Three decades later, a campaign that's still about Vietnam

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was dedicated 22 years ago, it was said that the country at last could "separate the warrior from the war." With this presidential election, it's obvious that this has not happened.

In profound and highly personal ways, this campaign is forcing a generation of Americans to examine the decisions they made and the path they took back then, whether they were warriors or civilians. For many, it's as if the black granite wall with the 58,235 names of those lost in Vietnam, the photos of student protesters shot at Kent State, the revelations in the Pentagon Papers had all come hauntingly alive. And that's not pleasant for anybody, no matter what their politics.

In fact, in a recent report, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (likening Vietnam to the Civil War) wrote, "For only the second time in our nation's history, the bitterness of a bloody, lost war will shadow national politics until generational replacement has removed all the brave soldiers who experienced the event first-hand."

Over the next two months, that bitterness is likely to grow, not diminish.

Attacks on John Kerry's combat record (whether he deserved his medals) are just the opening act for an even deeper controversy over his antiwar activities, which many opponents back then - and even today - consider to have been treasonous.

For baby boomers, this revives the surreal picture of former Vietnam POWs claiming that Mr. Kerry's charges about US atrocities lengthened their incarceration while war historians relate the details of "free-fire zones" and US bombing of Southeast Asia they allege violated the Hague Convention prohibition against attacking civilians. All that's missing is Country Joe and the Fish singing "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" at Woodstock in 1969.

In April 1971, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright, that US forces had committed "war crimes ... on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." He was repeating the confessional revelations of atrocities made earlier that year by GIs at the "Winter Soldier Investigation" in Detroit sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Richard Nixon had said he didn't want to be "the first President to lose a war," but by then the goal was not to win the war but to disengage "with honor."

"We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry asked in a riveting moment of his Senate presentation. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Lasting controversy

Many of Kerry's critics today still burn with resentment over his testimony, which they took to have been an indictment of all Americans who fought in Vietnam.

"Kerry's remarks to Fulbright's committee were devastating to everybody who served in Vietnam," says former POW Paul Galanti, who was forced to listen to "Hanoi Hannah" broadcast North Vietnamese propaganda about antiwar vets back home. "They were as demoralizing to me as solitary [confinement]. I consider Kerry's remarks to be deliberate lies and a prime reason the war dragged on."

To others, Kerry's testimony - at the time and in retrospect - revealed the painful truth.

Fred Branfman, who directed Project Air War in the early 1970s, interviewed more than 2,000 Laotians whose villages had been bombed. Noting that the US dropped 6.7 million tons of bombs on Southeast Asia during the war (three times as much as was dropped on all of Europe and the Pacific Theater during World War II), Mr. Branfman today criticizes the "ongoing failure to take responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Indochinese peasants whom we killed in violation of the laws of war."

Meanwhile, new revelations about US action in Vietnam continue nearly 30 years after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the American embassy in what was to become Ho Chi Minh City.

Earlier this year, the Toledo Blade newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting that uncovered atrocities - including the killing of unarmed civilians and children - by the US Army's "Tiger Force" reconnaissance unit over a seven-month period in 1967.

Would such information have influenced personal decisions whether or not to serve during the war? It seems unlikely.

Like Vice-president Dick Cheney, who got five draft deferments during the Vietnam War (Attorney General John Ashcroft got seven), most Americans "had other priorities in the '60s than military service," as Mr. Cheney once put it. They did not enlist, nor did they take to the streets in protest. Still, they could not avoid the mounting US combat death toll or the growing opposition to the war that led to police and protester violence on campuses and at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. By the time a young John Kerry in fatigues testified before the US Senate in 1971, most Americans wanted out of Vietnam.

Political fault lins

Beyond such unsettling recollections, some see the current revisiting of the Vietnam War as evidence of a growing fault line in the body politic, at least among baby boomers: Between those (like Kerry) who believe the 1960s brought needed reform and progress, and those (like President Bush) who want to expunge the nation of the political and cultural excesses of that decade and get back to a '50s-type society that embraces "traditional" values.

Real life is more complicated than that. Still, a new book observes a growing "great divide" labeled "retro vs. metro America" - another way of defining the differences in religious, social, military, and political outlook between "red" and "blue" states on the electoral map.

Those differences may be sharpened now by the pointed campaign reminders of Vietnam - by the two candidates' decisions to fight or not, but especially by those both critical and supportive of Kerry's antiwar leadership more than 30 years ago.

It "makes it difficult to say when and how this time travel into history will end," says professor Sabato. "It may very well be that the controversy will last through Election Day and, if Kerry is elected, beyond it - to affect his relationships with the armed forces and his decisions on military intervention."

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