The Last Word

John Kerry perfectly reflects the contradictions in how most Americans want to remember the Vietnam War. It was a heroic effort demanding great courage from hundreds of thousands of young Americans. It was also a tragic mistake that ended because of the courageous stand against it taken by hundreds of thousands of young Americans. Kerry represents both sides of this awkward equation. He won five decorations for injury and heroism, but then became its antithesis as spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

George W. Bush perfectly reflects how most Americans don't want to remember the Vietnam War. For one thing, it exposed the dark underbelly of the nation's class structure. Most young college graduates or scions of the wealthy and well-connected did not serve -- or if they did, they stayed far out of harm's way. Through family connections, young W. got a coveted position in the National Guard, making it unlikely he'd ever be near a fighting front. Others in his administration or brain trust -- Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, William Kristol -- avoided service altogether. (Cheney received at least four separate deferments, later explaining that he "had other priorities in the '60s than military service.")

In Bush's case, there's also the touchy little matter of what happened after April 1972, when he seemed to have disappeared, with two years of his Guard duty still to go. Apparently he got permission to move to Alabama in order to work on the Senate campaign of one of his father's friends. There is no record of him reporting for duty there. By this time young Bush was a fully trained Air Force pilot, having completed the mandatory two-year training program, yet at this point he let his pilot status lapse. More than a year later -- some eight months before his Guard commitment was up -- Bush received an honorable discharge, just in time to start Harvard Business School.

Why did he disappear? Did he assume no one would mind if he quietly stopped attending training sessions? Did he simply lose interest? Or did he want to avoid being tested for drugs? (The Air Force initiated a new drug-testing program, coincidentally, in April of 1972.)

Should we care? Unequivocally, yes. Presidential elections are mostly about character, not ideology. No one who reaches late middle age is exactly the same person he was in his early 20s, but the tendencies that mark the passage from youth to adulthood can provide important information about later behavior. That Bush used family connections to get into the National Guard and then apparently left when it suited him suggests a pattern of evasion or indifference that would repeat itself in later years.

Which brings us to the second aspect of Vietnam that most Americans would prefer to forget, but which Bush perfectly exemplifies. Beginning about 40 years ago, the U.S. government lied repeatedly to Americans about the danger North Vietnam and the Vietcong posed to American security, trumping up a casus belli in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam thus marked the beginning of a four-decade-long plunge in Americans' trust of our government.

As president, Bush has replicated this sordid history. He lied about the danger Saddam Hussein posed to American security and came up with his own trumped up "weapons of mass destruction." Invading Iraq to stop global terrorism has been as disconnected from the goal as sending Americans to Vietnam to stop global communism. As it did in Vietnam, the war in Iraq drags on without a clear vision of what we ultimately want to achieve there. We don't have the slightest idea how to establish a democracy that will ally itself with the United States in years ahead; we don't even know how to extricate ourselves from the morass without unleashing a vicious tribal war. And as was the case 40 years ago, much of the rest of the world is appalled by America's shoot-first, ask-questions-later belligerence.

The radical conservatives in the Bush administration who pushed the United States into Iraq were intent on erasing the legacy of America's impotence and humiliation in Vietnam. Yet they are in the process of re-creating it. And in so doing they are resurrecting the memories of Vietnam.

The two men who are likely to square off against each other in November represent the best and the worst of that national nightmare. Republicans are fond of equating themselves with patriotism, but there's little doubt which of these two men defines the term.

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