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