Kim Jong-un has managed to achieve something that Presidents Johnson and Nixon couldn’t – get the draft dodging Donald Trump to Vietnam. Of course Trump didn’t stay long – soon leaving on a jet plane.
But it makes you wonder about Presidents and military service. JFK saw service and was hailed as a hero – partly because of ghost-writing paid for by his father, Joseph Kennedy, the old bootlegger, short seller and inside trader. General Ulysses S. Grant was a great General although the loss of life his troops sustained was horrific. Lincoln’s Presidential opponent, George McLellan, might as well have been a conscientious objector given his reluctance to engage with, or even chase, the enemy. Eisenhower didn’t graduate near the top of his West Point class, unlike the unhinged Patton, but he was smart enough to know that the future of successful warfare would be determined by logistics as much as strategy and courage. George H.W. Bush was the last US President to see service although the form of his son’s service has continued to be controversial.
Bill Clinton was very much the ‘slick Willy’ who ‘didn’t inhale’ and who signed up for ROTC and then reneged after his number in the draft lottery failed to come up.
But the Donald is in a class of his own and apparently doesn’t have any records which prove he had the bone spurs which supposedly stopped him from going to Vietnam. Nevertheless, we can expect that at some stage he will claim he probably should have gone because he could have struck a deal to end the war.
Neither Trump nor Clinton were motivated by conscientious objection. For them it was a matter of gaming the system to protect themselves. Genuine conscientious objectors, in contrast, are brave people and a number of the author’s generation went into hiding rather than go into the Army and then to Vietnam. One of the author’s own soldiers, a quietly spoken Christian, finally said enough during the exercises at Canungra Jungle Training Centre and was largely treated decently by fellow soldiers and the Army.
The problem of conscientious objection was a major issue during World War I. To register as an objector it was necessary to go before a court and convince a magistrate – usually someone from the local gentry – of your sincerity. A popular test of objectors by those on the bench was to ask what the objector would do if the wicked Hun was about to attack the objector’s sister. ‘Attack’ of course being code for awful sexual assaults and the persistence of the questioning around the subject reflected conservative obsession with sex and a significant strand in anti-German propaganda.
The author Lytton Strachey was one such objector so interrogated. It appears that he did get asked the menacing Hun question but in the years to follow the question from the bench was mythologised as: “What would you do Mr Strachey if a huge enraged Zulu was about to attack your sister with an assegai?”
Whichever version was asked Strachey archly replied: “I would endeavour to interpose myself between him and her.”
Noel Turnbull is a retired PR consultant and a former Artillery officer.