Blumenthal and “Mis-Speaking”

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is the latest politician to claim to have “mis-spoken,” in this instance concerning the precise nature of his military service during the Viet Nam war. Apparently, he did claim at least once that he served overseas, and apparently he did not so serve.

Blumenthal’s specific case aside, the phraseology of “mis-speaking” and the seductiveness of “a war record” are of interest.

I can certainly sympathize with people who mis-speak. In one particular way, I speak for living, inasmuch as I’m employed as a professor, and as a professor at a small liberal-arts college, where discussion, often if not usually led by the professor, is at the core of pedagogical practice. Opportunities to mis-speak proliferate. For example, even a political science professor might, in the heated flow of seminar-talk, say something like “LBJ pushed the Civil Rights Bill through.” There would be more than a grain of truth to that, but because of the complex politics, the professor would have mis-spoken and may have been tempted to correct herself or himself. “That is to oversimplify, of course,” the professor might say, partly to practice what she or he hopes students will practice: erring in the direction of caution and precision. Long ago, I discovered how liberating it is to admit you just said something incorrect in class, and/or to admit that you don’t know something or that you forgot something [I seriously studied Wordsworth’s poetry over 25 years ago; of course I’ve forgotten a lot about it], and/or to admit that a student just expressed something more precisely than I did. At the same time, there is a lot of perceived pressure to be “the professor,” to know all and to speak the authoritative truth all the time; younger professors feel this pressure especially, I think.

And [transition here], there is a lot of internal (pride, pretense) and external (it makes for a better candidate, say the handlers) pressure to create a false biography in which one really did serve not just in the military but in a war. And even outside of politics, you know how it works: you embellish a life-story once, it pleases people, so you grow fond of the embellishment. Inside politics (although I wouldn’t know, so I’m guessing), one must receive something like a high-voltage jolt of approval when one embellishes about the Viet Nam war. Intoxicating, or so I imagine. Or just rewarding, coldly, in terms of votes and PR.

I’ve always been exceedingly precise about my “experience” during the Viet Nam war “era,” and “era” itself invites slippage. “Era” is not “war.” My lottery number was 007. If drafted, I would have shown up for the physical, and if I had passed the physical (I most certainly would have), I would have served. At 19, I didn’t have a comprehensively developed sense of opposition to the war or to war in general. In high school, I favored the war, not knowing anything. At 19, I probably thought the war was folly because I’d been reading a lot more. But my father and uncle had been drafted into World War II, so to speak, so I definitely would have allowed myself to be drafted. However, Nixon’s administration ended the draft, so I never had to make the choice. The circumstance, fate, and/or luck of a birth-date. That’s my “war record”: there isn’t one.

Although I’ve never embellished the facts, I can sympathize to some degree with all those who do embellish. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the temptation to embellish about military service is powerful because the lore and rhetoric of war are almost overwhelming. Think about how many men, especially in bars around 1:00 a..m, have told what they think is a harmless lie about military service.

But they didn’t mis-speak, as Orwell would remind us. They lied. Hard to admit; thus, “I mis-spoke.”

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