Missionary / Military

Usually, I think candidates need to speak for themselves, as explained in “Three thoughts on campaigns after watching the VP debate” (Oct. 12).

But when candidates bring in relatives to speak for them, as Mitt Romney explicitly did that the other day, it is fair to pay attention.

According to Laura Gottesdiener, “Onward Mormon Soldiers: Ann Romney Compares Mormon Mission to Military Service,” Alternet, 10/19/12:

Thursday morning, Mitt ducked a scheduled performance on The View…, leaving his wife Ann Romney to represent the candidate’s views….

When pressed by Whoopi Goldberg on how Romney would explain that neither he nor any of his five sons served, Ann explained that the six men found “different ways of serving” by going on their Mormon religious missions.

“So, you know, we find different ways of serving,” she said. “And my husband and my five boys did serve missions, did not serve in the military.”

The substitution, she went on to explain, makes sense because the two share essential, character-building and altruistic values.

“I sent them away boys and they came back men. And what the difference was–and I think this where military service is so extraordinary too–is where you literally do something where you’re helping someone else. You’re going outside of yourself and you’re working and helping others. And that changes you,” she said.

(See the video at Huffington Post.)

I’m sure many of us remember well the period when Romney was a missionary in France, July 1966 to December 68, which happens to include the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and in France the student and worker revolt and general strike that threatened to topple the French state. I spent a year in that period in France myself (as a graduate student, not as a missionary).

The lives of most American men in their twenties revolved around the prospect of being drafted and sent to fight in VietNam. Anyone who actually wanted to do that volunteered, although many volunteered precisely to avoid the draft, so that they could choose a branch of the service other than the army, which supplied the vast majority of the soldiers in Viet Nam.

You may recall the controversy over George Bush’s 6 years (1968-74) in the Air National Guard, during which time he was trained and in the reserve, and for whatever reason was never deployed into action.

According to Wikipedia, as a candidate in 1968 Richard Nixon proposed moving to a volunteer army, and on his initiative that actually happened in 1973. In 1969, conscription moved to a lottery system based on dates of birth drawn randomly, in which lower numbers meant conscription and higher numbers meant one could go on with one’s life. In 1970, Mitt Romney was assigned a high draft number. I had been a graduate student till then, and therefore exempt from the draft (that was back when preparing to teach was considered in the national interest). By 1970, I was too old to be drafted under normal circumstances, since the first lottery, in 1969, assigned numbers to men born in 1944-50. Mitt, however, was born in 1947, so could still have been drafted in 1970, and even more so in 1967, when he was about to turn 21. Usually, college students were deferred till they either dropped out of college or graduated, unless they continued with graduate studies.

At the time, Mitt and I (and his father) actually agreed about that war. In 1967, before officially starting his campaign for president, George Romney controversially declared, “When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” and turned against the war, which he had previously supported (video here). In June 1970, Mitt declared: ”I think we were brainwashed. If is [sic] wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam, I don’t know what is.” Previously, though, he had participated in a May 1966 counter-demonstration at Stanford against protests against the draft (photo below is cropped from BuzzFeed photo from AP archives). I don’t know if Mitt has changed his mind again on that one, but I haven’t.

Mitt in fact dropped out of Stanford University after one year, 1965-66 (he resumed his studies at Brigham Young in 1969), but was not drafted. Per “Mitt Romnney” in Wikipedia:

“Romney had initially received two 2-S student deferments, then, like most Mormon missionaries, a 4-D ministerial deferment while in France, and then two more student deferments. When those ran out, the result of the December 1969 draft lottery ensured he would not be selected.”

What is interesting is that in Romney’s religion a 19-year-old college dropout could be excused from military conscription as a missionary.

The draft was unfair, no doubt about it, and the unfairness often had a socioeconomic basis (not that the all-volunteer army doesn’t as well). Undergraduate students, graduate students, married men, those with children, and other categories were not drafted. And should some Americans have been exempted for religious reasons?

The issue reminds me of the situation in Israel, where since 1949 ultra-Orthodox Jewish males have been exempted from military service, with numbers that were recently running about 60,000 a year, until this past summer the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the exemptions could not be continued. The situation is far from settled yet, though.

“You need to fight physically and you need to fight spiritually, so the spiritual role is played by the yeshivas,” one man about to be exempted said.

Sort of Ann Romney’s point, I guess.

I wish, rather than the same old stuff about abortion and taxes, journalists interviewing MItt Romney would ask him questions like:

“When in France, did you think that missionary work was a spiritual role parallel to the military role of those who fought in Viet Nam?”

“When you were in France, how did you explain that your church had (until 1978) a policy against ordaining black men of African descent to the church’s lay priesthood” (thus excluding them from leadership positions)?”

“How were you influenced by French President Charles de Gaulle’s military-supported put-down of the 1968 general strike?”

“Do you still believe that the US war in Viet Nam was a mistake and do you see any connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

One should ask president Obama similar questions about the connection between his background and his present views–though about something other than the draft, which it was abolished in the year that he was 12 years old, and other than why he didn’t serve in the Viet Nam War, which ended before he turned 14.

With historical training, I tend to be more interested in what someone says about what about the past than in what they say they will do in the future. After all, as we often hear (from philosopher George Santayana) but rarely act on, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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