Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Richard Blumenthal’s Shame

Like a lot of people, my initial reaction to Richard Blumenthal’s misrepresentations about his military service was to be appalled by his shamelessness. What else can you say about someone who can’t resist the temptation to gild an already impressive resume by pretending to distinctions he doesn’t have? I thought his giving people the impression that he’d served in Vietnam was of a piece with his apparent complicity in spreading the misimpression that he’d been captain of the Harvard swim team.

Upon reflection, I’m pretty sure that my initial impression was exactly wrong; Blumenthal’s serial misrepresentations about his military service were less expressions of shamelessness than of lingering generational shame. Notice that they all seem to have been uttered directly to veterans in contexts where he wasn’t claiming any special distinction, but commiserating for having had to bear a special burden. That suggests to me that Blumenthal’s lies were less a matter of cynical self-promotion than a form of psychological compensation for his remorse at having shirked a civic obligation.

What, you may ask, did Blumenthal have to be ashamed of? He hadn’t broken any laws. Indeed, he’d discharged all of his legal obligations under the Selective Service Act by doing his time in the Marine Reserves. A lot of people of his generation, like Richard Cohen, are still congratulating themselves for having done the same thing and resenting any suggestion that they have anything to be ashamed of:

“[Blumenthal’s] most appalling lie was to turn a complex truth of that era into a simple matter of shame. It was obscene to send young men into a war that had lost its purpose and was being opposed by major political and intellectual figures in the United States. Opposition to the war was not a matter of merely avoiding duty but an agonized grappling with a hideous moral dilemma. I am not ashamed that I did not fight. I am not ashamed, either, that I did not want to fight. Neither do I denigrate those who did. I admire their bravery. I am humbled by their courage. I am mourning their deaths -- and I will never stop asking, why?”
Notice that Cohen isn’t commending himself for some brave act of civil disobedience that required him to pay a price for his opposition to the war. Yet that doesn’t keep him from celebrating his ingenuity at keeping himself out of Vietnam as a measure of moral fortitude.

I suspect that Blumenthal doesn’t find it as easy to forget that most people in his father’s generation—the so-called greatest generation—would have regarded that as dishonorable conduct. It’s not that they were blind to the “hideous moral dilemmas” generated by a shooting war. They just thought that when the country makes a legitimate public decision to go to war, able-bodied citizens have an obligation to bear their fair share of the burden.

I’m betting that what moved Blumenthal to misrepresent his military service was the recognition that a lot of the people of his own generation in those veterans halls had gone to war in Vietnam with roughly the same idea. You can argue, as I would, that we’re better off for having replaced the draft with an all-volunteer army. But that doesn’t mean that introducing it under the pressure of the anti-war movement didn't play a lot of Vietnam veterans for chumps.

I’ll say this for Blumenthal: at least he appears to remember that.  Mendacity is sometimes, like hypocrisy, the homage that vice pays to virtue.

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