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 pounds. Come back in four months.” Like another Texan, I didn’t even show up.
That is my story; everybody I knew had one. A friend from my hometown dropped out of college during our sophomore year to join the Special Forces in Vietnam. He returned when I was a senior, telling how his unit had taken two Viet Cong prisoners up in a helicopter and, as an inducement to get one to talk, threw the other one out. Another friend, I would learn years later, had stayed up all night before his physical, trying to decide whether to seek refuge in Canada as a conscientious objector or join the Marine Corps. He chose the latter and considers it the most important thing he has ever done, but it was a close call between extreme options in extreme times.
It is very easy for critics to be glib now about Bush’s and Kerry’s war records from the safe vantage point of a country in which an increasingly unpopular war is being fought without a draft. “It was the liberal elite, the John Kerrys of the world, more than the Viet Cong, who shaped the negative outcome of the war”—this from a Young Conservatives Web site. It’s utter nonsense. The negative outcome of the war was foreordained. American forces couldn’t invade North Vietnam without risking Chinese intervention. We couldn’t prevent Soviet ships from supplying North Vietnam because we didn’t dare sink them. We couldn’t control the countryside because we couldn’t tell friend from foe. Our only strategy to win was to kill more of theirs than they killed of ours, but as the years went by, our losses seemed increasingly pointless. The protests occurred because of the losses we suffered, not the other way around.
Another Web site features an unidentified retired admiral raising the issue of whether Kerry’s battle wounds were phony: “Three Purple Hearts, but no limp. All injuries so minor that no time lost from duty. Amazing luck. Or was he putting himself in for medals every time he bumped his head on the wheelhouse hatch?” (Kerry has released medical records showing that he still has shrapnel in one leg.) Presidential adviser Karen Hughes went on CNN in April to accuse Kerry of only pretending to throw back his medals during a 1971 anti-war protest.
Bush has been dogged by questions about his service in the National Guard since he first ran for governor, in 1994. In late June the Associated Press sued the Pentagon and the Air Force to gain access to all of his service records. But the main critic of the president has been Kerry himself. After the Hughes attack, Kerry told NBC News, “If George Bush wants to ask me questions . . . through his surrogates, he owes America an explanation about whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. Prove it.”
Enough is enough. What John Kerry did with his medals 33 years ago is irrelevant today. What George Bush did or didn’t do in the National Guard is irrelevant today. Judge them by their present character. Bush is the commander in chief. He has overseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kerry wants to be the commander in chief. If they’re going to argue about a war, at least make it the current one.
I’m going to close by letting a surrogate speak for me, someone who knows a thing or two about Vietnam: “At least could we declare that the Vietnam War is over and have a cease-fire and agree that both candidates—the president of the United States and Senator Kerry—served honorably. End of story. Now let’s focus our attention on the conflict that is taking place in Iraq, that is taking American lives as I speak on this floor.” Thank you, John McCain.