Thursday, July 2, 2009

On resisting the inclination to do "our duty" in the military

Since I attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps at age 16 and actually did a year later, that subject, or merely the fact that I was in the Marine Corps seems to elicit an apology, explanation, or justification from those who did not enlist. Even if I encounter someone who’s “war” would have been the Second World War, it is still fresh in their minds that they were not in it. They relive before me the time when they could and perhaps should have enlisted an didn’t.

I have been reading David Fromkin’s In the Time of the Americans, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, the Generation that Changed America’s Role in the World. The First World War was important to this generation. It occurred when they were finishing their educations and getting started in the world. MacArthur, Marshall, and Eisenhower were already in the military. Many enlisted or tried to – but not everyone.

Old Teddy Roosevelt tried to enlist. On page 167 Fromkin writes, “. . . when war was declared, TR, though physically a wreck, nearly sixty, and half-blind, desperately sought permission to lead a volunteer unit to France to fight. President Wilson rejected his offer, in patronizing terms that foreshadowed the partisan spirit in which the chief executive would conduct the war and the peace.

Wilson hated TR and was jealous of him. TR despised Wilson. As he came out of his meeting with the President, the ex-President encountered Colonel House and complained of the reception he had just received. As Winston Churchill later told the story, Theodore Roosevelt said: ‘”Wilson was very rough with me. After all, all I asked was to be allowed to die.” House (in his silkiest tones): “Did you make that last point clear to the President?”’

As to FDR, Fromkin tells us “Despite his athletic appearance, he was not robust; he suffered from frequent colds. He could well take the view that he was making a greater contribution to the war effort as assistant secretary of the navy than he could make as a fighting man.”

Fromkin writes “Of the stars of Yale’s graduating class of 1913 – Cole Porter, Averell Harriman, and William Bullitt – Porter was the most shameless in avoiding military service. Apparently disregarding the law that required him to register for selective service, he boarded an ocean liner to France and spent the war living in Paris, where he dressed in Foreign Legion and other French military uniforms, leading everyone to assume that he was serving as an army officer. He kept up the charade in front of his friend and college classmate, the future actor Second Lieutenant Monty Woolley, and in front of Archibald MacLeish, who was to fight in the second battle of the Marne. MacLeish, a close friend of Porter’s Harvard roommate, Dean Acheson, had left Harvard to Join the army, while Acheson stayed on to finish law school before enlisting (as it happened, just before the Armistice brought the war to an end)."

I don’t think Fromkin is correct in regard to Porter. I saw on a French Foreign Legion web site a copy of Cole Porter’s identity card. The French Foreign Legion claims Porter: so I tend to believe them. What may have happened is that Porter embellished his FFL exploits. Bob Dornan, former congressman from California apparently embellished his exploits on bombers during WWII. What he did was farily remarkable. He was never officially assigned to fly on bombers, but he volunteered, going on bomb runs, and risking his life, when he didn’t have to. His embellishment seemed to consist of his saying that what he did was officially sanctioned in some way, if memory serves me, and perhaps saying he went on a couple of bomb runs more than he really flew.

And there has been more than one case of some famous Admiral or General caught wearing a ribbon he wasn’t entitled to. I recall reading of one who committed suicide over having been caught wearing an unauthorized ribbon.

Enlisting, not-enlisting, and then if one is in the military, the temptation to embellish one’s war record – these seem to be important matters to most men. When men have trouble getting to sleep at night because they are busy torturing themselves over things they should have done in their lives, apparently not enlisting in the military (if they didn’t enlist) is very high on the agenda.

On page 164, Fromkin writes, “Robert A. Taft was nothing if not honest. The prosaic young Ohio lawyer admitted that he did not want to be a soldier; but he had a strong sense of duty that led him to try to enlist in the armed forces. He was rejected as physically unfit (his eyes were weak).

Determined nonetheless to perform national service in wartime, Taft went to work for Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration in Washington, D. C. He served as one of the four attorneys designated as assistant counsel. As such, he dealt with such regulatory matters as the pricing and grading of food products. It was congenial work for a young lawyer who enjoyed paying attention to detail, and he was good at it. He probably would have made an indifferent soldier; he served his country far more effectively as the capable attorney he was. Yet as he rightly observed, ‘My failure to enter the army requires and always will require explanation, and I shall always feel that those who have suffered in the war . . . are regarding me as one who failed to do his real duty.’”

I wonder about those who burned their draft cards rather than do their “real duty” during the Vietnam War. I wonder if they feel that what they did “requires and always will require explanation.” I recall reading in a discussion group of one such fellow from Tennessee drinking with a casual acquaintance in a bar when the subject of military service came up. When he described what he had done, gone to Canada rather than to Vietnam, his acquaintance either punched him or threatened to do so (I can’t recall the details). This fellow commented that if he hadn’t drunk so much, he would have kept his mouth shut. But apparently it is not so easy to do.

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