Neil Sheehan: Vietnam: It Never Seems to End

Roundup: Talking About History

Neil Sheehan, in the NYT (Aug. 27, 2004):

Thirteen years after the 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, announced that America had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome'' with his crushing expulsion of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, the war in Vietnam is back. Its memories and divisions are reverberating as forcefully as ever in the campaign between his son, George Walker Bush, the 43rd president, and Senator John Kerry.

Seeking to convince voters that he would make a better commander-in-chief in the war on terror than Mr. Bush has been, Mr. Kerry placed his status as a Vietnam War hero front and center, only to find his reputation under assault by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. As well as can be determined, the accusations are unfounded and Mr. Kerry deserved his medals.

Mr. Bush has his own problem with Vietnam; he did not serve there. In the spring of 1968, when he was a senior at Yale, casualties in Vietnam were averaging 414 killed and 1,160 seriously wounded a week. Draft calls were running commensurately high to replace the fallen. In contrast to the present, when the National Guard and the Reserves are ransacked for replacements for Iraq, both institutions were safe havens during the Vietnam era. Mr. Bush used his father's political influence to leapfrog the waiting list into the Texas Air National Guard.

One must be careful in pointing a finger at those who avoided service in Vietnam. Many, like President Clinton, had moral objections to the war. The gimmicks they used to stay out of it were tawdry, but they acted from motives of conscience. Mr. Bush - like his father's vice president, Dan Quayle, who sheltered in the Indiana National Guard, and his own vice president, Dick Cheney, who obtained five draft deferments - are in a different category. From what can be discerned, none of them opposed the Vietnam War. Had the younger Mr. Bush not stood aside from the central, transforming event of his youthful years, his performance as president might have been closer to that of the wise and capable commander-in-chief he claims to be but has not been. He might have learned a lesson from Vietnam - do not become involved in an unnecessary war.

Unnoticed in the controversy over the Swift Boat group's accusations is an undercurrent that lingers from the war. The men who fought in Vietnam and survived came back as divided as the public at home. Most suffered in silence, then picked up their lives and went on. But some, like John Kerry, were so disillusioned that they felt they had to do something to stop the war. Another minority persisted in their faith that the war could be won, that America is an exception to history and can do no wrong.

The nation has yet to come to grips with what really happened in Vietnam, and Mr. Kerry's accusers are among those who simply cannot and never will. They are driven by more than a political desire to further the fortunes of George Bush. Their remarks make clear that what they really hold against Mr. Kerry are his antiwar activities after his return and his testimony then that atrocities were being committed in Vietnam. They regard these as undermining the war effort and casting aspersions on their service. "We won the battle,'' one of Mr. Kerry's accusers, former Navy commander Adrian Lonsdale, said. "Kerry went home and lost the war for us.'' The group's second television commercial focuses on this issue, running bits of old news film of Mr. Kerry's testimony in a 1971 Senate hearing, excerpting his remarks to twist their meaning....

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