Paul Pillar

Donald Trump and the American Attitude Toward National Service

The sheer outrageousness of some of Donald Trump's public utterances invites condemnation that is so justifiably quick and unqualified that it leads us to overlook respects in which what Trump says or stands for reflects larger patterns that many Americans do not condemn and may even support. There is a reason that Trump moved to the top of the polls of Republican primary voters, and the reason isn't his hair. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post addressed this phenomenon the other day in a column in which he noted how, when Trump briefly ran for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party in 2000, he distinguished himself from Pat Buchanan by taking relatively progressive positions on immigration and social issues. That's quite a contrast with how Trump, now running for the Republican nomination, has called Mexicans a bunch of rapists. Milbank's persuasive explanation is that what we have heard each time is much less any sincere convictions of Trump but instead the kind of red meat that he has calculated will most excite the constituency to which he happens to be appealing.

Trump's most recent outrageous comment—his disparaging of John McCain's military service—leads naturally and appropriately to comparing what those two individuals were doing as young men during the years in question. Michael Miller and Fred Barbash do a good job in the Post of relating how, while McCain was stoically enduring suffering in captivity in North Vietnam and heroically resisting his captors' demands for a “confession” in return for his release, Trump was enjoying a life of privilege, partying, and pecuniary pursuits. Student deferments and the luck of a high draft lottery number kept Trump out of the military.

Trump's story regarding military service was little different, however, from that of many other prominent American men from the same generation who have enjoyed political success. Some of those men did much more gaming of the system than Trump did. That was true of Bill Clinton, who cleverly worked the creaky draft board system. It was true as well of Dick (“I had other priorities in the '60s than military service”) Cheney, who may have gone so far as to manipulate his marriage and child-siring schedule to stay out of uniform. As for the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, he had, with the addition of a couple of years of deferment while a Mormon missionary, the same things going for him as Trump did—student deferments and a high lottery number—and thus was able, like Trump, to embark directly on a career that enriched himself through financial wheeling and dealing.

Amid a culture of American exceptionalism that is one of the most conspicuous examples in the current world of fervent nationalism, many Americans have yet to reconcile in any convincing way this overtly patriotic culture with the pattern just described regarding national service and the leaders they admire and support. We live in an age of chicken hawks, in which those who have never served in the military tend to be—not coincidentally—some of those most supportive of, and most confident in the success of, the application of military force by the United States. We also live in a time when collective responsibility and collective pursuits on behalf of the general welfare usually take a back seat to private pursuits. We are at least as likely to treat as heroes people who have conspicuously succeeded in private sector pursuits and sold us a better cell phone, as we would so treat anyone who has endured things while in any form of public service.

As far as the contemporary military's place is concerned, we deal with the patriotism-vs.-private indulgence disjuncture mainly by ritualistically voicing tribute to those who wear the uniform while keeping their world separate from our world. We salute them at sporting events, we give them priority boarding at airports, and we thank them for their service in other venues. By so doing, we check a box on the patriotism list.

The lack of conscription is, of course, critical for maintaining the separation and keeping the military world from intruding messily on our own. Probably that is one reason those who served in the Vietnam War did not, at the time, get the salutations at ball parks or other shows of appreciation.

The Vietnam War also had come to be perceived, by its last couple of years and by all except a few diehard believers in the wisdom of the expedition, as a losing endeavor. And so it clashed with the American tendency to associate heroism with winning. That, too, is a chord that Trump struck, in his outrageous way, in his insult against McCain. “He's a war hero because he was captured,” sneered Trump. “I like people that weren't captured.” That brings to mind the aphorism, associated with George S. Patton, that “You don't win wars by dying for your country. You win wars by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Although the statement may be apocryphal, George C. Scott said it in a movie, so Americans take it as genuine wisdom.

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