US veterans remain sharply divided

Vietnam vets in particular are torn over Kerry's combat record, while support for Bush is far from solidified.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They came by motorcycle and wheelchair, one group in a small boat symbolically crossing Boston Harbor. Some wore suits and ties, others faded fatigues with battle ribbons and personal decorations.

Hundreds of military veterans have joined John Kerry's campaign for the presidency. It's a calculated part of Senator Kerry's effort to display "a lifetime of strength and service" - one of the major themes of this week's Democratic National Convention. But it's also a gut-level response to having the first Vietnam combat vet just one election away from becoming commander in chief.

"They are there because they love and respect him," says Max Cleland, the former US Senator from Georgia who lost three limbs to a grenade in Vietnam. Mr. Cleland is scheduled to introduce Kerry in Boston.

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Wednesday, 12 retired generals and admirals - an impressive amount of brass by any standard - endorsed Kerry for president.

"By not bringing in our friends and allies, [Bush administration officials] have created a mess in Iraq and are crippling our forces around the world," said retired US Navy Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "John Kerry has a realistic understanding of the requirements of our military and the threats that we face."

But it's also a risky move for the challenger, especially in wartime.

Veterans generally, and Vietnam vets in particular, are torn over Kerry's combat record and antiwar experience, and also over his work with fellow Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona to normalize relations with Vietnam and to dispel conspiracy theories about left-behind POWs.

That background also has dredged up public feelings and perceptions about the war like no presidential election since 1972. Obviously Kerry can't ignore it, so he's playing it as a strength - featuring many vets in prominent positions in the campaign and convention, especially former shipmates on the river patrol boats he commanded offering personal testimonials.

"The support of vets for John Kerry is unprecedented," says John Hurley, an Army vet of the Vietnam War who heads the veterans' part of the Kerry campaign. "There was a sense among vets back in Iowa and New Hampshire that he's for us." Cleland says the 100,000 vets signed up to work for Kerry is a number "growing every day."

A question of conduct

But for a significant number of veterans, Kerry's antiwar activism after he returned from Vietnam - especially his charge that many atrocities occurred in the war - has them riled enough to work for his defeat.

Some 250 patrol boat veterans recently sent a letter to Kerry challenging his fitness to serve as commander in chief.

They wrote: "It is our collective judgment that, upon your return from Vietnam, you grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of the American soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen of that war (including a betrayal of many of us, without regard for the danger your actions caused us). Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war."

Other observers note the positive aspects of wartime experience on national leadership - whether or not the particular war involved was controversial or not.

"Kerry grasps the political ramifications and human consequences of military choices in a way that Bush, even now, does not," says Loren Thompson, a political scientist at the Lexington Institute who specializes in national security issues. That speaks to Kerry's time in the Navy as well as to his foreign affairs work in the Senate.

But beyond direct military or foreign affairs experience, Dr. Thompson suggests, personality and temperament may be the best indicators of how effectively Kerry will fulfill the role of commander in chief.

"Ronald Reagan was at peace with himself, and that made him an effective leader," Thompson says. "In emotional terms, Kerry seems more like Reagan than the current president does."

Veterans don't always sway veterans

Combat experience is not necessarily a plus, of course. In 1972, the decorated World War II pilot - George McGovern - was trounced by Richard Nixon, who had been a noncombatant naval officer.

Opinion polls suggest that Kerry has work to do in convincing veterans that they should vote for him. Most Americans registered to vote would pick Kerry (49-41 percent), according to a CBS News poll taken last month. But among vets, Bush had the edge 54-40 percent.

In a survey taken just before the last presidential election, 64 percent of active duty military officers identified with Republicans and only 8 percent claimed to be Democrats. Enlisted men and women may be more evenly divided, but it can also be assumed that political conservatives are more likely to enlist - and eventually become veterans.

The Gallup organization finds that veterans are more conservative than the general population, with a 3-to-1 - as opposed to a 2-to-1 - conservative-to-liberal ratio.

"From these data it would appear Bush would have an advantage over his Democratic opponent among veterans, but maybe not as large as one might think," the polling organization reports. "In the most recent Gallup Poll, 21 percent of Bush supporters were veterans, compared with 17 percent of Kerry supporters."

Support for Bush may be soft

At the same time, there are indications that vets' support for Bush - particularly on war issues - may be soft. While vets are more likely than most people to say the Iraq war has been worth the cost, a majority (55-40 percent) still say it wasn't, and a slim majority in the CBS News survey (51-47 percent) said the war "is going badly."

Policymakers who have served in Vietnam - Colin Powell, for example - seem to have been changed by it. Would that be true for John Kerry were he to become commander in chief?

"Although supporting the Iraq invasion for political reasons - to be seen as a centrist - privately, the Vietnam War may have made Kerry leery of foreign military excursions," says Ivan Eland, national security expert at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "Of course, this will probably be at the margins. I would bet a month's paycheck that US interventionist foreign policy, backed by numerous vested private and public interests, will probably continue no matter who is elected president."

All of this leaves a large number of the nation's 25 million veterans among the ranks of the undecided.

"Many of us are not sure we're ready to trust national defense to the Democrats in general or John Kerry in particular," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago and a retired US Naval Reserve captain.

At the same time, says Dr. Williams, "Bush should worry that there are a lot of people like me - retired military - who are not ready to sign up for him."

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