Maybe it was inevitable we would re-fight the Vietnam War in this presidential election, given the histories of the leading candidates.
On the one hand is George W. Bush, the self-described "war president" who never experienced war firsthand. His father's influence helped him avoid service in Vietnam. Thirty-five years later, he's become one of those gray-haired men of every generation who, somewhere on this ravaged blue globe, send other people's children off to kill or be killed for one cause or another.
On the other hand is John Kerry, who surrounds himself with Vietnam veterans and wears the mantle of "war hero." Yet we have photographs of him at peace rallies. We have recordings of him making inflammatory statements against his own government and denouncing war crimes by Americans in Vietnam.
The two combatants represent opposite sides, opposite visions in this latest battleground of the "culture wars," and surrogates for each candidate hurl charges of "traitor" at one another's political champion.
So, who really betrayed the troops--and who betrays them still--George W. Bush or John Kerry? Maybe it's an unfair question, given the chaos and uncertainty of those times and these, but in the end, this is the question that must be answered, for it goes to the heart of who we should trust to lead this country and just who we are in the community of nations.
Here is the truest thing I know to say about the Vietnam War. It was fought by mostly honorable men who never asked to be there, who did their duty and who were lied to time and again by their own government about the history of the region, why they were fighting and how the war was going.
It was the last war we entered with our eyes closed to such lies. Before it was over TV news and other firsthand accounts of the war had opened our eyes. Some would have us close them again to the truth of that disastrous episode in our history that saw the death of tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Southeast Asians.
Because Bush is sending others off to kill or be killed, I believe it is pertinent to ask whether he joined the Air National Guard to avoid the carnage in Vietnam. More to the point, however, is how his administration applied the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq. Did our government distort the facts and manipulate the media in its drive to invade Iraq, as our leaders did during the Vietnam War? It's becoming clear that the answer is yes. None of our government's pretexts for the bombing, invasion and occupation of Iraq have been borne out except that Saddam is a terrible man. Had we gone looking for the single middle-Eastern nation with the FEWEST ties to al-Qaida, we could hardly have done better than to choose Iraq. Al-Qaida terrorists were hiding behind every other rock in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but they were almost nowhere to be found in Iraq until Bush opened the floodgates by invading. Likewise, claims of WMDs were twisted and exaggerated, as were claims about how we would be received, how we would pay for the war, when it would end and how we would leave. Even Bush's latest budget proposal tells a whopping lie of omission by leaving out the true costs of Iraq.
Kerry has questions to answer too. Did he sign onto the war in Iraq with his Senate votes? Is he playing politics with the war? More pertinent, some insist, is whether he betrayed his fellow Vietnam veterans 35 years ago by leading campaigns against the war after returning home.
To answer, we must honestly face the following questions:
Did America enter the Vietnam War based on false pretexts? Did we fight there long after it became apparent we could not win? Did we secretly bomb Cambodia and undermine its leaders with the unintended consequence of giving rise to Pol Pot? Did cynical, gray-haired men continue throwing lives away even while admitting privately we could not win? Did children of privilege avoid the war unfairly? Did Nixon's program to "Vietnamize" the war serve as cover for retreat? Did the My Lai Massacre and other slaughters of innocents occur not because Americans are bad but because war is hell? If the answer to all of this is yes, then Kerry is guilty of nothing beyond the youthful passion of one who faced the horror of war, then came home and did what he could to stop it. He faced baptism by fire in Vietnam, earning three purple hearts and a Silver Star. Then he led a war against war in order to save other young people from the carnage and exploitation he experienced. I humbly submit that this is no betrayal