22 May 2010

The Price of Hypocrisy ~ Late is NOT Better than Never

The last young men to be drafted for military service during the Viet Nam war reported for duty in June 1973, a month after I graduated from high school. Their lottery numbers had been chosen in December 1972. So the draft ended just before I'd have been eligible. As I recall, the numbers pulled for 1973 included my birthday. I thought the war was stupid but likely would've gone off to fight (and I am sure, to die) had I been drafted. After all one can be a conscientious objector only if one's conscience is animated by religious thinking. Even though religion and morality do not overlap, simply finding the war morally repugnant was insufficient. I have never had a single regret about not serving in the military. I don't have anything against those who do serve; nor do I hold veterans, for reason of that status alone, in especially high regard. It depends on who they are and what they do. In any case, the notion that the only way one can contribute meaningfully to your society and fellow citizens is by entering an thoroughly authoritarian institution seems pretty much daft to me. This is a theme I have pursed here and here before. In the U.S. we confuse public service with military service. Big mistake. This is a democracy, after all.

All of that is by way of background to a convergence I noticed in reading the papers this morning. The first offering was this Op-Ed in The New York Times penned by a Viet Nam veteran and former U.S. Senator. The relevant bit goes like this:
"The Vietnam War drove members of my generation in different directions. Some served because they believed in the war, others didn’t believe in the war and protested, but when drafted felt an obligation to go. Others were simply drafted. Some refused service out of principle, others out of fear, and still others because they felt that taking the time to go to Vietnam would slow their careers.

Many of those who didn’t serve were helped by an inherently unfair draft. I don’t fault anyone for taking advantage of the law. Where I do find fault is among those who say they were avoiding the draft because they were idealistically opposed to the war — when, in fact, they mostly didn’t want to make the sacrifice. The problem is that for every person who won a deferment or a spot in a special National Guard unit, someone poorer or less educated, and usually African-American, had to serve.

[. . .]

Bizarre outcomes abound. Many of those who avoided the war became advocates of a muscular foreign policy. When I was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I would be invited to meetings in the Pentagon or the White House to discuss troop deployments. In those meetings, I encountered far too many Democrats and Republicans who did not serve in the war when they had a chance, and who overcompensated for their unease by sending others into harm’s way."
The second offering is from this profile in The Guardian of the smart, if bombastic and politically misguided, writer Christopher Hitchens. Having turned his back on the left, Hitchens is notoriously pro-war and anti-Islam, having embraced the right-wing penchant for deriding "Islamo-fascism." I have noted the ignorance of such views here and here before. In any case here is a useful portrait of "Hitch":
"When the invasion of Iraq was first debated, one couldn't fail to notice the preponderance of left-wing men of a certain age who came out in support of the war. Radicals as adults, but often from conservative backgrounds, now beginning to confront their own mortality, and preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.

In 2006, Hitchens' wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of 'those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There's a whole tough-guy, 'I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die' talk, which is key to his psychology – I don't care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.'

Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: 'Yeah. Yes. One of the things I've realised, writing the book, is that it has to be true.'

[. . .]

Born in 1949, the second world war was 'the entire subject of conversation' during Hitchens' childhood. He was the eldest son of a naval officer – 'the Commander' – a quietly conservative, blimpish character in the Denis Thatcher mould, who would often say that war was the one time in his life when he "knew what he was doing". Hitchens' mother was a much more colourful character, and on the face of it the dominant parental force; he was her favourite son, and he adored her. 'If there is going to be an upper class in this country,' she told her husband, 'then Christopher is going to be in it', packing him off to boarding school at the age of eight. 'The one unforgivable sin,' she used to say, 'is to be boring', an injunction her son has observed faithfully. His father, by contrast, was a dreadful bore. And yet it is quite clearly the Commander's legacy that haunts Hitchens today.

With hindsight, there was an early clue to his appetite for combat in the ferocity of Hitchens' support for the Falklands Royal Naval task force, shared by few on the left. 'I couldn't possibly see the UK defeated by those insanitary riffraff!' he exclaims. 'This was a diabolical liberty.' But Islamic fundamentalism presented a more promisingly meaty foe than a tinpot Argentine dictator, and ever since the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens says, 'I knew there would be some huge intrusion into the heart of civilisation from barbarism.'

And so chief among Hitchens' emotions by the end of the day on 11 September was 'exhilaration. Because I thought, now we have a very clearly drawn confrontation between everything I hate and everything I love. There is something exhilarating about that. Because, OK, now I know what I'm doing.' Just as his father had felt during the second world war? 'Yes, exactly,' he agrees.

It seems that Hitchens, an apostate authoritarian (of the Trotsky-ite variety) has found a way to overcompensate for his own youthful failings by re-embracing authoritarianism. Hence his sneering pride in being "right" when others are "wrong." The only problem is that acting out one's emotional insecurities doesn't make one right. And on our current wars, at least, Hitchens is not.

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Blogger Pac Mclaurin said...

I was drafted, all the males in my class at medical school were. I guess we all served in some shape or another. I have no regrets for having served, I did not go to Vietnam, but I spent many days and nights having the human wreakage of Vietnam brought to me by air evac flights. It never entered my mind to question if what I was doing was right or wrong-seriously ill or wounded young men were not a political issue for me, they were all my patients, I was their advocate. I am pleased with what I did, even proud of it, but it was what any well meaning, dedicated young recent medical school graduate should do-be a doctor. I am glad I did not have to go go Vietnam but could do these things in a comfortable situation in Northern California.

24 May, 2010 15:28  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Pac - Thanks for the response. I just want to be clear. While I think the inequities of the Viet Nam era draft were troubling, I am not concerned about why kids took advantage of whatever deferment they might find. My complaints about hypocrisy are about how those who did what they could to avoid service turn bellicose when it means sending other people's kids to war. JJ

26 May, 2010 09:01  

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