Busily working away as

January 22, 2003 1:54 a.m.

Busily working away as I was yesterday writing about seventeenth century New Englanders, land distribution, Indians and warfare, I already had the post about Don Rumsfeld forming in the back of my mind. About two weeks ago, in response to a question about reinstituting the draft, Rumsfeld said draftees had added “no value, no advantage really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time.”

It’s a standard part of the political game. You say something stupid. Your political foes call you on it and seek political advantage by demanding an apology. But sometimes what you’ve said is really so stupid and so offensive that you’ve really gotta apologize. At this point in the post I was going to say, Don Rumsfeld’s gotta apologize.

I see in tomorrow morning’s Post that he has.

Hundreds of thousands of military draftees served over the years with great distinction and valor — many being wounded and still others killed. The last thing I would want to do would be to disparage the service of those draftees.

There’s a bit of wiggle toward the end of the letter.

I always have had the highest respect for [draftees’] service and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks when I said them … [italics added]

Let’s at least admit one thing. If a Democratic Sec Def had said such a thing there’s a very good chance it would have cost him his job. (The outrage expressed yesterday in a letter from three congressional Democrats — Evans, Daschle, and Kerry — was undoubtedly sincere.) It was always kind of clear what Rumsfeld meant: draftees get relatively little training and are then cycled out of a conscript army relatively quickly. (There’s an argument — and not at all an unreasonable one — that on these grounds the all-volunteer army is more efficient — other issues of equity, and civic values notwithstanding. See a contrary argument here.) But Rumsfeld’s words were clearly more than a simple slip of the tongue.

At a minimum they demonstrated a serious lack of sensitivity and respect for not only the sacrifice but the heroism and valor of hundreds of thousand of American draftees who’ve died in the service of the nation. (Remember World War II? Conscript armies didn’t do half bad in that little skirmish, did they?) That’s of course not to mention even more who’ve been wounded and the lucky ones who managed to get through their years of service in one piece. (The official percentage of draftees in WWII, Korea and Vietnam actually understates the effect of conscription since many guys enlisted knowing they’d soon get drafted anyway.) I think the best you can say is that this was a case in which Rumsfeld’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes admirable shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense style did him, the country, and millions of vets a serious disservice. It’s almost unimaginable, for instance, that Colin Powell would have ever made a similar statement.

At least he apologized.

One thing you can say for Rumsfeld is that unlike so many other members of the hawkish wing of this administration, Rumsfeld is himself a veteran. A real one. He served as a Navy Aviator in the mid-1950s and then in the Navy Reserves for a couple decades after that.

Like I said, at least he apologized. To me, I’d say it’s the end of the story. But then, I’ve never served a day in uniform, voluntary or otherwise. So I’m going to leave it to others to judge.

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