Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
December 17, 2008
The scars of war run deep.
The physical scars last as long as the men and women who bear them are alive. The mental scars can last even longer; emotional damage can affect succeeding generations.
Certainly, the scars of any war run deep. But deepest of all are the scars of a war that was lost.
When a war is over, the victors move on; the losers cannot let go.
As we learned not quite a decade ago in Kosovo, the Serbian people are still enraged by their defeat at the Field of Blackbirds ” on June 28, 1389.
And, as we are reminded with every new battle over the Confederate flag, there are people in the Deep South of the United States for whom the Civil War is not yet over.
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Northerners don’t care. Southerners will never forget.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the Vietnam War is still poisoning our politics more than 30 years after we fled that tiny nation in defeat.
That poison shows itself in many ways.
The “Greatest Generation,” those who served ” or were old enough to have served ” in World War II, produced eight U.S. presidents, who occupied the White House over a span of 40 years after the war: 1952 through 1992.
The “Vietnam Generation” has produced just two presidents ” Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ” who held the White House for just 16 years.
Service in Vietnam has certainly not been a political asset. Indeed, since Vietnam, it would seem that military service of any real kind has not been an asset.
Bill Clinton, of course, famously avoided serving in that war. Yet, he defeated two decorated veterans of the Second World War ” George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob
Dole in 1996.
During the Clinton presidency, there was a bumper sticker, popular with those who despised Clinton, that said “Only in America could a homeless veteran sleep on the sidewalk, while a draft dodger sleeps in the White House.”
One wonders how many of those stickers were vigorously scraped off Republican bumpers when George W. Bush was elected ” since he, like Clinton, played the game and dodged service in Vietnam.
And we can skip the nonsense about Bush serving in the National Guard. Everyone who was alive and of draft age back then knew that the National Guard was just one more way of getting out of going to war. Some people used college deferments.
Some faked injury or mental illness. Some pulled strings to get into the National
George W. Bush was every bit as much a “draft dodger” as Bill Clinton. And yet, he managed to defeat two men ” Al Gore and John Kerry ” who had actually served in the war.
Those victories were another big step in devaluing military service in Vietnam ” particularly the victory over John Kerry.
The so-called Swift Boat attacks on Kerry were despicable and transparently dishonest. But they gained traction to some extent because they resonated within a
virtual cottage industry dedicated to denying the terrible truth of the war crimes U.S. troops committed in Vietnam.
To these people, John Kerry was a traitor ” not to the country, but to the military. He was a traitor because he returned home, a decorated veteran, and spoke out about the crimes his fellow soldiers committed ” and provided a forum for some of those soldiers to talk about their own criminal acts.
It is understandable that some have been desperately eager to cleanse their consciences or simply to escape the sad truth that the horrors of Vietnam stained the record of the U.S. military.
Those stains are terrible. They are nonetheless very real. U.S. troops, caught in a war with no apparent justification, unable to tell friends from enemies from civilians, unable to speak the language or understand the culture, sometimes broke down and committed terrible acts. Some deserved punishment. Many more, I suspect, deserve sympathy and treatment.
The cloud that remains over those who served in Vietnam is a continuing tragedy of that tragic war. Those who served honorably deserve our thanks for their service.
They are the vast majority. Though our cause may not have been just, that was not their responsibility. And if some small percentage of their fellow soldiers committed crimes in that unjust war, that should not cast a shadow on those who served with honor.
That seems undeniable. But for many, fierce denial has been the automatic response. (If you’re reading this on the web, I suggest you check out the comments at the end. I’m guessing you’ll find plenty of adamant denial.)
And so John Kerry’s war record was distorted by those who could not face the truth about that war. The poison ran deep.
This year’s election again pitted an honored Vietnam vet against a man who had not served.
But Barack Obama is too young to be tainted by any association with that war. Just 14 when the war ended, he could not have served, could not have eluded the draft, could not even really have been part of any serious anti-war protest.
That perhaps casts a new light on the attempt to create a campaign issue out of Obama’s acquaintance with William Ayers, one of the truly despicable jerks of the anti-war movement.
It wasn’t merely a less-than-honest campaign smear. It was an attempt to drag the fight over Vietnam back into the center of the political process.
But, as McCain found out, people just don’t seem to care about that war any more.
Barack Obama is our first truly post-Vietnam president. I would hope, no matter what one’s politics may be, that alone is cause for relief.
Perhaps we can move on, no longer prisoners of our defeat.
Perhaps now we can hope that the rains of time have begun to wash the poison of that war from the soil of our nation.