measured by what he (and soon perhaps she) did during a time of war. Given the age of many of the candidates for president of the United States, the question of what a particular candidate did or did not do during the Vietnam War has been raised once again. Recall how then Senator John Kerry could not pass muster and was hounded with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? Or how Bill Clinton’s tepid resistance to war made his opponents circle their wagons around the issue of what constitutes patriotism. It raises the recurrent question of  “What did you do in the war, daddy?” Former President George W. Bush, a fighter pilot in the National Guard during the Vietnam era, never showed up for an assignment and walked away with an honorable discharge: He is arguably the most bellicose president in recent memory.  However, a possible Clinton presidency could rival Bush’s propensity to use force, although neoliberal Democrats are usually much more cautious about deploying troops to the battlefield in large numbers. And of course there was Rumsfeld and Cheney.

So, it is now the case with Donald Trump. I opened up my Facebook page this morning (with a great number of supporters of Bernie Sanders on it) to find pictures of a young Trump with the now-routine libel that by having a medical issue (bone spurs), the then athletically-inclined Trump shirked his obligation to serve and thereby called into question his ability to lead the nation.

As both a veteran and war resister from the Vietnam era, I cringe when the issue is repeatedly applied as a test of a candidate’s worth. The high value placed on soldiering, in the shadow of September 11, 2001, is now a basic litmus test of how a candidate should have performed during wartime.

But this litmus test was not always the case as is boldly depicted by Harold Jordan in his seminal article “War Resistance, Amnesty and Exile-Just the Facts.” Jordan provides the numbers behind the people who defied the system of a draft and resisted military service during the Vietnam War.

War resistance and resisters were made up of two distinct groups during that war. There were about 569,015 draft law violators. Of those, about 4,000 served jail time, usually, but not universally, draft resisters who were outspoken about their anti-war views. The second group were military resisters. There were 1,500,000 cases of AWOL and desertion during the war. The actual figures are probably between 500,000 and 550,000. No matter which numbers are accepted as historically correct, even the most casual observer must admit that lots and lots of people resisted that unpopular war.

Two amnesties were offered to resisters following the conclusion of hostilities. The amnesty offered by the Ford administration was seen as draconian and ignored or rejected by most resisters. The 1977 amnesty offered by the Carter administration was somewhat more liberal and applied for and accepted by thousands of resisters. The amnesty for draft resisters was much more generous than that offered to military resisters. Tens of thousands of military resisters never received any relief at all and many still hold “bad” paper (discharges) and receive no veterans benefits. It is not known how many resisters still remain in Canada, where most went to seek sanctuary during the Vietnam War. But what is most obvious here is that an entire segment of a generation that came of age during the Vietnam era viewed resisting war as an admirable part of an individual’s character.

During this political season, only the Iraq War has been the subject of serious debate. Government of the few and the wealthy “thrives” by a massive war industry and war machine. Civilian deaths in war, once one of the moving forces behind a vibrant anti-war movement, is seldom heard at all, while the machinery of war grinds endlessly on. Infrastructure crumbles and human needs go unmet as trillions of dollars are spent on war, and new enemies of empire replace the old. Within the permanent warfare state, veterans of wars are often given short shrift.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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