It was an unscripted scene, nothing like the polished photo ops the Bush team, plundering the resources of the government, liked to put together. Near the end of the Iowa caucus campaign, former Green Beret Jim Rassmann stood on a Des Moines stage and quietly described how John Kerry had saved his life in Vietnam. By the time he was finished, something remarkable had happened: a presidential challenger had, as the world watched, grown larger than the incumbent president.
But something even more important happened as well: In that moment, Vietnam veterans, with characteristic modesty, claimed their long-overdue seat at the head table of American politics. And that brought an unexpected threat to the Bush team's reelection plans, which relied on beating up liberals who didn't know how to fight back. Standing beside Kerry at campaign stops, working the phones, or simply filling the front rows, the veterans, powerless but for the witness they bore, took aim to blow those plans away.
Their presence made the election itself larger. The contest became more than a choice between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. It became a referendum on whether Vietnam still matters to us, and perhaps on whether it ever did. And thus it became our best, and perhaps last, chance to use the Vietnam War to make ourselves a better nation, rather than allow it to make us a worse one.
Like Dylan's thin man, the Bush team knew something was happening, but they didn't know what it was. Almost without thinking, they reached for the weapon they'd used to eviscerate Clinton and everyone in his vicinity: character. Though it has multiple uses, in the context of war "character" is a code word for courage and patriotism, just as "states' rights," "soft on crime" and "quotas" are for race. It lets a skilled attacker pretend to be above the fray by refraining from directly calling others unpatriotic, while making clear that they are.
The character weapon has been particularly useful to neoconservatives, the right-wing hawks who form the heart of the Bush administration -- and who avoided military service in Vietnam. Having declined the opportunity to prove themselves the traditional way, they desperately needed to establish that they alone have the character -- that is, the honesty, integrity, courage and especially patriotism -- to guide the nation morally and lead it militarily. Lacking proof of their own character, their only option was to attack their rivals'.
So Team Bush could hardly do less when the veterans' threat dawned. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was soon intoning that "John Kerrys record of service in our military is honorable. But his long record in the Senate is one of advocating policies that would weaken our national security." Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said virtually the same thing the next day. When Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe slugged back, claiming that Bush had been AWOL from his National Guard duty, a fierce three-part counter-counter-attack from Gillespie, White House press secretary Scott McClellan and Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot let the world know that Republicans were shocked and outraged at the accusations.
Perhaps only the Bush team was surprised when the attack went wrong. The weapon that had won them the White House, and was supposed to help them keep it, blew up in their faces, like a claymore mine a sapper on the perimeter had aimed back at the defenders. Talk of Kerry's voting record failed to catch fire, while interest in the president's National Guard record, which the rapid-fire response was supposed to suppress, exploded. Bush himself was soon promising on "Meet the Press" to release records to prove he'd never been AWOL. And the incoming only intensified after that, to the point that the White House, in a rare cave-in to the press, actually did release some 400 pages of Bush's military records less than a week later. What new information they contained proved little and did nothing to shelter Bush from the questions that were increasingly finding their mark.
The skirmish conjured the ghost of Tet, of doing all the right things to win according to the rules of the game, only to realize with a sinking heart that you were losing a bigger game you'd never suspected you were playing. Only this time it was American soldiers who were playing the bigger game.
The vets supporting Kerry aren't the only ones with a stake in his campaign. Some 30 years after the war ended, Vietnam veterans as a group were the only members of their generation still missing from the political mainstream. The Des Moines moment dropped them into the center of the action. It fused their strengths and needs with those of the candidacy and provided a glimpse into the energy source at the core of democracy. If the campaign fulfills its potential, it will so enlarge the political presence of Vietnam vets that even those who don't agree with Kerry on issues will become more than they otherwise could be.
But veterans didn't flock to the Kerry campaign aiming to create the stuff of civics textbooks. According to John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry, they began volunteering in significant numbers last summer in response to growing concerns that the Bush administration, while boasting of its support for America's fighting forces, was stiffing veterans in areas like pensions, disability compensation and medical care. And they didn't show up just to stand onstage. They also worked phone banks, or simply phoned from their homes, reaching out to veterans of all wars to bring them on board.
The gathering of veterans in his camp made Kerry the Bush team's nightmare opponent. They turned its greatest advantage, its flag-bedecked character costume, into its greatest weakness. They didn't go out of their way to attack neocons for having avoided combat service -- Vietnam vets have always been the most nonjudgmental members of their generation. Rather, simply by showing their faces in politics, as veterans supporting a veteran, they invited comparisons unflattering to Bush and his friends.
When Jim Rassmann talks about Kerry in public, even a skeptical viewer finds it hard to avoid the thought: The candidate is a better man than the president he seeks to replace. The more veterans appear in political settings, the more neocons will find themselves facing the kinds of questions they've managed to dodge for most of their adult lives.
The questions take a lot of forms, but stripped to the basics, they add up to what the press apparently considers an outrageously in-your-face, emperor-has-no-clothes verbal assault: If you believe that patriotism should be wholehearted, and should transcend politics and selfish concerns, what does it say about your patriotism that you didn't volunteer for Vietnam? (That wasn't so hard, was it?) Or, as a vet might be tempted to put it: If you're such a great patriot, why didn't you go fight like we did?
Bush and Co. have been enormously successful in avoiding such questions. We know that Dick Cheney famously "had other priorities," but that's no answer. What does the public know about John Ashcroft's reasons for not serving in Vietnam? Richard Perle's? Paul Wolfowitz's? Not to mention all their comrades in Congress and the right-wing media. Were they all believers in the patriotism of dissent, as draft resisters were? Or did they have some other rationale for their actions? The central question is not whether they did anything illegal to avoid military service. It is how they justified their avoidance in the first place. That so many leaders have given so few answers to such important questions must set some sort of record for a democracy. If so, it's one we shouldn't be proud of.
The rare, reluctant answers that have dribbled out from various neocon stars, in books and interviews and on talk shows, are far from reassuring. Collectively, they sound like this: Vietnam was Johnson's political war, so it was a mess. Besides, I knew the weak-kneed liberals and peaceniks would never let us win it. And as an anti-big-government conservative, I believe the government has no right to force anyone to perform any service against their will. Not to mention my physical condition that for some reason hasn't slowed me down since. And don't forget, I didn't actually break any laws, or at least none that anyone can prove, to avoid military service. I would have gone if called, but I wasn't called, because I was doing other things that by the way made me exempt from the draft. And, last but not least: I didn't do anything Clinton didn't do.
On close inspection, the answers point to the most unflattering conclusion of all: that, based on their own actions during their generation's greatest test of character, neoconservatives are no more courageous or patriotic than the liberals they so despise.
Bright career-minded lads that they were, they recognized from the start that if this truth got out, it would cripple them politically. That's what kept them in stealth mode for so long, emerging to strut their patriotism only after Clinton had proven that dodging the Vietnam draft was no obstacle to the presidency. And that delay gave them plenty of time to plan their damage-control campaign.
The campaign had two parts. The first was to attack the liberals' character before anyone figured out the embarrassing truth about their own. Thus did they build their careers -- indeed, their very identities -- around preemptive attacks.
The second was to attack the character of any who might ask embarrassing questions that could reveal the truth later. And that meant attacking the mainstream media, both directly and through surrogates. To that end, some of them impersonated objective journalists, just as their political team impersonated war heroes, preemptively attacking everyone to their left (which meant almost everyone) as "biased" -- the media-specific code word for unpatriotic.
An exchange from the now-famous "Meet the Press" encounter between President Bush and Tim Russert this month illustrates how this media intimidation works. After stating that he would release his National Guard records, Bush added: "What I don't like is when people say serving in the Guard ... may not be a true service."
Russert hadn't said that, but he got the skillfully unstated message: If you question my actions, you're insulting the patriotism of the good Americans in the National Guard who are now serving in Iraq, and that calls your own patriotism into question. Russert's failure to register shock as Bush appropriated the heroism of the guardsmen he had sent into harm's way, to mask the opposite of heroism of his own safe-haven Guard service, should earn case-study status in broadcast journalism schools. And subsequent questions by the preemptively slapped Russert could stand as a model for media timidity in questioning neocons:
Russert: Were you favor of the war in Vietnam?
Bush: I supported my government. I did. And would have gone had my unit been called up, by the way.
Russert: But you didn't volunteer or enlist to go.
Bush: No, I didn't. You're right. I served. I flew fighters and enjoyed it, and we provided a service to our country.
A few sentences later, Russert signaled surrender: "Let me turn to the economy."
Intimidating journalists by hinting (or by using surrogates to scream) that they are not patriotic works, of course, only because most of the media themselves avoided military service -- there are almost no Vietnam veterans at the top of the profession.
But Kerry's vets spoiled the party. By confiscating the character weapon from the Bush campaign, they freed liberals and perhaps even the media to more boldly challenge the administration's claims of character. And they themselves raised the most embarrassing questions merely by showing their faces in politics, as veterans supporting a veteran.
That leaves Bush and his supporters with a single, shaky defense: insisting that Vietnam doesn't matter. Not that they often say it out loud. But their belief in the message is as clear as their need for it. And they have different ways to get it across.
The cleverest, and most widely used, is the women-and-cripples argument. It goes like this: If military service were a prerequisite for being a good wartime leader, it would disqualify all women, as well as physically handicapped leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, from ever becoming president. And that would be discrimination. It would also deprive us of some of our greatest leaders.
The argument brings us full circle, from hiding behind Clinton to hiding behind women to hiding behind Roosevelt. It also carefully glosses over the most important fact: There's a big difference between not having the opportunity to serve one's country and actively avoiding doing so. In its own way, it's as large as the gap between courage and cowardice.
The least subtle expression of "Vietnam doesn't matter" sentiment seems a specialty of up-and-comers we might call baby neocons. Represented by conservatives like CNN's Tucker Carlson and Wall Street Journal Web columnist James Taranto, they are too young to have dodged the Vietnam draft, but are such fierce and faithful defenders of neocon positions as to leave little doubt they would have if they could have. Immune (they think) to criticism for never having served their country, they excoriate Kerry for repeatedly mentioning that he did. As far as it's discernible, their main criticism appears to be that they're tired of hearing his macho boasting.
But in their intrepid insistence that, unlike themselves, real soldiers should be seen and not heard, these keyboard soldiers and combat commentators inadvertently reveal something else. The frequency and aggressiveness of their attacks on Kerry make clear how much neocons fear him and his veterans. Yet their potshots miss the target. Simply by standing their ground in public, unashamed of their uniforms, veterans say everything they have to. Their very presence argues that whether one had the courage to face combat defines one's character in such a deep and important way that it should be our most important criterion in selecting our leaders.
More broadly, the attack of the baby neocons illustrates one of the most striking characteristics of neocons in general: the way they virtually advertise their fears and vulnerabilities by the intensity of their assaults and their choice of targets. It's a side effect of having built their identities around preemptive attacks. And it's a superb tool for tracking the progress of Team Bush through the minefield that the character-and-patriotism issue represents.
The detonation of the AWOL issue was only the beginning. More explosions are likely as they intensify their assault. For example, attacks on Kerry's national-security credentials -- ranging from the gutter-variety attempts by surrogates to link him with Jane Fonda to the alarmed "analyses" of his defense voting record -- represent an argument that what one did after the Vietnam War means more than what one did during it: a variation on the "Vietnam doesn't matter" theme.
But if they step over the line and argue that Kerry's antiwar activism overshadows his war service, and proves that, on balance, he's unpatriotic, they may find themselves at odds with some formidable Republican Vietnam vets. For example, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said that Kerry's honorable service earned him the right to protest the way he did. And Sen. John McCain of Arizona has come to like and respect Kerry despite their early differences over Kerry's antiwar activities.
As their attacks set off more blasts, the Bush team will begin to sense the bigger game that is closing in around them, transforming them from hunter to hunted. And the rest of the world will begin to wonder whether the neocon patrol is going to make it to the other side in one piece.
If Kerry's war record removes the personal-character attack from the Bush campaign's arsenal, the veterans standing beside him give him the power to take out the institutional version of the same weapon. Republicans have successfully used this weapon of mass denigration for decades. Its technique is simple and familiar: to paint all Democrats as deficient in patriotism and courage, and the Republicans as the only party unafraid of war.
The tactic is a key part of the Bush team's reelection strategy. To make it work, they have to sell the Republican/Democrat contest like a TV script depicting an epic struggle between pro-war and antiwar forces, and thus, through long-practiced implication and innuendo, a battle between heroes and cowards, patriots and traitors. The presidential combatants become mere characters in this larger drama, their personal qualities fading to irrelevance.
The war with Iraq makes it all possible, because it lets the Republicans stake out the most extreme pro-war territory available. If the public buys their script, it means no one with less extreme positions -- that is, no one else -- can match their aura of heroism and patriotism. The Republicans win the character competition by default, and so does the president. No wonder, then, that Bush most seemed to be reciting pre-written lines when, during the "Meet the Press" interview, he told Russert: "I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind."
The administration's success in selling its story is evident. Almost without realizing it, America has obediently hauled its favorite Vietnam-era rhetoric out of the attic and sent it to the Middle East, even though the old terminology doesn't begin to fit the new territory. What does it mean to be pro-war or antiwar with regard to Iraq? Is it about favoring or opposing liberating the Iraqis from oppression? Is it about favoring or opposing working through international organizations? Is it about simply opposing the timing and the manner of the war effort, but not its goals? There is no clear answer -- the mothers of all political buzzwords have become meaningless.
Indeed, almost no Democratic candidate except Rep. Dennis Kucinich has said outright that we should simply bring the troops home -- a staple anti-Vietnam War position. But no matter, everyone from pundits and politicians to ordinary citizens almost instinctively slaps one of the two labels -- pro-war or antiwar -- on everyone they see. And Gov. Howard Dean played right into the administration's hands, by making opposition to the Iraq War the central theme of his candidacy. No wonder they hoped he would be the nominee, and no wonder Democratic voters sensed he might have trouble getting elected.
Kerry is well-positioned to fight the tactic in two ways. First, even the silent presence of veterans beside him shouts that, Democrat or not, he's neither coward nor traitor; should he wish to, he could even question the courage and patriotism of Bush and Co. And he didn't vote against the Iraq war resolution, which means that they can't use their imagined link between Saddam and Osama to attack him for being soft on terrorism. By saying he's not necessarily against the use of force in Iraq or elsewhere but against the way it was used in this case, he prevents Bush from painting him as either pro-dictator or pro-terror.
Second, he and his veterans can launch an assault on the Republican weapon itself. Rather than agreeing to define the election in oversimplified pro-war/antiwar terms, they can insist that we define it, and our role in the world, in terms of America's integrity and credibility, on the grounds that those are the true key to security.
Vietnam veterans have the authority to argue that by trying to sell Americans such a simplified, divisive worldview, the administration is doing the nation a huge disservice. It is not helping us get over the Vietnam era, as it claims to be, but rather dragging us back into the Nixonian heart of it, by reviving the polarized thinking that tore America apart during that war. Back then, one was either pro-war or antiwar, pro-communist or anti-communist, courageous or cowardly, moral or immoral, pro-America or anti-America. It was all black and white, you were either one or the other, and the pairs of opposites were all rigidly connected.
Perhaps only those whose lives floated serenely above the turmoil of Vietnam -- such as the Bush conservatives -- can utterly fail to understand, or care, how damaging and fundamentally incorrect such a simplified, divisive worldview is. That is, perhaps only such people can utterly fail to grasp the lessons of Vietnam.
Vietnam veterans understand those lessons best. They suffered the most damage -- to their bodies in Vietnam, and to their souls after they returned -- without ever painting themselves as victims. And they witnessed, more intimately than any others, the fundamental defects of the politics of oversimplification.
More credibly than anyone else, veterans can testify that fighting in a war doesn't automatically mean supporting it, that supporting it doesn't automatically equal heroism, that opposing it doesn't automatically equal cowardice, and that fighting a global enemy doesn't automatically require taking every global opportunity to go to war.
More authoritatively than anyone else, they can argue that an oversimplified view of war and foreign policy wasn't right during Vietnam, when the global enemy was easy to identify, and had the weapons to annihilate all Americans hundreds of times over, and it's not right now, when the enemy is far harder to pin down, and the mix of political and cultural conflicts is even more complex than during the Cold War.
If Kerry and his vets fully engage in this larger game and begin to make the case against the oversimplification of American policy, they will shake the foundations of the privileged neocon world. Realizing that their political survival is at stake, the Bush team will fight back with every tactic they can dredge up. Their impugning of war hero Max Cleland's patriotism in Georgia's 2002 Senate campaign shows how low they will stoop.
Years ago, the epithets of similar children of privilege, protesting the war from behind college deferments, stunned veterans into decades of silence, driving them out of the national conversation. Today, attacks like those of the baby neocons and the Republican smear machine still try to keep them mute. But this time, nothing can keep them out of the debate, because even in silence, the veterans speak volumes. And they don't plan to be silent.
In the end, the biggest objection to the oversimplified us-or-them mentality isn't just the pain it caused America during the Vietnam era. It's not even that it made America safe for the practitioners of the patriotic smear, who are making such a comeback today. What's worst is the central role such thinking played in getting us into Vietnam in the first place. Blinding us to any possibilities that didn't fit its preconceived patterns, that simplistic mentality sternly assured us that military action was a fail-safe, one-size-fits-all solution, and that there was no other option -- the only choice was between war and global surrender. It serves us no better now than it did then.
If the veterans of Vietnam, as they quietly file into the hall of American politics, help eject the politics of oversimplification from the room once and for all, they won't just be helping us get over Vietnam. They'll be making us better and wiser than we were before Vietnam. And thus, once again, they will be doing their country a greater service than any others of their generation ever have, or ever will.