Revisiting our heroes

The controversy over former Sen. Bob Kerrey and his involvement in a shooting affray against Vietnamese civilians has raised anew the larger question of how our political leaders reacted to calls for wartime service.

By coincidence, Bob Donovan's 40-year-old book "PT 109," the account of John F. Kennedy's heroism in the Pacific during World War II, is being reissued. I have written a preface for the new edition, from which I quote:

Whatever happened to the willingness of those who aspire to be the nation's leaders to face personal risk in service to that nation?

Since the late 1980s, the mantle of America's leadership has passed from a generation that came of age in World War II to one whose concepts of military service were shaped in the murky moral and political mine fields of the Vietnam War.

The reissuance of "PT 109" comes at a propitious time to underscore the significance of that generational change and its impact on political discourse. What Lt. John F. Kennedy did in the Solomon Islands was extraordinary. His motor torpedo boat rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he dived overboard and spent 30 of the next 36 hours in the water to rescue his crew. To Kennedy, to be fighting in a cause generally understood and supported was ordinary.

At that time, he was one of seven future presidents who volunteered to serve. There was, of course, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Then Lyndon B. Johnson, naval reservist, the first member of Congress to volunteer on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Richard M. Nixon, a young lawyer, served in the Pacific as a Navy lieutenant in the Combat Air Transport Command. Gerald Ford joined the Navy as an ensign and served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey in combat in the Pacific. Ronald Reagan, Army Air Corps reserve officer, was barred from overseas service because of poor eyesight and instead made training films. George H. W. Bush, Navy pilot, was shot down on a mission to bomb a Japanese-held island and was rescued by a submarine.

There were many other future politicians who willingly served in World War II and did not make it to the White House. Robert Dole lost the use of an arm serving with the US Army in Italy. George McGovern flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot operating from Italy. Sgt. Daniel Inouye, in Italy, advanced alone against a German machine gun nest, and his arm was shattered by a rifle grenade. Barry Goldwater served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and came home a captain with a chest full of medals.

There were not hawks and doves then. There was no soul-searching about whether this was a just war. In contrast, the future politicians of the Vietnam War generation reached arms-bearing age to confront a war without consensus and without the galvanizing impulse of a clear and present danger.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle joined the Indiana National Guard. Former President Bill Clinton managed to avoid being drafted by a combination of deferments and ROTC assignments. George W. Bush, who would be president eight years after his father, found his way into the National Guard.

Attorney General John Ashcroft received seven draft deferments for the seven years he was eligible for service. Newt Gingrich, a great battler in Congress, did not serve in the military, nor did Sen. Phil Gramm.

Other politicians did serve in Vietnam, such as senators John Kerry and Bob Kerrey. And there was John McCain, who endured years of imprisonment and torture as a POW in Hanoi.

But Vietnam was not a generally supported war and did not elicit the reflexes that sent a Jack Kennedy into battle. World War II left this country with its head held high, celebrating a generation of heroes. The Vietnam War left this country with a divisive legacy and a less certain moral compass.

And that's why it's such a good idea to read "PT 109" again. It brings back the days when Americans heard an undeniable call to service in something bigger than themselves and answered in kind.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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