THE DECISIVE ISSUE IN THE presidential race, all the savants agree, will be how voters view the war. But which war? There are so many to choose from. The fighting goes on in Iraq, the hunt for Osama bin Laden proceeds in Afghanistan, and the search for terrorists continues at home and around the world. Yet George W. Bush and John Kerry have not fully engaged each other on any of these fronts. The debate over Iraq focuses not on the present or the future but on the prelude to the invasion: whether the reasons we went to war were legitimate. Afghanistan has faded from public view. Neither candidate wants to discuss terrorism at home, for fear that an attack (or the absence of one) could make any claim about safety or vulnerability look foolish.
But there is one war that the rival campaigns are eager to talk about, a war that generates fierce criticism of both Bush and Kerry, a war that stirs passions like no other: Vietnam. The issue for Bush, of course, is his service in the National Guard, when his flying privileges were suspended because he failed to show up for an annual physical—a failure his critics have likened to desertion. For Kerry, the criticism involves not only whether his anti-war stance after he left the military represented an act of conscience or a betrayal of his brothers in arms but also whether he deserved the three Purple Hearts he earned for wounds received in battle. More than thirty years after the last helicopter evacuated the last American soldier from Southeast Asia, the U.S. remains divided over a conflict that defined a decade and a generation. Not since the aftermath of the Civil War has the memory of armed combat influenced the course of American politics for so long.
Indeed, one of the central questions of the 2004 campaign is what the actions of two young men more than thirty years ago say about their character and, by extension, their fitness to be commander in chief. I know the answer: nothing. But the argument goes on, because it isn’t really about who should be president today. It’s about who was right back then, not only about the war, but about civil rights and the sexual revolution and the burning of draft cards and turning on and dropping out—and the choices each of us made.
My own choice was to be against the war. It wasn’t a matter of morality, as it was for the protesters. I didn’t think the war was immoral; I thought it was misguided and unnecessary, a conclusion I reached after hearing a man named Roger Hilsman speak at the University of Texas. He had just resigned from a high position at the State Department over differences with our Vietnam policy. America’s leaders saw the war as a confrontation between democracy and communism, and if we did not stop communism in Vietnam, every nation in Southeast Asia would fall. Such was the wisdom of the “domino theory,” which enjoyed widespread support at the time—but not from Hilsman. His view was that the fighting in Vietnam should be seen not as communism versus capitalism but as nationalism versus colonialism, with the U.S. unfortunately having cast itself in the latter role. Hilsman believed that the immediate future of Asia would be defined by awakening nation-states, which would be equally hostile to any meddling foreign power, whether democratic or communist. That sounded right to me in 1965, and it still sounds right today.
As the months went by, though, I found myself thinking about Vietnam in a more personal way. The escalation of the war had begun, the number of troops in Vietnam was on the rise—and I was a potential troop. Because I was enrolled in law school, I was entitled to a student deferment from the draft, but there were growing complaints that deferments provided a sanctuary for whites while blacks and Hispanics were sent off to die. The most important person in my life became a woman I never met but whose name I will never forget: Elsie Thrash, the head of my local draft board. I decided to stretch law school to four years—a decision that wasn’t entirely voluntary, the law school having determined that I had exceeded the allowable absences in a couple of courses—and hoped that Madame Thrash, as I thought of her, would (a) not find out or (b) not care. Apparently she didn’t, because my deferment was renewed. I graduated a year before my twenty-sixth birthday, a milestone after which, it was widely believed, you would not be drafted. Twelve months to go.
I wrote Madame Thrash again, to ask for one more deferment, so I could attend classes to study for the bar exam in October. Deferment granted. Eight months to go. I took the exam and applied for yet another deferment—until the grades arrived in December—explaining that I might fail and need to take another class. The answer was a terse form letter: Report for a physical in February. Three months before I turned 26. So close, yet so far.
I spent the winter doing a little legal research for a local law firm and a lot of nervous eating. The physical included an unexpected indignity along with the expected ones, an Army intelligence test. It consisted of one hundred questions in four sections, two of which were snaps (verbal and math) and two of which were impossible: matching pictures of tools with pictures of the machines they were to be used with, and counting the number of blocks, some of which were concealed, in drawings of three-dimensional figures. I am helpless with tools more complex than a broom and even less apt at spatial relations. The scores fell into three groups, and I was in the lowest one. All that remained before getting my assignment was to see a doctor. He looked at my chart. “Your weight is borderline,” he said. “You’ll do better in basic training if you drop ten