During a special on American History TV marking the 50th anniversary of his capture during the Vietnam War, John McCain slammed Vietnam War draft-dodgers to make an important point about the frequent drafting of low-income Americans over high-income Americans during the war. He called the disparity "wrong" and firmly noted that it is something he will "never countenance."
In full, McCain's comments offered a harsh condemnation of the notion that the majority of those who served in Vietnam came from low-income families. McCain seemingly also took a not-so-subtle swipe at Trump with his words, citing a medical exemption for bone spurs as a way that people avoided being drafted (the president indeed received five exemptions for the Vietnam draft, one for bone spurs in his heels and four for college education). McCain described the controversial nature of draft exemptions to American history TV, saying,
... It was a tumultuous time and most of it was bred by the conflict ... and one aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America. And the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we’re going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve ...
McCain's words sadly reflect a very unfortunate reality of the Vietnam War. As reported by The Vietnam War, a history website, at the beginning of the war, about one-third of enlistees were drafted (the other two-thirds were volunteers). At the time, the drafting process involved a man reporting to his local draft board if his name was selected. The drafting board, which was comprised of local community members, would then decide whether or not he would be sent to war. Frequently, draft board members were "under pressure from their family, relatives and friends to exempt potential draftees" and, unfortunately, those with the fewest connections and least political power were often more likely to be drafted, often resulting in a large class disparity among draftees.
As the website pointed out,
American forces in Vietnam included twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, twenty percent middle-class men, but very few came from upper-classes families. Many soldiers came from rural towns and farming communities.
Local draft boards were eventually eliminated in favor of what was perceived as a fairer lottery system. However, there were still ways to receive deferments from service, including through medical exemption, educational exemption, or family exemption.
The website pointed out that the majority of men who received these draft exemptions came from wealthy and educated families, as they could afford the requisite medical care or educational endeavors needs to acquire such exemptions. Indeed, Trump as well as former president Bill Clinton are often cited as examples of wealthy and well-connected men who were able to easily avoid being sent to Vietnam. Trump received five aforementioned exemptions for medical and educational reasons and Clinton reportedly used his personal connection to Arkansas Senator William Fulbright to avoid being sent to war, though Clinton has denied this.
Edward Miller, a Professor of History at Dartmouth College, tells Bustle he agrees with McCain's assertion that most Americans who served in Vietnam came from lower- and working- class populations. However, he did indicate that officials in charge of the draft took some steps after 1966 to try to make more middle- and upper-class men subject to the draft, such as by making it harder for men in college or graduate school to receive draft exemptions. That being said, Miller tells Bustle that, even with these changes, it was still easier for those in the middle and upper classes to obtain deferments, saying,
... while getting a deferment became somewhat harder during the mid- and late-1960s, there were still ways to get one—especially if you had a sympathetic doctor, or some other means to make the bureaucratic machinery work in your favor. So middle-class and wealthy American men still ended up getting deferred at higher rates, even with changes in policy.
While there is no draft currently in place in the United States, McCain's reflections on the draft disparity certainly still resonate today — both because they reflect a tragic reality when examining U.S. history and because they somewhat mirror the realities of today's military. While military service is currently voluntary in the United States, many (though not all) of those who serve come from low or middle-income families, fighting in wars whose merits and strategy are often dictated by powerful members of the upper class. Thus, while the military-service class disparity has changed in terms of mandatory conscription, some its underlying tenets perhaps remain similar in regards to voluntary military service.