The not-so-good war

Just like President Clinton, eight of 10 Vietnam-era GOP presidential candidates managed to avoid going to Vietnam -- and the wealthiest wound up in the National Guard. Does it still matter?

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Joseph Ciarciaglino, a Florida Republican and a Vietnam veteran, is pissed off. Again.

Ciarciaglino, 53, just heard that the GOP presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, avoided time in Vietnam by serving in the Texas Air National Guard.

The story, of course, reminded him of 1988, when it came out that George Bush Sr.'s pick for the vice-presidential spot, then-Sen. Dan Quayle, had used his father's connections to secure himself a spot in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War. This revelation moved Ciarciaglino, who has never voted for a Democrat for president, to write an op-ed for his local paper, the St. Petersburg Times. "When the rattle of musketry could be heard and the desperate cry of freedom went out, you closed your ears and your heart and looked only to yourself and to yours," he wrote to Quayle in August 1988.

But now Ciarciaglino says he's getting used to candidates with doctorates in war evasion. Especially after the draft-dodging Clinton got elected. Twice. "I blame George Bush Sr. for Clinton," Ciarciaglino says. "Once he took Quayle on as running mate, he set the stage so that Clinton's draft dodging couldn't be used against him. When I watch Clinton wearing that damned leather bomber jacket, I want to stick it in his nose," he fumes.

No doubt a lot of veterans share Ciarciaglino's anger, which was re-stirred this week after the Los Angeles Times published a story about George W. Bush's Vietnam-era stint in the Texas Air National Guard.

So far, the issue hasn't seemed to matter much to voters. Clinton, after all, defeated two bona fide World War II heroes: Bush's dad and Sen. Bob Dole. In the next presidential race, Arizona Sen. John McCain's five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam clearly trumps any other candidate's military hand, but it hasn't figured much in early fund-raising and endorsements. And neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post picked up the Los Angeles Times' story on the Republican front-runner's National Guard service, though it's conceivable both papers are doing some digging of their own.

The Los Angeles paper's story may also have limited impact because, while it seemed to be questioning whether any doors had been opened for the son of then-Rep. George H.W. Bush, it found nothing more than vague impressions that maybe, perhaps, some might have been. The former commander of the Texas Air National Guard, Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, insisted that, "Nobody did anything for him. There was no goddamn influence on his behalf. Neither his daddy nor anybody else got him into the Guard."

Yet the question, "What did you do during the Vietnam War, Daddy?" is still worth asking. As America's most unpopular war, as well as one in which the affluent and well-connected had unprecedented ways of skirting service, the Vietnam experience left an ugly, unhealed scar on the national psyche. Many baby boomers believe that young American men who came of age during the Vietnam War had only two principled options -- if you supported the war, you had an obligation to fight in it, and if you opposed it, you had an obligation to fight against it, and risk imprisonment and the sacrifice of your career. But some young war supporters whose families had the right connections were able to dodge these responsibilities.

The fact that three out of the 10 Vietnam-era male Republican candidates -- and probably the three wealthiest -- wound up in the National Guard is a demographic blip that's hard to miss, especially given that only two of 10 served. Somehow it seems unlikely that 30 percent of the class of '68 at, say, Frederick Douglass High School in Inner City, U.S.A., or Eli Whitney Technical, out on Rural Route Y in Appalachia, wound up in their National Guard. And it's almost impossible to envision a low-income class of '68 in which only 20 percent of the young men went to Vietnam.

The wartime bios of the year 2000 presidential contenders are also revealing as psychic snapshots of the candidates, providing background on not only the circumstances of their family lives, but who they were as young men, before their every move was scrutinized under the klieg lights of presidential campaign politics.

If you doubt it matters, just go back and read Clinton's weaselly letter thanking the University of Arkansas ROTC colonel for "saving me from the draft," which managed to telegraph perfectly the morally relativistic, opportunistic presidency to come.

Vice President Al Gore voluntarily enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam -- as an Army journalist. Gore's act reveals his inner sense of family loyalty, destiny, responsibility -- and politics.

His father, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Sr., was a Vietnam War opponent who was in the political fight of his life because of his stance on the war. So his son "decided that he was going to enlist and he was helping the anti-war movement by going and enlisting," according to his Harvard roommate, John Tyson, quoted in "Gore: A Political Life," by former ABC News reporter Bob Zelnick.

"He felt by helping his dad and campaigning with his dad [as a soldier] that that was the greatest thing he as an individual could do to stop the war." Gore served as an Army journalist assigned to an engineering brigade near Saigon. In seven months' duty he never saw one American casualty.

At Oxford, then-Rhodes scholar Bill Bradley was asked by a U.S. Air Force officer to inform on Oxford anti-war protestors. He declined. Shortly thereafter, Bradley joined the Air Force Reserves and served on active duty in New Jersey for six months in 1967, after which he joined the New York Knicks midseason.

On the Republican side, the story of Dan Quayle's Indiana National Guard service is well known. Another wealthy Republican, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, also served in the National Guard, in New Jersey, from 1970 to 1976.

And, as a young man, Pat Buchanan may have acted like a tough guy in Georgetown bars, but he received deferments during Vietnam because of his rheumatoid arthritis.

Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, was, according to a spokesman, "very fortunate; he got a high draft lottery number."

Alan Keyes, former ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council -- who lists the fact that his father was an Army sergeant on his bio -- had an educational deferment while he was an undergrad at Harvard.

Lamar Alexander's biography brags that he's a former Eagle Scout, but mentions no military experience whatsoever.

Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, also doesn't claim any military service, though he turned 18 in the early 1960s. His campaign refused to return calls for comment.

Only McCain and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., whose father was killed in active duty at the end of World War II, actually fought in the war. Smith served in the Navy and was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin from 1966 to 1967.

And as a real-life example of the story that inspired "Saving Private Ryan," Sen. Orrin Hatch was exempt from military service because his brother had been shot down and killed over Italy during World War II.

Vietnam marked a departure from the past, when presidential candidates old enough to have served in other wars generally did so. Michael Dukakis, for example, served with the Army from 1955 to 1957, receiving a Good Conduct Medal along with his honorable discharge. Sixteen million American men served in World War II, so odds were that that earlier generation of candidates served. Plus, all the factors that made the conflict what Studs Terkel called "The Good War" made non-service a non-issue. Things were not so simple for Vietnam.

Anti-war activists who had the means to avoid Vietnam rarely chose the National Guard route, because it was seen as part of the war effort, albeit a less risky part. Victor Rabinowitz, a New York City lawyer who counseled young men seeking legal advice on the draft in the 1960s, says that the men he advised "never considered the National Guard an option. They regarded the National Guard as part of the war establishment."

Many chose the Clinton route, finding both straightforward and string-pulling ways to get educational deferments. But thousands chose a tougher course, either becoming conscientious objectors and performing national service as an alternative to combat, or fleeing the country.

Bush's defenders insist a stint in the National Guard was not necessarily a guarantee that a young man would stay stateside. "Nineteen Air Force National Guard units were mobilized during the war," says National Guard spokesman Jack Hooper.

"If you were trying to play the odds, if you did not want to serve, I could not tell you the odds in terms of this route, vs. this route, vs. volunteering for the Guard," Hooper adds. "But to think that joining the Air National Guard -- or, for that matter, any reserve component -- was helping the chances of your not going to Vietnam would be taking a quantum leap of faith."

And George W. didn't exactly choose a desk job in an anonymous Guard unit. "His fighter unit was the first Air National Guard unit called for service during the Korean War," says Lt. Col. John Stanford, public affairs officer for the Texas National Guard. "It shot down the first MiG in Korea." The unit did not get called to Vietnam, however.

After the Los Angeles Times story ran on the Fourth of July, George W. Bush put a simple spin on the story. "I applied, I wanted to fly jets, and I did," he calmly explained. "I was proud of my service. Had my unit been called up, I would have gone overseas. I have a good record as a fighter pilot."

Still, as Vietnam vet Ciarciaglino points out, if Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard strictly because he "wanted to fly jets," as he says, "the regular Air Force and Navy, well, they were hiring, buddy."

Lurking behind the issue of one candidate's war record, of course, are deeper debates about what kind of a country we are, what kind of wars we fight and what kind of politicians we want to elect as we approach the 21st century.

Clearly, George W. Bush used his family connections to get into Yale and to succeed in the oil and baseball biz. But there's something different, and more disturbing, about pulling family strings to avoid war service -- especially when your father supported the war. It violates our delusion that this is a country where All Men Are Created Equal and congressmen's sons can't skirt military service.

And yet, for voters older than baby boomers, who fought on loftier battlefields, or for most Generation Xers, whose defining military moment was the last "M*A*S*H" episode, the flap over Bush's National Guard stint may be tough to understand. Vietnam was the defining moment for baby boomers -- though even their reactions can be difficult to predict.

In 1992, New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum tracked down the two men drafted from the Hot Springs, Ark., Selective Service board, and found that neither man held grudges toward Clinton, in whose place one of them was sent.

On the other hand, in 1988, some members of a California American Legion Post were offended by Quayle's service in the Guard and demanded back a hat they had presented to him. "He doesn't qualify," one told the Orange County Register. "I'm a Vietnam-era veteran and I'm highly offended by him wearing the Legion cap."

The Bush campaign took the Times story in stride. "Any serious candidate for president can expect to have aspects of his past examined," says Bush 2000 spokesman David Beckwith, a former Time reporter who covered the Quayle National Guard fracas before becoming Quayle's flack. Still, Beckwith says, "I think most media, and way more than most citizens, recognize" Bush's experience in the Air National Guard "as a non-story."

"It's practically died out already," Beckwith says.

Ciarciaglino, for his part, admits that military experience isn't the only litmus test for a candidate. He says he won't be voting for Al Gore, even though he knows that Gore served honorably. And he doesn't much seem to care that candidate McCain is a former POW "I don't think alone that service means anything in terms of preference," he says. "But if you actively avoided the draft, that should be visited.

"I look at my service, and I see now the total inequity of the draft," Ciarciaglino continues. "I didn't know that there was all this bullshit going on when I enlisted. Myself and those who believed in service and patriotism, we got snookered, we were hoodwinked. If I had a son, I would make sure that he'd never serve."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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