Why Politicians Can't Give Honest Answers About Military Service

I'd love to hear, just once in my life, a presidential candidate give a blunt and honest account of why he hasn't served.

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In The New Republic, Alec MacGillis says one reason Mitt Romney has trouble connecting with Southern voters, even compared to past moderate Republican candidates, is his lack of military service:

In the region that prizes military service more than any other, Bush's aviation heroics, Dole's paralyzed right arm and McCain's years in North Vietnamese captivity lent them fundamental credibility and a connection with voters, particularly fellow veterans. McCain might've disagreed about voters in South Carolina about immigration or climate change, but he could crack one of his Marine jokes, or go on one of his solemn Country First turns, and have the crowd eating out of his hand. With Dole and Bush, the appeal was less explicit, but it was still there; everyone knew where they'd been. Romney has nothing to draw on here.

Perhaps that's right.

As MacGillis goes on to say, "When he was asked in 2007 why none of his five sons had served in the military, he answered, to widespread derision, 'One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected.'"

Here's a related clip from 60 Minutes:


I have the utmost respect for veterans like Dole and everyone else who fought in World War II. I've lately researched the exploits of the Americal Division, and can hardly fathom the debt of gratitude I owe them and their analogs in Europe. I respect John McCain's service, for reasons that David Foster Wallace captured best in his 2000 Rolling Stone profile. And as a young newspaper reporter in California's Inland Empire, I had the privilege of interviewing impressive newly-minted veterans who'd served in Afghanistan and Iraq. I appreciate their service as much as anyone's, and I get angry sometimes thinking of how much we've asked them to sacrifice and how inadequately we compensate them when they are injured or mentally traumatized.

But I don't fault Mitt Romney or his sons for not serving, and the reason a lot of people feel as I do is a great unspoken reality of American politics. I have no idea how Romney actually feels about having never served in Vietnam, but I'd be inclined to like him more, not less, if he said, "I'm glad as hell my draft number didn't get called because that debacle of a war needlessly squandered the lives of almost 60,000 Americans, and caused many others to engage in pointless killing, a moral burden I wouldn't wish on any human being, particularly having spoken to actual Vietnam veterans who think, along with most Americans, that the war was a mistake."

And Romney's sons?

I don't know why none of them ever served. But if my father were running for president, and I was asked why I didn't volunteer at age 32 for the army, I'd be tempted to tell the interviewer, "There's no way in hell I'd enlist after living for two years in Washington, D.C., and meeting in banal dive bars the sorts of chicken-hawk neoconservatives and liberal internationalists who advocate for wars of choice while profiting from the military-industrial complex, and who would gladly risk my life, ostensibly volunteered to defend my country, in campaigns that do nothing to enhance the safety of my countrymen and oftentimes lead to their being less safe and more reviled."

It's people like Dick Cheney, who urged us into a disastrous war of choice using deceptive rhetoric, and Barack Obama, who illegally sent our armed forces to depose a dictator who didn't pose the slightest threat to us, that have made me irredeemably cynical about volunteering my services to carry out whatever mission future unprincipled politicians might devise.

As you can see, I lack political aspirations. 
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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