No matter who the Republican presidential nominee turns out to be, this will be the first election in pretty much forever in which neither major party candidate served in the military. As a post-boomer, Barack Obama never had to worry too much about this question, since he came of age after the transition to an all-volunteer military. But Mitt Romney was of prime fighting age during Vietnam, a conflict he avoided with deferments for college and missionary work. This provides just one more topic for him to squirm through questions about, but as Conor Friedersdorf argues, it's pretty ridiculous to imply that in retrospect the proper course of action would have been for young Mitt to do everything he could to fight in a conflict nearly everyone acknowledges to have been a huge mistake:
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."
Our perspective on military service has changed for the better in some ways in recent years, but we're still left with an extraordinarily simplistic way of talking about it. We ought to be able to say that volunteering to risk your life is noble, but it can also be misguided. In the wake of September 11, many thousands of young people volunteered to serve, in the belief that they would be helping to defend their country. What many of them found instead was that they'd risk (and in many cases give) their life for George W. Bush's folly in Iraq. If you could go back in time and speak to one of those people, what would you say to him? Would you advise him to act on those noble feelings, knowing how they'll likely be shattered by the personal and national nightmare into which he'll be sent?
I think it's perfectly possible to simultaneously pay tribute to those who serve for their patriotism, their courage, their skill, and their sacrifice (and make sure they get treated with the honor and respect they deserve when they return from overseas), and at the same time say, as I would, that in the 21st century I would never advise my own children to enlist. Because unfortunately, if they did they would almost certainly not be called upon to "defend" their country in any meaningful sense. Instead, they'd be called upon to project American power outward. In some cases that projection might be for very good reasons, and accomplish very good things. But it's just as likely, if not more so, that they'll be called on to risk their lives in another misconceived war like Iraq or Afghanistan, where they would pay the price for the grandiose schemes and strategic stupidity of leaders sitting comfortably back in Washington. Of course, holding those two thoughts simultaneously requires comfort with a bit of nuance, and no politician is allowed to display nuance. The rest of us can, though.
And no lessons of the past ever seem to get learned. Right now the same group of despicable chickenhawk neoconservatives who pushed us into Iraq is trying to start another war in Iran, so the country's interests can be further damaged and more young Americans can die (never mind all the people on the other side we'd kill) because people like Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney love to watch the bombs fall.
So we ought to be able to say to future candidates: You served in the military? Great. You didn't serve? There's nothing wrong with that.