Privilege vs. morality

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 11, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I would have gone to Vietnam had the war not ended when it did.

I didn't believe in the war.

I felt I had a moral obligation to oppose it.

But I was afraid to defy the draft. I was afraid to become an outlaw. I was afraid to disappoint my parents, leave my friends, abandon whatever future I had, and flee to Canada.

And so, I would have served -- not out of patriotism but cowardice.

I got very, very lucky: The war ended just after I completed my pre-induction physical. My lottery number, by the way, was 26.

I think we forget these days that many of the draft dodgers and war protesters during the Vietnam era were not like me. They were people of conscience and courage who were willing to risk everything for principle.

We forget that protesters were shot and beaten by police and the National Guard. They were jailed. They were disowned by their parents. Those who fled faced permanent exile.

Yet they believed that the Vietnam War had been imposed on the American people without their informed consent for the benefit of vested interests. They believed that the government was lying to the American people about what was happening over there and why.

And they believed that they had a moral and patriotic obligation to compel the government to tell the truth regardless of the personal costs.

It was a high form of patriotism -- every bit as high as the men and women who chose to serve their country, also regardless of the personal risk. I believe that coming to grips with the Vietnam War generation means understanding that both sides served their country with courage and conviction.

I am reminding you of this because history has a way of getting garbled, especially when the politicians get hold of it.

So it is distressing to see Vice President Dan Quayle and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton become metaphors for the young people of that era.

Young Dan Quayle spent his college years railing against the hippies for daring to defy the powers-that-be, yet when his turn lTC came in 1969, he pulled some strings and got into the Indiana National Guard.

The record shows that Quayle did not break any laws in getting into the Guard, but that's beside the point.

The point is that when we talk about the young men of that era who faced the issue of the war with courage and conviction, we're not talking about Quayle. Quayle was just a spoiled rich kid who wanted to go to law school.

The same appears to be true of Clinton, although he hails from humbler beginnings, and now he says he opposed the war.

The Wall Street Journal last week found discrepancies between Clinton's official version of how he avoided being drafted in 1969 and the recollections of the only surviving member of his local draft board. Clinton later entered the draft lottery but his number never was drawn.

Whichever story you believe, it is clear that Clinton also did not act out of great conviction either for or against the war. To him, the war was little more than a great inconvenience to his plans to finish the second year of his Rhodes Scholarship and make his fortune.

Keep in mind, I'm not condemning either man.

After all, when my turn came a few years later, I also ducked the moral issues. Like Quayle, I talked a good game (Quayle for the war, me against) but in the end, I was unwilling to risk everything in support of my beliefs. I would have served only because I didn't know how to get out of it.

But many young people did confront the moral issues. Many young people did take a stand.

Some maintained they had a duty as citizens to serve and they did so. Others said they had a duty as citizens to force the government to tell the truth, and they refused to fight.

If we want to understand anything about that era, they are the ones we have to talk to, contemplate, come to understand, not Clinton and Quayle.

Clinton and Quayle were not unique to the Vietnam War generation. Privileged kids have managed throughout all of recorded history to let others do the fighting for them.

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