For years, therefore, those who were not in a position for student deferments or other special excuses had to do most of the fighting. Later, in 1973, the Nixon administration went so far as to sponsor the abolition of the
draft, in part because it mistook the antiwar protest as a middle-class protest against the draft.
The cost of that irresponsible policy was very great, even apart from the indefensible apportionment of burdens and benefits. But surely the point today is that the Reagan administration should abandon its libertarian dogmatism and push for the restoration of a military manpower policy of universal reach. Otherwise, any future military emergency will repeat the inequities of
The present all-volunteer force, even more than the Vietnam-era draft, calls disproportionately upon the less privileged. If what happened in Vietnam seems to the President unjust, he has a clear duty to see that it does not happen again.
Still more troubling, or at least incomplete, is his comment that "the boys of Vietnam . . . fought a terrible and vicious war without enough support from home," that they "seized certainty from the heart of an ambivalent age." This speechwriterly rhetoric also demands considerable analysis and qualification.
As it stands, the President's sentiment has too much the ring of an American version of the "stab-in-the-back" myth that worked so much political mischief in Weimar Germany. In the 1920s, the Germans deluded themselves that they had not lost World War I but had been sold out by feckless politicians.
It was not a sound analysis of what actually happened in 1918, and it was an important ingredient in their later vulnerability to Hitler. Its American derivative, recently popularized by Richard Nixon and echoed here by Ronald Reagan, is equally unsound as a diagnosis of the outcome in Vietnam.
"Certainty" in "an ambivalent age"? The words are pretty; the sentiment is misleading. The problem in America during Vietnam was acute and paralyzing national division, not "ambivalence."
Half of the country viewed the war as a logical and appropriate extension of the containment policy by which the United States had resisted communist expansion from 1947. Another half viewed it just as fervently as an inappropriate and misguided continuation of a Western colonial war in Asia that the French had already lost.
Neither view was ambivalent in the least. Both held a part of the truth and that was no small part of the difficulty. In combination, or in conflict, they produced a political deadlock that no leadership - certainly not the inferior leadership of 1963-1974 - knew how to overcome.
A President who chooses to talk about a bitter and monumental chapter in the recent past is not really at liberty to speak as you or I might speak over the back-yard fence.
The President's remarks at Arlington could be read in ways that feed bitterness more than encourage sober thought. But then, they seem in keeping with the President's often-expressed view that our principal psychic legacy
from Vietnam is a "syndrome" that will soon vanish like a bad dream if we're lucky, permitting a return to the bold and simple certainties of the 1950s.
That would be unsettling even if it were likely. What the President occasionally calls the "Vietnam syndrome" is the sober recollection of a tragic expenditure of American energies and blood. To dismiss it as a sort of political neurosis to be snapped out of is to risk its repetition at even greater cost.