"What did you do in the war?"
It's a question that generations of American men have asked. Sometimes of others, sometimes of themselves. Sometimes directly, sometimes silently.
It's true of remaining members of the "greatest generation" who came of age during World War II. And it's certainly true of middle-agers who had to decide where they stood - and what to do about - the Vietnam War.
With Vietnam combat vet John Kerry now leading the pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls, the question of one's military history forces itself into the political consciousness of the nation as never before. That this is the first presidential election in more than 30 years in which American soldiers are dying in a war zone almost daily sharpens the distinctions.
As a young man, Bill Burke was a tail gunner in B-17s, trading fire with German fighters during the liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression.
Does he care whether a political leader has had military experience? "Yes, I do," says this conservative octogenarian now living in Roswell, N.M. "It makes them think hard and long before they send men and women into harm's way."
Bill Clinton avoided service in uniform. Al Gore volunteered but served in a noncombat role (as did most Vietnam-era vets). Like former Vice President Dan Quayle, President Bush snagged a relatively safe National Guard slot, which kept him stateside. Both men were members of influential families.
Senator Kerry was in the thick of it: protecting his men in jungle firefights, killing enemy soldiers, and suffering wounds - heroically, according to the battlefield decorations he was awarded.
But he also came home to lead the antiwar movement, growing his hair long, wearing his fatigues in defiance and sorrow along with other vets who hurled their medals back at the symbols of a government they felt had betrayed them.
For many voters, it brings to mind bravery and patriotism - witnessed or experienced in their own lives or in the lives of loved ones. For others, it's a reminder of the first (and only) foreign war the United States has ever lost.
Kerry's actions, during his combat tour and after he'd come home to publicly protest, thus span the range of perceptions and feelings about one of American history's defining episodes. It forces everybody of that generation to examine how they conducted themselves back then - whether they enlisted or were drafted into uniform, actively opposed the war, or eventually became known by some veterans as "chicken hawks" (pro-military conservatives who avoided military service).
Can Kerry's privileged background and liberal image be offset by his genuine wartime heroism - especially in the South, with its long tradition of military service?
Retired Army Colonel Dan Smith, a West Point classmate of Wesley Clark who served in Vietnam as an intelligence officer, thinks so. "In that he served in a very dangerous and dirty mission and seems to have the genuine affection of his immediate comrades from that period, his background can be cast much the same way John Kennedy's was," says Colonel Smith.
Regarding Kerry's antiwar activism, Smith says, "Considering that I don't know anyone ... who defends the Vietnam War and that Kerry didn't verbally attack the troops or destroy property, his opposition might be a plus."
Bill Burke, the World War II vet, disagrees. He likens Kerry to "Hanoi Jane Fonda," declaring that "he would be the last person I would vote for."
A bipartisan poll last fall showed Bush with a 60 percent approval rating among veterans, 54 percent of whom said they'd vote to reelect him. But a lot has happened since then - in Iraq and in the presidential campaign. A Gallup poll this week shows Kerry leading Bush 53 percent to 46 percent among all likely voters. A month ago, Bush led Kerry by 12 points.
Veterans are a diverse lot. Many served brief tours and never saw combat. Others made it a career, and are heavily dependent on economic benefits resulting from their service. Some have seen their lives permanently disrupted by injuries and other wartime traumas. All of this translates into very diverse voting behavior.
"In general, veterans tend to care more about patriotism than those who have not served," says Loren Thompson, head of security studies at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they are right-wing in their views. Some Vietnam vets were radicalized by their military service."
That radicalization can work both ways for Kerry, especially with Vietnam-era vets now making up the largest ex-military voting bloc (more than 8 million people). Decades ago, Lee Thorn in San Francisco, who'd been a bomb loader on an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War, worked with Kerry to form antiwar veterans groups. Today, he's supporting Kerry, whom he describes as "an honorable man" and a "genuine hero," even though Kerry voted to support the US invasion of Iraq and Mr. Thorn opposed it.
Across the country in Warren, Vt., Peter Mahoney is a former Army infantry lieutenant who served in Vietnam and later worked with Kerry as an antiwar vet as well.
Yet he is sticking with Howard Dean - the one major candidate who fully opposes Bush administration policies in Iraq. "On the central issue of war and peace for our country, in my eyes, you failed the test of leadership," Mr. Mahoney writes in an open letter to Kerry.
But whether they're pro or con on such tough issues as Iraq, many - perhaps most - vets share something that often transcends political or social differences.
"There is an intangible dimension to the experience of military service, especially combat service, that bonds former warriors together," says Dr. Thompson. "It is definitely a community borne of shared experience that a Kerry or Clark could tap into for electoral advantage."
On the other hand, says Thompson, "Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney lack an organic link to this community of shared sacrifice, and their clumsy attempts to look like warriors could easily backfire."
Still, professional military officers, who typically spend much of their careers as program managers or the equivalent of business executives, are mostly Republican. One reason is that Republicans usually give the military more money. The enlisted ranks are more mixed in political affiliation.
"My dad was in World War II in some of the fiercest fighting and thinks most Vietnam veterans are 'crybabies,' as he puts it," says Ivan Eland, a defense expert at the Independent Institute, a think-tank in Oakland, Calif. Even so, Dr. Eland's father voted for Kerry in the Iowa caucuses because the Massachusetts Democrat is a veteran.
"I think that most veterans are more discerning than the media appreciates," says Eland. "They, more than anyone, realize that all wars are not necessarily patriotic and some are not even necessary. They also realize that the common man bears the costs of politicians' bellicosity."
Candidates' military background, especially when the nation is at war, is likely to be an important factor in how the extended families of servicemen and women (as well as vets) vote.
This may be even truer for the unusually large numbers of National Guard and Reserve troops now ordered to long deployments in the war zone.
A bipartisan poll taken last September showed a relatively low approval rate for Bush (36 percent) among military relatives.
"These people are tired of their hardship," says Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "Whereas Republicans could generally count on the military vote, they may not have them in their pocket now."
Much of the historic Republican advantage on national security issues thus may be neutralized by the contrast between Kerry's and Bush's military service, especially when combined with the administration's management of the Iraq occupation.
"The Republican political machine has gone on the offensive on the military service issue, apparently trying to head it off," says defense analyst Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "I'd say they're in a terrible bind. They lose whether they bring it up and try to defend the president, or lie low and hope it goes away."
Because it echoes their own experience - the "What did you do in the war?" question - many people are paying close attention to the debate. Counting active duty troops, National Guard and Reserve forces, and veterans, the number of military personnel today totals nearly 30 million. And most of them vote.