CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — As the debate among groups such as Texans for Truth and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has risen to leviathan proportion, questions of honorable service during the Vietnam era bring me back to my own experiences.
As indelible as the ordeal of the Vietnam War itself has been on my life, the polemics of that conflict have created fresh battles to be negotiated at every step. They are mirrored in the controversy over President Bush's and John Kerry's wartime activity. The war has been over for 30 years and the demons of that period should have been exorcised. We ought to have moved on. Serving in Vietnam does not automatically imply leadership abilities. Not serving does not imply character defects. People made choices.
For 10 years during the war and the decades after - from President Carter's pardon to the choice of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - questions about who served and who did not, and why, reverberated throughout the country. Some chose active duty, others avoided it. All sides and paths of that war must be understood and honored; choices are individual. It is the present we should concern ourselves with. The Vietnam War past gives us only a faint and distorted picture of the participants of that era.
As a college student in the spring of 1966, I wrote a passionate antiwar letter to a young Marine officer serving in Vietnam. His reply reflected the political thought of the day: We were there to save Vietnam from the communists, to bring freedom and democracy to a people who had never experienced it, and to keep all of southeast Asia from falling. I had read Bernard Fall's book, "Street Without Joy," and remained convinced that the US could never win this war.
As the war accelerated, the draft took many of my friends. That summer I saw an old childhood friend at an amusement park. He had a pronounced limp, the effect of injuries sustained as a marine in combat. He looked like a man, and I was still a child. His face carried the strain and fatigue of war. My college shirt and peace pin were trite. I felt secretly ashamed, yet at the same time grateful to be out of harm's way. I had taken the safe path of college instead of the dangers of enlistment.
The following year, with less than stellar grades, I lost my draft deferment. So did two of my friends. We sat in a dorm discussing options. We hated and feared the war. Some students had joined the National Guard or the reserves - the largess of wealthy or connected families, we thought. Some joined the Navy or Air Force in hope of avoiding combat, they thought. We talked about ways to beat the draft by flunking the physical. One older friend enrolled in a seminary; another applied to graduate school. A third wanted to take the "freedom train" to Canada. I had gone to high school at a private military academy, so ROTC was a perfect choice for me. I could continue in school, the courses were supposed to be easy, the probability of the war being over was great, the extra spending money helped, and I received my coveted draft deferment. While others left college, my path kept me safe. I was willing to suborn my antiwar sentiments for a chance to finish college. I was comfortable with that choice.
By the time I graduated and received my commission in the Army two years later, my antiwar sentiments had crystallized into ambiguity. I was married, with a child on the way. I wouldn't have to go to Vietnam, I reasoned, because I was to become an armored officer and there were few tanks in service.
But I was wrong. I went to Vietnam. I served my year as an armored cavalry officer, was decorated, and came home. I didn't feel like a hero nor was I treated like one. I had, however, developed an element of pride in my accomplishment and my service.
America hadn't learned to hate the war but love the warrior. The first time I became aware of this was at a Christmas party a few weeks after I came home. A friend my age opposed to the war asked: "Did you kill anybody in Vietnam?" That a friend could ask this insensitive question had always been difficult to deal with. It was even more excruciating when the same question was put to me last year, in public, by a Russian journalist as I sat on a Kennedy School panel at Harvard with an official of the Vietnam government. The right answer didn't come to me until I recounted these stories to a journalist formerly with the Vietnam Daily News. She told me: "That question is irrelevant."
What is relevant is how I bring together all sides regarding service to our country during that period as I journey through my personal and public life. This relates to those who actively served, those who found alternative service, and those who avoided the war altogether. Vietnam did not define me - nor should a single issue define us, as individuals or as a country.
In the 1980s, one of my business partners and I were discussing the Vietnam era. He told of being raised in an antiwar family that had manned the freedom train to Canada in Vermont, providing food, money, and assistance to draft resisters. As we talked, I recognized the sincerity of his family's beliefs. But what I saw, too, was a calcification of thought: He believed there was really only one way, one path - or in his case, one train.
What troubled me was that I had come to appreciate my time "in country" as part of my personal growth; this was an idea in conflict with his experience, and one I suspect he dismissed. Yet there are many paths. While I might not have taken the path that his family did, I could respect the genuineness of its choice. In a way, I was simply replacing enmity with understanding.
This can be true of political choice as well as service in Vietnam.
There have been many other times since the end of the Vietnam War that I have had to confront these issues: in church, when a fellow member told me that I hadn't really served my country as her World War II veteran husband had; during the first Iraq war, when Vietnam veterans threatened to disrupt the returning Iraq veterans' welcoming parade in Hollywood; and while aiding homeless veterans in Los Angeles. I have tried to replace my own sense of person, to "get over myself," and not look only at my own situation.
Where does all this leave us? In "No More Vietnams," Richard Nixon wrote: "No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic."
To that I would append that those who chose active service, those who chose alternative service, and those who stayed home all deserve to be understood; that their motives and choices are theirs alone and they can justly be afforded the term "hero," whatever that really means. This is the best honoring of those times we can provide.
And it is unifying. It may not be good politics, but it is good for the country.
• John R. Price is a senior fellow at the Center for Business and Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.