Jewish World Review Aug. 31, 1999 /19 Elul, 5759
It was at Oxford University in 1972 that I first encountered Americans of my generation who had been in the military of their own free will. They were almost all Rhodes or Marshall scholars (as I was not), and as I came to meet them I learned that some of them had been officers, some even now happily serving in the reserve. They didn't speak much about it, weren't even interested in dining out on their experience. (Not for them the cliché narrative about being drafted, about basic training, about Saigon, painfully told by a sensitive, long-haired, bitter and guilt-ridden boy to a horrified, fascinated young woman.) These men were different-cool and businesslike about the experience, as likely to chatter about various units and commanding officers as we were to gossip about counter-cultural political heroes like Hilary Putnam or Mark Rudd.
"What gives with these guys?" I asked an older hand. "They're not hicks or heroes or cannon-fodder."
"Don't you understand? Haven't you ever met anyone who wanted to be President?"
I had to admit that I hadn't. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Most boys who were children of middle-class parents of my age cohort, born in 1948, '49, or '50, had taken some steps to avoid the draft, or to mitigate the military service that might ensue. You could do some quite minimal things-develop a long-standing case of asthma or chronic bronchitis, for example-and have a reasonable chance of avoiding 1A classification, unless you did something stupid, or were registered in a very small town. But after taking one of these slightly shady actions one type of boy would remark: "well, I guess I'll never grow up to be President." The proper response to this sheepish little joke was a derisive snort, indicating the puerility of such an ambition, and the low esteem one ought to hold such a job as running what we used to call Amerika. But still the feeling was solemn: you had taken a step to separate oneself from anything that bourgeois America could approve and that this step was irredeemable.
These veteran Yanks at Oxford had not had to make such a joke. And of course most of them had not had to face combat or even discomfort during their service. But this didn't spare me the odd thought that these guys embraced a duty that I, out of conscience and social correctness, had hoped I wouldn't have to. But they served in the name of ambition and self-interest, rather than from unreflecting patriotism or lack of education. They did what we could never do from motives we could recognize all too well.
In 1992, when I read the revelation in the press of Governor Clinton's frenzied, daring, and mendacious efforts to avoid having to respond to a draft notice, I thought of these men. They had shared his political ambition, his academic path, and must in the '70s and '80s have regarded themselves as his rivals. He would have fit in well among his generation of Rhodes scholars just preceding my Oxford years. But this familiarity made his actions more curious. Clearly he did know then, that he, literally, wanted to grow up to be President. And this means he must have known even more vividly than I that men with serious political ambitions, if at all possible, must have served-and been seen to serve --in the army. And yet he chose not to-not out of "radicalism,' but seemingly from indolence. But he refused to accept that 'now he could never be president'-clearly the idea never occurred to him.
At such a tender age how did he know so much, see so clearly?-that he would
not have to live by the same codes as we did. And that what we thought we
saw, and the great but serious game whose rules we played by, whether we were
"hippies" or straights," "radicals" or "jocks", middle-class or
cannon-fodder, was meaningless. All that effort to find the right thing to
do, to find the courage to do it (not often), and to condemn others for not
doing it (all the time)-and those lives ruined, or lost-all, he saw even
then, would be
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.