Tuesday, 19 November 2013

National Service

The actor Hugh Grant wants Britain to reintroduce National Service, which was phased out at about the time he was born: he says that his "father and grandfather both served and it shaped them".  Grant comes from a military family of some distinction: his father was a Sandhurst-trained officer and his grandfather was awarded the DSO following the Second World War.  So neither of them was subject to National Service.  Whereas I come from an unmilitary family, my father spent two years on National Service, and he describes it as an utter waste of time.

Grant's proposal puts him in the unlikely company of Philip Hollobone, a Tory MP who has presented a Bill to implement the idea.  But it's not going to happen - what would a modern army do with large numbers of unwilling, short-term recruits?

All the same, mightn't it be a good thing if politicians at least had some experience of soldiering and its dangers before they became empowered to send soldiers off to war?  Or would politicians-to-be find a way to avoid it?  The thought has led me to look up the Vietnam War records of all the main-party US presidential and vice-presidential candidates who were of an age to be drafted.  I present them in order of date of birth:

John McCain, 29th August 1936: son and grandson of US Navy Admirals, naval aviator, shot down, badly wounded, tortured and held for over five years as a prisoner.  Unaffected by the draft.

Dick Cheney, 30th Jan 1941: awarded deferments while taking six years to complete four years' worth of study, and then because his wife was pregnant.

Joe Lieberman, 24th February 1942: awarded deferments to attend college and law school and then because he had a child.

Joe Biden, 20th November 1942: awarded deferments while studying at college and law school, and then reclassified as unfit due to asthma.

John Kerry, 11th December 1943: pre-empted the draft by enlisting in the US Navy Reserve when his college deferments ended.  Commanded a "swift boat" in Vietnam and was decorated for gallantry

George W Bush, 6th July 1946: avoided the draft by joining the Texas Air National Guard

Bill Clinton, 19th August 1946: avoided the draft by joining the ROTC

Dan Quayle, 4th February 1947: avoided the draft by joining the Indiana National Guard

Al Gore, 31st March 1948: pre-empted the draft by enlisting when his college deferment ended.  Spend only five months in Vietnam, where, as the son of a Congressman, he was kept well out of harm's way.

John Edwards: 10th June 1953: only just old enough to have been drafted, awarded deferment to attend college.

Of eight prominent politicians who might have been drafted (I'm leaving out McCain as too old and Edwards as too young), three avoided the draft by spending enough years in college, three avoided service in Vietnam by finding safer military options, one went to Vietnam but was kept out of danger, and one - John Kerry - actually fought.  Following his experiences in Vietnam, Kerry became a strong opponent of the war.  This made him enemies within the US Navy, who participated in a smear campaign against him when supporters of GW Bush wanted to muddy the comparison between Kerry and their man.

So the conclusion, albeit from an inadequate sample, is that most politicians will avoid meaningful service, and the few who don't will be the relatively honourable ones.  And those are the ones who lose elections.

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