« previous post | next post »

Yesterday, #VeteransForKaepernick became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with 264k tweets. (If you're just returning from a vacation on Mars, you can read about the background here or here.)

This reaction confirmed my impression that the end of the draft might be one of the reasons for the growing polarization of American politics. And it reminded me of an experience that I posted about back in 2003. I'll copy the anecdote below to save you all the trouble of following the link.

In 1969, I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I wasn't a big fan of the war. In fact, truth be told, I lost my student deferment because I was kicked out of college for antiwar activities on campus. And while I was in the army, I generally said what I thought about the war. Most of what I said was just assimilated into the general stream of army complaining, I think, so that some people agreed with me, and some disagreed, but I didn't get into as much trouble over this kind of discussion as you might expect. Except once.

I was stationed at a little camp near Pleiku, in the central highlands near where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come together. One afternoon, after I'd been there a couple of months, my friend Maddog asked me to take some paperwork over to somebody on the other side of the camp, in a living area where I'd never been before. It seems like every Army unit in those days had to have exactly one guy nicknamed "Maddog", usually because he was especially mild-mannered. You could call this reverse sarcasm, though of course in a military culture, "mad dog" is a kind of a compliment, so I guess David Beaver's theory works.

Anyhow, when I got to where Maddog sent me that afternoon, I saw that another guy I'd met a few weeks before also lived there. I'll call him "Ray". Ray was from rural Idaho, and his political views were far right. He read me passages from John Birch Society pamphlets; he saw fluoridation of water supplies as an obviously unacceptable instrusion of the government into individuals' lives; he thought it was plausible that WWII had been caused by Jewish bankers and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist agent. We had argued for a couple of hours one evening, and we didn't agree about anything.

Off in a corner of the hootch, a half a dozen NCOs were drinking. One of them, a sergeant from one of the other platoons, came over and started giving me a hard time. "Hey, college boy, I hear you're one of those hippie pinko protestors." He was pretty drunk, and he clearly wanted to start a fight. He kept pushing me in the chest, and taunting me. "You some kind of pacifist, you pussy? You just gonna take this from me? Well, faggot?" and so on. Meanwhile, his drinking buddies gathered around us in a circle. I didn't know any of them, and some of them were starting to echo his taunts. Even though this sergeant wasn't in my chain of command, and was probably too drunk to be much of an opponent, I was pretty sure that fighting with him would be a really bad choice. But the way out was blocked, and not fighting was starting to look like a recipe for getting the crap kicked out of me by the whole group.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ray go over to his locker. He reached in and pulled out the biggest revolver I've ever seen in my life. I'm not any kind of gun expert, so I'll just say that it seemed like it was about a foot and a half long, with a bore the size of my thumb. Rather than a choice between fighting or just taking a beating, it looked like my options had narrowed to begging for my life or just dying with dignity. Ray — who was a PFC like I was — pushed his way through the circle of drunk NCOs and faced the sergeant and me. He raised the pistol to eye level, muzzle up, and cocked it. Then he looked at the sergeant and said:

"This man is an American. He has a right to believe what he wants, and say what he believes. Now back off!"

I thought, "Ray, wait a minute, what does my being an American have to do with it? Shouldn't everybody have those rights?"

But what I said was "thanks, Ray!"

The crowd of drunk NCOs just kind of melted away, like the wicked witch of the west. I don't think it was the gun — though that helped emphasize the point — I think it was what Ray said. It was strictly against regulations for him to have that pistol, and the NCOs could have taken the whole thing as some kind of mutiny and escalated it to another level. But they were ashamed of themselves for acting in such an un-American way, once somebody pointed it out from their side of the political fence.

Being in the army left me with a kind of emotional commitment to political pluralism, and this episode was a big part of it. So that's my story for Veterans Day.




  1. Oskar Sigvardsson said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    That's a wonderful story, thanks for sharing.

  2. Aaron said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    Standing up for someone else's right to dissent when you do not agree with them is the test of whether you truly believe in freedom of speech. Too many people only appeal to that noble principle when it is convenient for them.

  3. KeithB said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    I think a good case can be made that the internet caused the increase of polarization by allowing folks to retreat inside their bubbles:


  4. Adrian Morgan said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 9:16 am

    For the purpose of this post, anywhere that is not America is Mars.

    My dad was drafted, but won his court case as a conscientious objector, so didn't go.

  5. D.O. said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 11:41 am

    Prof. Liberman, I thought you've served in the navy. Great story!

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    I like this story enough that I have on one or two occasions over the years had to figure out which search terms in the old LL archive would turn it up – I don't think I realized how many years it had been since first posted.

    Since the compelled-mixing-with-other-Americans-of-radically-different-geographical/class/ethnic/ideological/etc-backgrounds aspect of the WW2-through-Vietnam military was a quite common experience for American males of several generations but a comparative uncommon experience for American females of the same generational cohorts (and then only females who'd self-selected by volunteering and were thus less likely to be a representative cross-section of the nation as a whole) it seems like it ought to be possible to devise some sort of test to see if the inferred benefits of that compelled mixing were more commonly seen among males than females. Although from a public-policy perspective going forward it might be more productive to brainstorm about ways such mixing could be encouraged by less illiberal and coercive means than were employed in the 1940-73 era.

    [(myl) Good idea. But many women in those generations also underwent some "compelled mixing", either directly by living in a military-centric community with their husbands, or indirectly through other sorts of shared experiences with friends and relations.]

  7. Rubrick said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    I was about to post:

    "If you're just returning from a vacation on Mars […]"

    A fine anecdote, but mocking folks who haven't been following the news for a couple of days (or who, as I see Adrian pointed out, aren't American) seems uncalled for.

    …and then I suddenly realized you weren't simply using a random alternative to "if you've been living under a rock" (which I've always found pointlessly condescending), but referring to the "worst Hawaiian vacation ever" folks. Subtle is the Liberman.

    (My only objection to the story itself is that it's enough of a movie cliché that I knew exactly how it was going to turn out. "But it happened in real life decades ago!" is no excuse.)

  8. D.O. said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    J.W. Brewer, universities supposed to be such places now, but…

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    D.O., well yes as to certain difference-of-background dimensions although even there one can be skeptical about what's lip service and what's real. But a serious issue related to the cocooning of elites in the U.S. is comparative lack of exposure to fellow Americans without high SAT scores, and no elite university has a "diversity and inclusion" policy that addresses that. I went to a university which systematically excluded those who weren't very good at scoring high on standardized tests, but e.g. I spent the summer after my freshman year working for minimum wage as a dishwasher in a diner where my fellow employees had not been selected for high SAT scores, rather than in e.g. some sort of insider-connections-leveraging internship at an elite non-profit. My strong anecdotal impression is that many more Ivy League undergrads did the former sort of thing with their summers 30 or 40 years ago than is currently the case.

  10. maidhc said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    I have little experience with Ivy League universities, but there are plenty of students at public universities who have lots of contact with the non-elite, starting in many cases with their own families. Perhaps not elite public universities like UCLA, but on a typical state university campus there would usually be a substantial group of first-generation college students.

  11. Graeme said,

    August 31, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

    Interesting personal (and social) history. Thanks.

    'Mad Dog' as a moniker is common in many parts of the world. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Dog
    I'm curious why you spelt it so as to look like a Tolkien character, from around Moria.
    To accentuate the 'mad' but not the 'dog'? Or was it an in-joke in that barracks, pronounced like a single word name?

    [(myl) The stress was definitely on the first syllable — I guess I always assumed that it should be written solid for that reason.]

  12. Martin Ball said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 2:24 am

    As a Welsh speaker I just assumed it was [maðɔg] :)

  13. David Marjanović said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

    I don't think the end of the draft is the cause. Several European countries have recently abolished the draft and are not showing increased polarization.

    I think the isolation of the US, together (paradoxically) with the Internet which allows "media siloing" (to get your "news" only from sources whose ideology you already agree with), is the cause for why a large part of the US is wholly off the political map of most of the rest of the First World.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

    …continues to be wholly off the political map, rather.

  15. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    Several European countries have recently abolished the draft and are not showing increased polarization.

    How many of them are endlessly engaged in divisive wars?

RSS feed for comments on this post