Swords or pistols? Maybe Donald Trump and John McCain should just duel

The spat between Donald Trump and John McCain makes for great political theater. But the dispute, prompted by an exchange of insults, reveals a deeper question for their generation: What did you do during the Vietnam War?

US National Archives
John McCain during his release as a POW in March 1973. McCain's combat plane was shot down in 1967 and he spent five years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, enduring torture and long periods of isolation.

Swords or pistols? Maybe Donald Trump and John McCain should settle their dispute like gentlemen, particularly since matters of personal honor obviously are at stake here.

It probably would be illegal, of course. As of a few years ago, at least, the Kentucky state oath of office included this: "I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God."

Would any of us be talking about Trump v. McCain were we not in the early days of a presidential race, not to mention dealing with two political characters known for their “colorful” personalities? Probably not. Plus, today’s dueling is more likely to involve snarky tweets. It’s been a long time since one lawmaker bludgeoned another with his cane on the floor of the House or Senate.

Political pundits are asking what are posed as serious questions; like, what will this do for Trump’s presidential campaign? As if it were more than performance art by a billionaire developer and reality TV personality who suggested that Senator McCain was not a war hero because he had been “captured” when shot down on his 23rd combat mission over North Vietnam.

Trump’s jibe no doubt was prompted by McCain’s earlier crack that Trump had “fired up the crazies” with his comments about Mexican immigrants, which were generally perceived as outrageous if not racist.

The best writing on the subject may be by humorists, like Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker:

“Presidential candidate Donald Trump revealed a little-known episode of personal heroism from his youth on Saturday, telling an Iowa audience that he narrowly avoided capture in Vietnam by remaining in the United States for the duration of the war.”

“The Cong were after me,” Trump said, visibly stirred by the memory [Borowitz writes]. “And then, just in the nick of time, I got my deferment.”

Setting aside the over-worked notion of “heroism” these days, Borowitz gets to the true essence of the quarrel and why so many of us – especially politicians – are riveted by it. It all gets down to “What did you do in the war, daddy?”

Trump and McCain both continued in the family business, so to speak. McCain’s father and grandfather were four-star admirals. Trump’s father was a real estate developer in New York City. McCain is 10 years older, but both are of the generation of young men who faced potentially life-altering decisions.

McCain was a US Naval Academy graduate who completed flight training in jet aircraft, flew attack aircraft in the fleet, and was sent into combat with his squadron in 1967. There never was any question of his seeing action in Vietnam, and he volunteered for some of the most dangerous missions.

Trump had been an accomplished college athlete (baseball, tennis, and squash), but after graduating in 1968 he got a medical deferment for bone spurs in his heels. Eighteen months later, he drew a very high (and very lucky) number in the draft lottery system that sent thousands of young men into dangerous ground combat in the US Army infantry while allowing those like Trump to relax.

A piece in Politico Sunday raises an important question yet to be answered: Did Trump actively seek the deferment by bringing a letter from his own doctor to the draft physical citing the bone spur problem?

As Politico points out: “Young men with access to friendly family physicians had this advantage at the time in dealing with draft physicals. Lower-income individuals, with no doctor but health issues bigger than bone spurs, could find themselves approved for military service.”

While Trump was avoiding military service – it well could have been perfectly legitimate – McCain was languishing in a North Vietnamese prison, subject to long periods of isolation as well as brutal torture designed to force written admission of “war crimes.” He refused early release offered when his captor’s found out that his father was the admiral in charge of all US forces in the Pacific region.

Among McCain’s decorations are the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. To this day, his posture and limited arm movements are reminders of mistreatment in captivity, in particular being trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders.

Does this make him a “hero?” He would not say so.

Nor should Trump necessarily be criticized for not serving at a time when the US was fighting an increasingly unpopular war. He was in pretty good company in seeking a draft deferment. Former vice president Dick Cheney (who famously said he “had other priorities” at the time) had five deferments. Former attorney general John Ashcroft had six.

Former president George W. Bush got into what was called a "Champagne squadron" in the Texas Air National Guard (as did the sons of former Democratic senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower), which kept him stateside. Similar story for former vice president Dan Quayle.

Meanwhile, more than 300 professional athletes got Reserve or Guard appointments, including Bill Bradley, Nolan Ryan, and seven members of the Dallas Cowboys. (But not star quarterback Roger Staubach, who graduated from the US Naval Academy and volunteered to serve a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam before joining the National Football League.)

Today, fewer and fewer Americans – including those seeking or holding elective office – have served in the military. Among the growing list of Republican presidential candidates, just two have military experience: Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who flew Air Force cargo aircraft, and US Senator Lindsey Graham, who recently retired as a reserve colonel in the Air Force judge advocate corps. On the Democratic side, former US senator James Webb is a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran.

The Trump-McCain spat is just one more bit of evidence that military service – heroic or not, and especially regarding Vietnam – remains a potent political issue.

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