Bone Spurs And Achilles' Heels
Perhaps I’m a bit too smitten with the past—a bit too busy living in days long since lived. It might just be my idiopathic ennui or my silly discontent. Maybe, it’s just my taking for granted the prosperous and irenic time in which we live. Whichever it is, I can’t help but look back at older generations in awe and in wonder and slip into marveling at their intrepidity. Best loved of all are our politicians—those whose public ascent was antedated and hastened by a prestigious military career. One thinks, of course, of Kennedy in his PT-109 boat, ebbing on the unfriendly oceans of the far East. From Camelot one’s mind darts back to the consummate Commander-in-Chief, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who guided not only the most fortuitous amphibious attack in martial history, but a recovering nation thereafter. And who could forget the sturdy, virile Rough-Rider, Theodore Roosevelt, whose arrival in Cuba preserved a future of Communists at San Juan Hill. Older still is Grant, who (when sober) orchestrated some of the greatest offensives this country’s ever known. Older still is Jackson, whose victory to conclude that frustratingly inconclusive War of 1812 served as a reminder to all Americans that their country was indeed strong. And, finally, oldest of all was Washington, who looked at death, at moribund melees, at toil and hardship and loss, with uncanny equanimity and resolve.
Doubtless, these politicians were the exception, not the expectation. Most of the men who became president were first litigators, barristers, businessmen, or governors. Many had the means in the form of a shameless $300 replacement fee to avoid service altogether (as evidenced by the deep pockets yet shallow mettle of two future presidents, Grover Cleveland and Chester Arthur, who, in 1863, evaded the draft). That said, I do find it a bit unfulfilling that so many politicians today lack anything even remotely akin to the type of inspiring military pedigree that our forefathers had. Today, the typical political man or woman’s resume is rather banal and trite. No one puffing out his chest or strutting with airs has preserved New Orleans, nor has he captured Shiloh nor crossed the Delaware. If told that he’d done any of these things, we’d think first of some story belonging to apocrypha, second to that of propaganda.
Amazingly, more than a few politicians attempt to toe this line. They know that people like me are prone to attribute political “points” to those who have served in the military. Not only is it heroic and self-aggrandizing (in the most venial of ways), but it soothes every last ounce of skepticism that a wary voter might reserve. Recognizing its power, many politicians are compelled by unscrupulous expediency and by unfettered ambition to inflate their military stories. They’re wont to puff up their combat credentials.
It’s exactly this puffing up that’s at the heart of Senator Blumenthal and President Trump’s recent Twitter exchange. Blumenthal, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, appeared on CNN to insist on the legitimacy and sanctity of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Blumenthal, while the floor was his, also took the occasion to iterate the seriousness with which we should be viewing Mueller’s empaneling of a grand jury. Nothing incendiary said, Blumenthal stuck to the normal Democratic talking points of late.
President Trump responded to Blumenthal’s words with a series of tweets about the latter’s shoddy military record. Trump set off the salvo by first calling Blumenthal a “phony Vietnam con artist” before continuing on with an even more vituperative screed. The president continued, pressing upon Blumenthal’s most tender political spot by saying that “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal…he told stories about his Vietnam battles and conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie”. A more forceful indictment never was tweeted.
If only this were so. It turns out, this wasn’t the first time that President Trump attacked Senator Blumenthal’s Vietnam record. Worth a closer look, Blumenthal’s history regarding the matter is spotty. A New Yorker by birth, Blumenthal attended both Harvard and Cambridge Universities (the English latter, of course, being the inspiration for the American former) before venturing to Yale for the finishing of his education in law. As a student, he was exempted temporarily from joining what was becoming an intractable and controversial war in French Indo-China. After five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, Blumenthal eventually enlisted as a Marine in the Marine Corps Reserve. He served not abroad, but here in the states, where he led drill practices and local public projects in Washington and Connecticut from 1970-1976. It was at that time he was honorably discharged as a sergeant, and thereafter, his political career did begin.
Blumenthal began his career as a United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut. He then served as a volunteer NAACP counselor before joining the Connecticut House of Representatives and then the Connecticut Senate. Thereafter, he served as Connecticut’s Attorney General for two decades, before defeating current Trump appointee for Administrator of the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon in Connecticut’s Senate race.
Whilst addressing a veterans’ group in 2008, Blumenthal equated the return of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to his own “Vietnam” experience. He said, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam”. A bit heedless with his words and his use of the preposition “in”, Blumenthal went on to say that he “served during the Vietnam era” and that he could “remember the taunts, the insults, even physical abuse”. Yes, he did technically serve during the era, although—after five successful deferments—not entirely willingly, and he likely remembers the jeers as many young adults at that time would, but I can’t imagine he personally received the same unrequited, unprompted ire and the same churlish maltreatment that had been thrust upon America’s returning G.I.s.
It was vain, deceptive, and above all, distasteful for Blumenthal to push this story for his own political gain. Since then, though, or, to put more properly, since the truth came to light, it’s become rather a useful cudgel with which President Trump smacks him about the head. Time and again the president makes reference to it when he and Blumenthal find each other at loggerheads. The president’s proclivity is to fight back against those who assail him with uncompromisingly personal, ad hominem attacks to which his opponents can’t respond. Until they can. While Trump repeatedly talks about Blumenthal’s cowardice and his military ignominy the president seems conveniently to forget his own underwhelming history of military service.
Both he and Blumenthal are similar in that they were able to receive five deferments from being enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And while Blumenthal eventually served his time (regardless of how cushioned it might’ve been) Trump never did. Trump finished his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He was, at the time, a respectably athletic, twenty-two-year-old six-foot two-inch bon vivant. He was robust and imposing for his time and a paragon of good breeding and of good health. However, beneath his salubrious exterior, Trump was fatally afflicted with but one crippling malignity: heel spurs. That painful podiatric illness, not uncommon to those lucky enough to reach in height a certain stature, barred him from enlisting. Consequently, he was awarded (as it was very much an award at that time) a “1-Y” medical deferment, before the Selective Service eventually designated him “4-F”, effectively deeming him unfit for military service.
The fact that the president, like many of those politicians whom now he attacks, deliberately avoided being called to serve in the Vietnam War didn’t go unnoticed in the 2016 Presidential campaign. When asked about the condition that crippled him so, Trump didn’t have a good answer. Nor was one to be found. He simply reassured us that “over a period of time it (his heel spurs, that is), healed up” (unintended, doubtless, but a hilarious play on words). Asked to expound upon the injury and the circumstances surrounding it a bit more, Trump wittily (but again, I do think unwittingly) responded that “they were spurs…you know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint”. I don’t doubt that it was, but so too was trench foot and frost bite, and though beset with these terrible maladies, American soldiers march on. What’s important is that those who would’ve been his comrades in-arms weren’t so easily hampered by such an innocuous disease.
For Trump, the bone spurs were little more than the effete evasions (I’ll gladly fight puns with puns) of a privileged son. When others his age were making the ultimate sacrifice, he meekly bowed out. Others laid down their lives while he sat aside.
In light of the fact that the president’s heel spurs were an integral and debilitating part of his early adult life, it was a curious think to hear Donald Trump’s physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, fulsomely report on his health without so much as mentioning them—whose chronicity is, to those who’ve had the pleasure to endure them, is well-known. He did, however, find it relevant to mention Trump’s childhood appendectomy, but it was such an odd omission not to mention the bone spurs that kept Trump stateside during the Vietnam War instead of in Saigon. Dr. Bornstein did go on to reassure us by saying that Trump would in fact be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” should the good electorate be so wise to pick him for the job.
We see through this context that Trump’s attacks against Senator Blumenthal are cognitively dissonant and absolutely strange. After having received five deferments for a silly little fabrication of an injury like heel spurs, it would seem as though Trump has very little moral high-ground upon which to stand. Further, one would hope that he might recognize this and handle the topic with much greater caution. Yet by standing on that high ground, or by attempting to, he disrespects a generation of American veterans and war heroes—among whom, in honor, Trump can never stand. Blumenthal, at the very least, did put in some time. President Trump, at the very worst, equated the difficulties he faced in avoiding STDs on the New York City dating scene to his “personal Vietnam”. And it doesn’t end with Blumenthal. You’ll recall Trump belittled Senator McCain’s irreproachable valor and patriotism when he quipped, “I like people that weren’t captured” when referring to McCain’s five years as a POW in Vietnam. Then, in responding to Gold-star father Khizr Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq, Trump said that he personally has “made a lot of sacrifices” by working “very, very hard”, in much the same way Khan’s now deceased son had. Aside from them being politically injurious things to say, they were morally grotesque.
This isn’t a referendum on the President’s patriotism or his reverence for American servicemen and women. It may seem as such, but it isn’t. He does seem genuinely to esteem the military. One of the highest marks of his presidency thus far was when he delivered the memorable encomium for Ryan Owens, the thirty-six-year-old Navy SEAL killed in the field during a raid in Yemen, during his State of the Union Address. He has the ability to sublimate the petty bickering about his and other’s lacking military pasts. Regardless of their politics, men like McCain, Khan, and Blumenthal (to a lesser degree) all sacrificed a part of their future to the country’s present need. President Trump did not. He ought to stop attacking those who did.