Information Warfare: February 16, 2004


The current presidential campaign in the United States is bringing back the debate over "who served" (and who didn't) during the Vietnam war. During that conflict (1965-72), 8.7 million Americans served in the military. About a third of these spent some time in Vietnam. But only about twelve percent of those sent to Vietnam were in combat. Put another way, only about three percent of those who served in the military during the Vietnam war were in combat. And then there was the draft. Some 2.2 million men were drafted during the Vietnam war, to serve for two years. But most of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 

There were over a million men becoming eligible for the draft each year during the 1960s, but the most that were drafted in any one year (1968) was 334,000. There were plenty of opportunities to avoid service. If you had a college education, and were drafted, your chances of ending up in the infantry (unless you volunteered for it) were very low. The army always had lots of technical and administrative jobs for educated draftees. If you wanted to absolutely avoid the chance of combat in Vietnam, you could enlist in the air force. This meant you would have to serve three years. There was a slight chance you might get a job as a crewman aboard a B-52 bomber (of which a few were shot down) or in an air force security unit pulling guard duty in a Vietnam air base (there were some casualties here.) But, generally, a college grad had little to fear from the military in the 1960s unless they volunteered for combat. 

Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, graduating from college in 1966, joined the navy, went to officer training school, and volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam (as skipper of one of the hundreds of riverine boats the navy operated in the Mekong Delta.) He received three flesh wounds from shell fragments (one of which had him off duty for two days), and went home after five months because of a Navy rule about a man wounded three times being allowed to leave the combat zone. Kerry ended up serving four years. President George Bush joined the Air National Guard in 1968, went to officer training school and flight school and was on active duty for 23 months, and in the National Guard for four years. For those serving in Vietnam, there was a two percent chance of getting killed (it was much higher for the infantry, who were about ten percent of the troops in Vietnam, but took over 80 percent of the casualties.) Bush flew the F-102 fighter, one of the more dangerous aircraft to fly during the 1960s (one fatal accident per 40,000 flight hours). Bush took on a one percent chance of getting killed by volunteering for flight training in such an aircraft. It would have been much safer to enlist and get a job maintaining the F-102.

Over 90 percent of those who served in the military during the Vietnam war were not in any particular danger. Avoiding service to "save your life" was a myth. Anyone who wanted to avoid danger, and many did, simply joined the navy or air force, or volunteered for the army on condition that they get a certain non-combat job (the army encouraged this to get qualified volunteers for those positions.) Those who avoided service altogether simply didn't want to be bothered with what most Americans then, and now, call "the service." They call it that for a reason. Being in the military for two years, or four, is often uncomfortable. During Vietnam, it could also be painful. But everyone understood that, if no one served, we all would lose.


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