The reference was obvious. Trump managed not to have to serve in the military during the war in Vietnam by first seeking deferment because he was in college and, after he graduated, because his doctor reported that he had bone spurs on his heel.
Trump talked to the New York Times about it last summer. The spurs, he said, had been temporary, but a doctor had given him “a very strong letter on the heels.” In a news conference in 2015, Trump couldn’t remember which heel had been affected, and eventually the campaign said it was both.
McCain’s comments were obviously meant to disparage the president. But Trump was simply an example of the broader issue McCain was highlighting, an issue that’s been largely forgotten in the decades since the war ended.
In 1993, Christian Appy wrote “Working-Class War,” a look at the composition of those who fought in the Vietnam War, often after having been drafted into service. Appy’s data makes clear that McCain’s point was largely accurate — with an interesting caveat.
During the Civil War, the draft could be avoided by either paying someone to take your place or paying a commutation fee of $300, about $5,600 in 2017 dollars. During Vietnam, the price could be even lower, according to Appy. Even having braces on your teeth could result in a deferment, prompting dentists in the Los Angeles area to offer the service for as little as $1,000.
That sort of evasion — as well as having a doctor who’d be willing to attest to your heel spurs — wasn’t free. Nor was college, the other mechanism that Trump employed. “Census records show that youth from families earning $7,500 to $10,000 were almost two and a half times more likely to attend college than those from families earning under $5,000,” Appy writes. What’s more, only full-time students were eligible for exemption.
The net effect is that nearly 80 percent of those who served in Vietnam came from working-class families. (One commonly cited figure, 76 percent, is of unclear provenance.) Those working-class soldiers were also more likely to be trained for combat.
(McCain, of course, falls into the Navy/Military group on that chart.)
But McCain’s frustration at those wealthier Americans who managed to avoid service is overlaid with another demographic issue: Race.
[In a statistical survey of Vietnam veterans called “Legacies of Vietnam"], 82 percent of black nonveterans were working class and below, compared with 47 percent of the white nonveterans. In other words, while black soldiers were still, as a group, poorer than white soldiers, in relationship to the class structure of their respective races, blacks were not as disproportionately poor and working class as whites. This is, I think, one reason black veterans seem to have less class-based resentment than white veterans toward men of their race who did not serve in Vietnam.
Again, much of this was a function of the draft, which Appy explores at length (along with volunteer enlistments driven by fear of the draft). Today, the armed forces look a bit different.
There aren’t data on household income for those who currently serve, but comparisons of the economic status of neighborhoods to the homes of those who serve suggest a fairly even distribution across economic quintiles (fifths of the population, broken out by income).
A CNA report from earlier this year shows an estimated breakdown of the median household income of the Census tracts where enlisted men and women came from.
The green bars show quintiles that are overrepresented in the military: The second, third and fourth quintiles. Middle income, in a direct sense. The groups that are underrepresented come from the poorest and, to a greater degree, wealthiest quintiles. Put another way, the richest neighborhoods in the country were the least likely to have residents seek to enlist.
Of course, the modern American military is all-volunteer. The government isn’t scooping up people to be sent to Southeast Asia to be killed in a quagmire of a war. McCain’s frustration at how service in Vietnam played out was conflated with his frustration at his nemesis Donald Trump.
And, no doubt, his frustration that Trump is now the commander in chief of those armed forces.