Sunday, May 16, 2004

Time to put the Vietnam War behind us

I read an article not too long ago which said many Americans of the younger generation would prefer that the presidential race focus on politics today as opposed to what the two presidential candidates were doing during the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, it has become a great dividing line in our society, one which is presently being exploited by both the Bush and Kerry campaigns.

In fact, most young American men of draft age did not serve in Vietnam at that time. As the New York Times reported on May 1, in an article on Dick Cheney's avoidance of service:

"Of the 26.8 million men who were eligible for the draft between 1964 and 1973, only 2.2 million were drafted while 8.7 million joined voluntarily, according to 'Chance and Circumstance: the Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation,' a 1978 book by Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss. Mr. Cheney was among the vast majority of 16 million men -- about 60 percent of those eligible -- who avoided the draft by legal means."

Of those who were drafted or joined voluntarily, a minority served in Vietnam. Joining the National Guard, serving in the armed forces reserves, attending college, getting medical deferments, or marriage deferments, were among ways young men found to avoid Vietnam service.

In this respect, John Kerry was unusual. As a Yale graduate, it probably would not have been difficult for him to avoid going to Vietnam or even the armed services if he had used connections like many of his colleagues. Instead, he went, was there for four months, and received some medals for his service. But he became famous after his return, as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying before Congress in 1971.

Kerry's presidential campaign took off after a Vietnam veteran came to a Iowa primary rally of his, and testified that Kerry had saved his life. Even though he was a Republican, he said he would vote for Kerry if he was the Democrat nominee. Subsequently, Kerry has placed much more attention on his Vietnam war experience, with the "band of brothers", fellow Vietnam veterans, joining him on the stage. Since he wrapped up the nomination, he and other Democrats have stepped up attacks on Bush, Cheney and some other Republicans because they did not serve in Vietnam. For example, after Cheney attacked Kerry for his voting record on national security issues, Kerry responded by attacking not only Cheney but also Karl Rove for not having served in Vietnam or the military.

The other side of this is that Kerry's antiwar statements back in 1971 have come to haunt him. Some naval veterans who, like Kerry, commanded swift boats in Vietnam, have formed a group called "Swift Boat Veterans Against Kerry", claiming he is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief. There was not much they could find to attack him over his actual service, other than he was a bit of a hotdog, but they focused their attacks on what Kerry said about the war and his fellow veterans after his return. Essentially, they charge him with giving the war criminal image to Vietnam veterans because he testifed about atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

Karen Hughes also has jumped into the act, accusing Kerry of being dishonest about whether he threw medals or ribbons over the White House fence during a 1971 veterans demonstration. Is he a liar or a traitor? That seems to be the question Bush supporters would like to place in Americans' minds.

So Democrats are accusing Bush-Cheney, et al., of being "chickenhawks", while Republicans accuse Kerry of betraying his country. In fact if the Vietnam War background of Bush and Kerry were reversed, but everything else about them remained the same, we would probably be hearing exactly the same arguments, just from the opposite sides.

Personally, I am more concerned about where the candidates stand now than what they did over three decades ago in their youth. I don't hold it against Kerry that he became an antiwar activist after he returned, nor do I hold it against Bush or Cheney that they did not serve in Vietnam. There is more to measuring the quality of one's life and the character of these individuals.

The Vietnam war sharply divided our society when it took place. Now, even as the Iraq war goes on, it is Vietnam which is once again being used to divide our society, to provide an opportunity for each side to accuse the other of being led by traitors, or cowards. Let us put the Vietnam war behind us and focus on the serious problems that loom before us today.


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