Vitriolic “hawk vs. dove” debates are a standard feature of modern American politics whenever war is in the offing. Generally pitting Republicans against Democrats, the argument (at its lowest level) boils down to hawks criticizing doves as cowards who don’t understand the military because they never served in it and are too timid about using military force, while the doves maintain that their detractors are cowardly hypocrites who avoided military service themselves while others fought the wars they advocated.
From the latter side comes the term “chickenhawk,” defined (by The New Hampshire Gazette, which maintains a Chickenhawk Database) as “a term often applied to public persons who tend to advocate, or are fervent supporters of those who advocate, military solutions to political problems, and who have personally declined to take advantage of a significant opportunity to serve in uniform during wartime.”
As men of America’s “Vietnam generation” started to become predominant figures in American politics at a national level in the 1990s, service in the Vietnam War was often applied as a “litmus test” issue in political debate. And since talk radio host Rush Limbaugh was one of the most popular media proponents of the conservative political viewpoint and a vociferous critic of a young Bill Clinton’s efforts to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, it was not surprising that the question of Limbaugh’s own military status also became a common subject of interest:
There are similar stories [of avoiding service in Vietnam] about almost every other prominent rightwing Republican of recent vintage. Newt Gingrich, ex-Speaker of the House, went the Cheney route [of obtaining deferments]; Kenneth Starr, Clinton’s legal nemesis, had psoriasis; Jack Kemp, Dole’s running mate in 1996, was unfit because of a knee injury, though he heroically continued as a National Football League quarterback for another eight years; Pat Buchanan had arthritis in his knees, though he soon became an avid jogger.
The best story concerns Rush Limbaugh, the ferociously bellicose radio personality, who allegedly had either “anal cysts” or an “ingrown hair follicle on his bottom”. It is not my custom to mock others’ ailments, but anyone who has listened to Limbaugh’s programme can imagine the dripping scorn he would bring to the revelation that a prominent Democrat had skipped a war over something like that. Also, in his case, a pain in the arse is peculiarly appropriate.1
When Rush Limbaugh first came of draft age he held a 2-S (college deferment) Selective Service System classification as a student at Southeast Missouri State University in 1969-70, but after he dropped out of college at the end of his first year he no longer qualified for a student deferment and was subject to being reclassified as 1-A (available immediately for military service) and drafted. Selective Service System records show that Limbaugh was reclassified as 1-Y (qualified for service only in time of [declared] war or national emergency) on 24 November 1970, which effectively ended his draft eligibility and ensured that he would not be called for service.
What was the basis of Limbaugh’s 1-Y classification? The Selective Service System records still available indicate that the classification was not assigned on psychological or moral grounds, but because of a physical problem. Since no extant records indicate that Limbaugh was ever examined by a physician at an Armed Forces Entrance Examining Station (i.e.,a pre-induction physical), it’s possible his 1-Y classification was assigned based on a report his own doctor prepared and submitted to his draft board.
What was the physical problem that disqualified Rush Limbaugh from the draft? Limbaugh biographer Paul D. Colford noted that “Limbaugh himself … stated that he was not drafted during the Vietnam War because he had been classified 4-F after a physical found that he had an ‘inoperable pilonidal cyst’ and ‘a football knee from high school.’ He added: ‘I made no effort to evade it or avoid it.'”2
(Technically, Limbaugh’s classification during his primary year of draft eligibility was 1-Y, not 4-F; he was only reclassified as 4-F after the 1-Y classification was abolished on 10 December 1971.)
Which of the two stated medical reasons was the primary one behind Limbaugh’s 1-Y classification is difficult to determine directly, since individual medical files held by his draft board have long since been destroyed. Some commentators, such as Limbaugh biographer Paul Colford, implied that Limbaugh’s knee injury was minor or non-existent, writing: “Asked about Limbaugh’s ‘football knee from high school,’ [Ryland] Meyr, the coach during his lone year of play, said he did not remember any injury.”2
However, that Limbaugh did indeed have a pilonidal cyst seems indisputable, as he himself, his mother, and his brother all maintained that he did:
Yet, for all his father’s patriotism, and deep-rooted fear of Communism, Rusty (Rush) did not enlist to preserve those ideals. The official explanation, David Limbaugh said, is that Rush had a student deferment and, like his father, had a pilonidal cyst on his ass which qualified him for a medical deferment.3
Limbaugh’s mother said in 1993 that she did not know if her son had a physical or not, but she added that he did have a pilonidal cyst like his father.2
Limbaugh critics have maintained that his pilonidal cyst was a “simple-to-treat condition” easily corrected through minor surgery and not a legitimately debilitating condition that precluded his serving in the armed forces — rather, it was simply an excuse he seized upon to avoid military service. However, in general a pilonidal cyst could indeed be a legitimately disqualifying condition:
According to the Military Entrance Processing Command, a pilonidal cyst was then and is today a so-called “disqualifying condition” for induction. It’s a congenital incomplete closure of the neural groove at the base of the spinal cord in which excess tissue and hair may collect and cause discomfort and discharge. The malady can be corrected by surgery, but short of that it is viewed by the military as a needless risk amid unsanitary conditions in the field.2
That the disqualifying condition was a pilonidal cyst and not a bad knee seems to be borne out by Limbaugh’s own comments on his draft status:
Limbaugh’s draft status arose during a 1992 appearance at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in Manhattan. ABC newsman Jeff Greenfield, acting as moderator … posed to Limbaugh a written question from the audience about whether he had ever served in the military.
In response, Limbaugh chose his words slowly and cautiously. He seemed to be saying that he had not known ahead of time that whatever physical condition he had in 1970 would free him from draft consideration.
“I had student deferments in college and, upon taking a physical, was discovered to have a physical — uh, by virtue of what the military says, I didn’t even know it existed — a physical deferment and then the lottery system came along, when they chose your lot by birthdate, and mine was high. And I did not want to go — just as Governor Clinton didn’t.”2
It’s highly unlikely that Limbaugh only “discovered” he had a high school football knee injury several years after the fact or was unaware that a bad knee was reason for a physical deferment, so the pilonidal cyst is the more probable explanation.
(The lottery issue is largely irrelevant since Limbaugh’s 1-Y classification precluded his being drafted no matter how high or low his birthdate came up in the lottery. In the event, Limbaugh’s birth date was selected 152nd in the 1970 draft lottery, and since the highest lottery number ultimately called for that group was 125, he wouldn’t have been drafted in 1971 no matter what his classification.)
CALLER: And Rush you never mentioned how you dodged the Vietnam draft.
LIMBAUGH: I didn’t.
CALLER: Yes, you did. You claimed you had a boil on your butt …
LIMBAUGH: No, you see, that’s part of popular mythology that is out there that I have not whined nor complained about, Greg. But that is just a bunch of internet BS and hyperbole. Never happened. Was not the cause, wasn’t the case.
These kinds of responses, provided by Limbaugh on his show and available on the rushlimbaugh.com web site, sounded unconvincing. Why not just give a straightforward answer to the question? After all, “I had a knee injury” is a simple explanation (and hardly an embarrassing one), but dismissing the issue as “Internet BS” and railing against “Internet conspiracy theories” sound too much like the response of someone who is evading the question.
Instead, Limbaugh provided non-responsive “answers” when queries about his draft status were posed by quickly steering the focus away from himself and claiming that “the message is that unless you’ve been a member of the military, you have no right to support it.” Of course, that wasn’t the message at all: the message was about whether it’s hypocritical for those who themselves avoided the draft to criticize others who also did.
There is, of course, a huge difference between draft evasion (or “draft dodging”) and draft avoidance: The former involves the use of unethical or illegal means (e.g., bribing a doctor to falsify a medical report, fleeing the country) to escape military service; the latter involves taking advantage of established legal means (e.g., college deferments, conscientious objector status) to avoid or delay military service. The issue discussed here is clearly not one of draft evasion, and the matter of who is justified in criticizing whom for not serving in Vietnam is a gray area to be hashed out in the public arena. The only conclusions drawn here are that Rush Limbaugh was ineligible for the draft due to a physical condition, that he had a pilonidal cyst, and that if there’s an explanation for his draft status other than the cyst, he has yet to offer it.