Trump screwed up with the Purple Heart

Men In their 60s have a Military Draft Story

The politics of this are tricky for Trump. He can get away with being a draft dodger. But he screwed up with the Purple Heart.

He needed to have spoken respectfully about it. Then about the man who gave it to him. Then given it back. He didn’t.

I am commenting on Trump and the draft, even though the issue may seem like ancient history. Indeed, I suspect that people under the age of 55 scarcely understand the fuss, a controversy 50 years remote in time.

History Lesson to young folks: But it is important to people my age, men in their 60s and early 70s, but to review: America took over for the French their war to keep Vietnam a western aligned country. It was previously a French colony and it was headed by a puppet government installed and preserved by the French. We considered Vietnam a bulwark against the spread of Chinese communism, under the idea that there was a lineup of standing dominos and that one might fall causing another to fall and then another. Vietnam wasn’t just about Vietnam, therefore. It was the first potential domino to fall adjacent to China and if it fell then Communism might spread across the world.

The war was unpopular at home. The puppet government had negligible legitimacy, the local Vietnamese army was reluctant, and the people we were allegedly protecting seemed conflicted. America needed to coax the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people even as we fought the Viet Cong (i.e. North Vietnamese) soldiers and their widespread collaborators within Vietnam. Americans were getting injured and killed, there were stories of ugly encounters where non-combatants were considered enemies because friend, foe, and people who just wanted to stay alive all “looked alike”. American soldiers called everyone there a “gook”, i.e. Vietnamese-Asian. It was messy.

Plus, in order to attempt to show progress in the war the on-site generals began a system of “body counts”. Essentially Americans were directed to pacify and control the countryside and keep track of how many enemy soldiers were killed. Everyone killed (again friend, foe, noncombatant) was considered an enemy. The nightly news reported supposed progress: say 140 enemies (i.e. Asians) and only ten Americans. The typical ratio was about ten to one — a great tradeoff, except that there were two billion Asians of the “gook” variety, reproducing at fifty million a year: five million Americans a year to break even.

There was a complicated draft program with lots of loopholes, exceptions, and randomness. Men with a lot of social capital (middle class, friendly doctors, college access) frequently found some way to avoid the draft. Men drafted were people who lacked that social capital, plus some unlucky people of all varieties.

“Over the top” into machine gun fire. Don’t be a victim of stupidity.

It was not shameful at the time to finagle the system. The idea was: don’t be a victim. Don’t let stupid generals send you off to your death for nothing simply because they lacked the imagination to realize this was a hopeless cause. And maybe an evil one, with Americans killing people because they were “gooks”, not because they were enemies. Americans sympathized with veterans home from Vietnam, but with a mixed heart. Were they serving America, or were they just tromping around under orders, killing innocent people. Veterans who returned from Vietnam were not treated as heroes. They were treated as suspects.

It was an ugly time.

The 2016 Election: A great many men who are now senior leaders in their political parties and in the media were, forty and fifty years ago, young men with social capital. There is no liberal or Democratic Party constituency for saying “Donald Trump is a Draft Doger. For Shame!!! There are too many people who did essentially what he did. (Mitt Romney avoided the draft because he was in France, doing a mission for the Mormon Church. Cheney had student deferments. GW Bush got a placement in the Air National Guard in Alabama. France, college, and Alabama were safer than the jungles of Vietnam.) Democratic leaders, too: Bill Clinton, as I wrote earlier. And me, happy at Harvard then getting draft number 202, just barely high enough. Whew.)

So: Donald Trump is safe on that count.

He is not so safe, however, in how he handled the Purple Heart gift. There remains in America conflicted feelings and guilt regarding Vietnam and heroism. Too many people believe they “got off easy” with either war-avoidance or comfortable duty in Germany or elsewhere. People are sensitive to the idea that the lucky privileged people should not appropriate the benefits earned through danger, toil, injury, and death by soldiers who did hard duty. Mr. Khan’s accusation that Trump did not sacrifice might have disappeared into memory had Trump not picked a fight. Trump publicly accepting the gift of a Purple Heart and saying “I always wanted one” is a pure example of the expropriation of sacrifice that is a political hazard.

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Trump could hardly have constructed a worse scenario: privileged rich boy draft avoider treating a Purple Heart as an acquisition to enjoy by gift or inheritance, not by real sacrifice. It dovetails with the Trump-the-Hypocrite meme. Trump talks about American jobs and America First but sources his ties in China and his suits in Mexico, and he builds ultra-luxury golf courses in Scotland, and his bankruptcies save himself but crush small contractors.

This was another self inflicted wound for Trump.

(I write nearly every day in a political blog: www.peterwsage.blogspot.com Go check it out and bookmark it, or better yet sign up for home delivery by email.)