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Vietnam: Political Apocalypse Now

The extraordinary emotional exchanges we are witnessing daily about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group leads us to one unavoidable conclusion: 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.

The Civil War did not end until everyone who had fought in it had passed away–and then some. For over a century after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Americans were still arguing over the war’s name (the Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression). Even two wars we did not really win–the War of 1812 and the Korean War–never came close to generating such animosity.

Much like the Civil War, the Vietnam War continues to roil our elections almost thirty years after the inglorious collapse of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Arguably, Vietnam has already played a significant role in as many presidential elections as the Civil War ever did–at least in a headline sense. It was THE ISSUE in 1968 and 1972, but still mattered greatly in 1976 (the amnesty matter for those young men who had fled the country over the draft); 1980, 1984, and 1988 (the “weak on defense” issue for the Democrats as a result of the party’s post-Vietnam dovish tilt), 1992 and 1996 (Clinton’s draft evasion while running against war heroes Bush Sr. and Bob Dole), 2000 (Bush’s National Guard situation), and now 2004.

Can you believe, dear readers, that we are back in the Vietnam jungles yet again? It has happened for three primary reasons:

  • The Kerry team decided early on to contrast Kerry’s and Bush’s war records in an attempt to create a rationale for the Democrat to serve as commander in chief, to undermine Bush’s rationale post-9/11, and to send a message to the Republicans that Kerry was the anti-Dukakis, a Democrat who wouldn’t take a punch without landing a harder one of his own. The logical conclusion of this was the Democratic convention, where Kerry’s Vietnam War record was not just a theme, but the predominant message. At times, the inattentive viewer might have thought that he was watching a Veterans for Foreign Wars conclave, not a party gathering, in Boston.
  • Bush supporters were just as determined not to let the Kerry-drawn contrast to stand, for if it did, much of Bush’s reelection argument might melt away. Only in time will we know how closely, if at all, the Bush bunch has coordinated with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but the Crystal Ball’s guess is that nods and winks were given to appropriate fundraisers and organizers–within the boundaries of the current campaign finance law. (Let’s not forget how that “reform” law, the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, strongly encouraged this kind of activity through independent 527 committees, rather than the more accountable political parties. We’d call it an unintended consequence of reform, except that this was flatly and prominently predicted by opponents of the act, so how could it be unintended?)
  • Democrats were genuinely thrilled to have a “war hero” as their 2004 nominee; no longer, they thought, would they have to defend Bill Clinton’s smarmy draft evasions. But the party ignored the down side of what Kerry did once he returned to the States after his short tour of duty in ‘Nam: With a political career in strongly anti-war Massachusetts in mind, Kerry took up a leadership role in the often-radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and headed for the U.S. Senate to give inflammatory testimony that even today reads like an indictment of many U.S. troops serving in Southeast Asia. At the time, the testimony won wide praise in a nation that had grown sick of Vietnam and the two Presidents who ran the war (LBJ and Nixon). But one group had a very different reaction, and has remembered it all the years, with the words still churning in the pit of their stomachs: Kerry’s fellow Vietnam vets, including some incarcerated in North Vietnam’s brutal prisoner-of-war camps.

Now these three pieces have come together in a volatile mix to dominate the presidential campaign’s August doldrums. Kerry and his advisers dearly want to shut down the subject since the debate interferes with their agenda and appears to be having some effect on many voters, if the polls are to be believed. Generally, the news media are supportive of the Kerry objective, both because they suspect the Swift Boat Vets are a front for the GOP and also because most of the major newsrooms in America are run by Vietnam-era baby boomers. These particular boomers were themselves anti-Vietnam War in overwhelming numbers, just like Kerry.

Still, the Bush elements involved in this effort are not likely to let up anytime soon. After all, this is the first time since winter that Kerry, not Bush, has been swimming upstream in a political controversy. That role reversal is a massive relief to the Bush forces, however temporary it may be.

Much more important, the Vietnam vets who have committed themselves to this endeavor show no sign of giving up. Some of them are surprisingly good at arguing their case and debating the usual suspects on TV to a draw or better. Journalists may be anti-war but they have learned not to be anti-veteran, so most tread carefully in this arena.

The vets’ intensity makes it difficult to say when and how this time travel into history will end. 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.

For the moment, Vietnam has been added to Iraq, the war on terror, the economy, and gay marriage as the major issues of the 2004 election. Vietnam? Yes, indeed. This campaign is turning out to be a long, strange trip that is not always following the map created for it some months ago.