Even in the 'good war' we avoided combat Patriotism waned as casualities rose

D. Randall Beirne

September 16, 1992|By D. Randall Beirne

BILL Clinton is under increasing pressure to explain once an for all how he managed to avoid service in the Vietnam War. Many of those criticizing him talk in reverential terms about the "good war," World War II, which almost no able-bodied American tried to avoid.


In 1941, immediately after Pearl Harbor, patriotism ran high, and volunteers poured into the military. But by 1943, as casualty lists lengthened from battles in Africa, Italy and the South Pacific, the patriotism of draft-age Americans started to wane.

World War II did not offer college exemptions and the National Guard as ways to avoid, delay or limit military duty, so Dan Quayle might well have been drafted. The government did, however, have programs that could delay entrance into combat or at least make chances of survival in combat much better -- and many took advantage of them.

The Navy, Army Air Force and Marines had strict physical requirements that made many programs, such as the Navy's V-12, quite selective. Each of the branches was preparing men ** to become officers. Those with weak eyes or other physical problems often ended up in the ground army. A draftee with exceptional luck might get into officer candidate school and win a year's delay.

For those who couldn't get into these programs, the Army's ASTP (Army Specialist Training Program) was a solution. In fact, students in the program used to sing, "Take down your service flag, Mother, your son's in the ASTP."

This program was made up of Army draftees who scored high on an intelligence test. Most in peacetime would have been college students anyway. In many universities, such as Cornell, most students were in uniform. They were a common sight on the campus as they scurried about with their engineering textbooks -- successfully avoiding combat.

But as the casualty lists started coming in after the landing in Normandy in June 1944, there was a sudden shortage of infantrymen. Overnight, the ASTP Program folded. Thousands of dejected young men were rushed to the front in Europe.

Even within the draft, men who ended up in the ground army knew which branch not to enter. No one with an ounce of sense could mistake the purpose of the "infantry replacement training centers." We of the high school class of 1943 knew full well why there was a need for infantry "replacements."

And the service academies received applications from men who had never dreamed of making a career of military service. The attraction was manifold. Some liked the college deferment and education. Others liked the combat delay. Most figured, however, that if they had to don a uniform, they might as well use the professional approach. If they could put up with academy life for three years, they would get at least a deferment from immediate action.

In all wars, very few volunteer to take risks. Most accept their fate and hope that they will be in locations that see limited action. In most wars there is initial patriotic enthusiasm, as there was after Pearl Harbor. But as the war intensifies and casualties mount, patriotism wanes.

World War II lasted a little less than four years and the Korean War only three years. American involvement in Vietnam lasted almost 11 years. How lucky we were that the war in the Persian Gulf lasted only a few months, that casualties were light and that patriotism did not diminish! If the war had been longer and the casualties much higher, even Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf might have had trouble finding enthusiastic soldiers.

D. Randall Beirne teaches sociology at the University of Baltimore.

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