“Actual” Veterans

Who is “actually” a military veteran? Does veteran status confer some special political wisdom or authority unavailable to civilian voters? Why do some veterans think their military service status makes their considered foreign policy opinions outweigh your opinion or mine?

I came across the excerpt below in the 11/6/2009 RSS blog feed of Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editorial writer for New Yorker magazine:

On MSNBC’s “Ed Show” just now, substitute host David Shuster’s guests were Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, and Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman and 2008 Republican Presidential hopeful.
After Tancredo expressed his view that the Veterans Health Administration should be abolished and replaced by giving veterans vouchers with which to buy private health insurance on the free market, Kos pointed out that he, Kos, is an actual veteran (he did a three-year hitch in the Army), as opposed to someone who, after supporting the Vietnam War as a college Republican, avoided the draft by parlaying the fact that he had been treated for depression into a 1-Y deferment. Kos didn’t mention Tancredo by name, but Tancredo knew whom Kos was talking about. Tancredo, muttering “cheap shot” and “insult,” removed his earpiece and lapel mic and got up to leave the set.
Was it a cheap shot? Yes, but I for one am glad that Kos took it. There are few forms of life lower than chest-thumping, warmongering, manlier-than-thou draft dodgers (although conservatives who denounce “government health care” on the grounds that it might lead to cuts in Medicare run them a close second), and it is always satisfying when someone calls one of them out.

You can currently read the Hertzberg post and watch a video at this link.

Now perhaps you can see why I ask: who is an “actual” veteran?

I enlisted in the US Army and completed a three year tour of duty, so that makes me a veteran. I served a year in Vietnam, so that makes me a Vietnam vet. And that’s all. I’m just another citizen with an opinion.

My opinion is that those who never served in the military, those who sat out the Vietnam war in Canada, single-enlistment and career military, Doves, Hawks and the undecided all have exactly one vote and one opinion. The notion that your opinion is disqualifying because you didn’t serve in the right war in the right service branch at the right time is un-American rubbish. That notion has no place in political discourse.

This uber-citizen myth came to a head in the 2004 election campaign with the so-called “swift Boat” people (and a lot of others who never stepped foot on a boat). You’ll recall their argument was that Sen. Kerry wasn’t qualified to be President of the United States because he wasn’t as much of a war hero as Swift Boaters … nearly transparent rhetoric, but effective.

The notion that the military and ex-military know better than the rest of a country what’s good for the national interest is hardly confined to the United States. Former regimes in Argentina, Chile, North Korea and WWII-Germany come to mind. The fallacy is that my experience in Vietnam, or yours in the hellholes in Iraq or Afghanistan, somehow preempt ordinary political discourse or even national foreign policy. Not true.

It seems to me that the clout of belonging to a million-plus voting bloc has just gone to some folks’ heads. With all due respect to all of us who have served overseas, we know perfectly well that (1) they didn’t tell us squat when we were over there, and (2) most of us didn’t understand or really give a rat about foreign policy.

Some veterans and some uniformed career military are fully informed on politics and foreign policy and, commendably, those men and women do take those issues passionately. This in no way affects their “one-man-one-vote” status.

The issue of adequate military support, if indeed we’re going to send Americans overseas to “limited wars” at all, is quite serious. Neither does this fact confer any special political status upon active-duty service people, or ex-military civilians.

In the Hertzberg citations above, we can see the “cheap shot” taken against one of the debaters as an effort to disqualify the opponent without actually addressing the argument. This is the time-honored argument ad hominem, in which by smearing the opponent one neatly sidesteps the issue itself.

There probably will always be those who might say that because I never “actually” got shot at in Vietnam, I’m not qualified to write this post. The whole idea of this post is to remind us all that a return to civilian life means exactly that. The kind of political smear popular in the 2004 campaign is unwarranted. It’s unworthy of anyone who respects the values of American democracy.

And what, exactly, was it about those “chest-thumping, warmongering, manlier-than-thou draft dodgers”? Without reviving the divisive 40-year ugliness of national and family polarization over Vietnam, the choice between Canada – and death in an unpopular, unwinnable war of attrition – isn’t that hard to figure out. I never felt antipathy to the Canada option. For those who objected to mindless war and pointless sacrifice of the nation’s youth, it seemed more proactive to be willing to take the consequences of waiting out the war in Canada than being sent off like lemmings to Nixon and Johnson’s fatally flawed and cynical War.

Hertzberg’s opening editorials in The New Yorker usually strike me as paragons of erudition, reason and balanced opinion. The blog shows a different side of many writers. That “draft dodger” crack sounded like a cheap shot all of its own.

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