If true, the MIT findings would obviously be important, both in changing the standard version of Vietnam War history and in raising questions about how we know what we "know." If Vietnam really was an "equal opportunity war," as Time said in its report on the study, how could so many people have believed the opposite for so long?
Someday we may have to ask that question. But not now. The MIT study is preposterous. It raises questions, all right, but they concern the academics who conduct such scholarship and the journalists who pass it on without checking the details.
Now the necessary disclaimer: I have one large bias, but not the one the MIT authors might suspect. Their study is presented largely as a rebuttal to an article I wrote eighteen years ago called "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" It appeared in The Washington Monthly, and it argued that because the sons of the nation's economic, professional, and political elite were generally spared the costs of the Vietnam War, the war went on longer than it otherwise would have. The MIT authors say that I was wrong: "In terms of the bereavement it brought to America, Vietnam was not a class war."
I don't mind the disagreement. My real bias is more primitive: I would prefer never to raise this subject in public again. For me it involves the Oprahlike spectacle of rehashing the way that I and people like me dodged serving in the war. The subject is also becoming the Baby Boom's version of the Rosenberg case: when aging cranks start haggling over the fine points of their old arguments, everyone else tries to get out of the room. But the reaction to Bill Clinton's and Dan Quayle's draft histories suggests that the inequities of service in Vietnam, perceived or real, still matter to many Americans, which is why the MIT study matters too.
HERE is how the study worked. Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. From a list of the dead the MIT scholars made a random selection of 1,525 names, a sample easily large enough to achieve statistical significance. To determine whether any class bias was evident among the dead, the scholars decided to concentrate on income alone as an indicator of class. Money, after all, is a good rough measure of where people stand. But how could the scholars figure out the financial backgrounds of the casualties? These people died twenty to thirty years ago. America being what it is, their families have moved, dispersed, or died.
Facing huge obstacles, the MIT scholars came up with an approximation. From military records they determined each dead soldier's home town. From census data they determined the median income for each of those towns -- or at least any town with a population of 2,500 or more, the smallest unit for which the census reports median income. The scholars then assumed that each soldier's family income was the median income of his home town. If Bill Clinton had been drafted from Oxford or Yale Law School, then, he would have counted as a poor boy rather than as a member of the educated elite. From other census data the scholars determined the income distribution for all men of military age during the Vietnam War. Then, with all the data in place, they moved through an increasingly elaborate set of correlations and "disparity" calculations to find whether there was a sharp economic difference between the people who died and America as a whole. When all the computer runs were finished, the team discovered that the economic difference was surprisingly small.