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Commentary : Dornan's Broken (War) Record

December 06, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL | Joseph N. Bell is a free-lance writer in Santa Ana Heights.

The Democrats in Orange County are out beating the bushes for someone to run against Rep. Robert K. Dornan, and it has become increasingly clear that the two basic prerequisites are the ability to shout loudly and a military record that roughly parallels that of Audie Murphy.

Probably no one since Ulysses S. Grant has ridden military coattails to political success more effectively--or more irrelevantly--than Dornan. This is called the brothers-in-arms syndrome, which most of us who served in the military confine to squadron reunions or trying to impress our children's friends. But not Dornan.

According to The Times' coverage of Dornan's presentation of the Ollie North Slide Show several months ago, the congressman spent a major portion of the two hours talking about his own military heroics. And that was mild compared to his circulation of a long, rambling, often incoherent document to his fellow congressmen before the 1986 election, describing--in more detail than a mother would want to know--his bravery under various sorts of military stress.

This is nothing new. One of the more depressing aspects of the 1986 election was listening to candidates Dornan and Richard Robinson debate military records instead of issues. It was especially depressing to those of us who served in World War II--the only war with which I happen to be directly acquainted.

Why depressing?

First of all, I guess, because none of Dornan's exploits took place in combat, which admittedly adds a small element of peril. But second, and much more important, because there were about 15 million of us serving in the military in World War II--some possibly with even more distinction than Dornan--and it has never occurred to us to use this service as prima facie evidence of our qualification for some type of civilian job.

I'm not saying that most of us aren't proud of our military service. We are, of course. We just don't go around wearing it on our sleeves. And it seems to me that we have the matter in a little more rational perspective than Congressman Dornan.

We know, for example, that military heroism is more a matter of accident than design. Those of us who got into combat areas had very little to say about when or if it happened. We were told, and we went. And sometimes the reasons were as gossamer as Dornan's logic.

I was a Navy dive bomber pilot fresh out of operational training and awaiting assignment to an aircraft carrier early in 1944. Then, totally off the wall, a whole squadron of us was reassigned to transport aircraft and spent our overseas time flying--as we liked to say--"toilet paper out and wounded back."

One of our group, outraged at this change of orders that quite possibly saved his life, actually went to Washington on his leave time to try to get back into dive bombers. It didn't work, of course, but he returned to tell us that this all happened because a young WAVE officer got a request at the end of a working day for two dozen transport pilots.

She had a date, was in a hurry and took the first available pilots. That was us. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it.

Although I had one experience over the middle of the Pacific not too dissimilar from Dornan's oft-told story about ditching his aircraft in the ocean, I didn't have much opportunity for heroics--except, perhaps, fighting my way through some of the toughest Officer's Clubs in the South Pacific.

Such activities don't win medals. But I find some solace in the knowledge that had it not been for that WAVE in Washington, I might have sunk a Japanese carrier and been an even bigger hero than Dornan. Or I might have panicked and forgotten how to operate my dive flaps. I'd say the chances were about 50-50.

Watching Dornan's success, I've thought several times about circulating a white paper among my working colleagues and adding it to my dossier detailing my military exploits. But the toilet paper line would have to be excised--and somehow I don't think I could part with it. So I have to be content with whatever modest achievements I've managed in my own field.

Meanwhile, it appears that the only way the Orange County Democrats are going to dislodge Dornan is to select a candidate who can supply a military record that surpasses not only Dornan's record but his rhetoric, as well. It would also help if he could outshout Dornan when the congressman tells members of his audience who express disagreement at his public meetings--as one reportedly did at the North affair--that their "ass is going to be thrown out."

Judge David Carter would have qualified on both counts, of course, but he never got the chance.

One thing is clear, though: The candidate is going to have to be someone from a war other than World War II. We just never took our heroism seriously enough, I guess. Or learned to shout that loud.

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