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The Redemption of the Vietnam War?
By Gray Rinehart October 3, 2003

Abbie Hoffman makes at least one quick turn in his grave when Senator John Kerry touts his military record. Before he joined Hoffman in the ranks of anti-war agitators, Senator Kerry served honorably and was a highly decorated patrol boat commander. But did anyone think that a candidate for President would ever claim Vietnam service as a positive thing?

It happened most flamboyantly in front of a World War II-vintage aircraft carrier, when Senator Kerry announced that his campaign was, actually and officially, a campaign. (It already walked like a duck, but he explained that it really was a duck.) The Senator took care to note his proud service in Vietnam, but not similar pride in leading protests against the war--during one of which he tossed his ribbons, but not his medals, into a trash bin. The Senator fought well and bravely, then decided the war was wrong and protested so it would end, but now implies that his Vietnam War record qualifies him to be Commander in Chief.

The memory of Vietnam haunted military halls for years, a frightening spectre that motivated the military to revolutionize war-fighting and was exorcised only by time and triumphs. Now Senator Kerry has resurrected the ghost, and transformed it into a friendly spirit smiling over his shoulder on the campaign trail. Vietnam as Casper.

What a bind this puts major media in.

Like all who look back through the lenses of memory, mainstream broadcast journalists are nostalgic for better times. Not the days of Murrow, Huntley, or Brinkley, perhaps, but for the heyday when many of today's big name reporters cut their teeth and made their marks. As Walter Cronkite intimated recently, journalists remember with fondness their power to shape opinions and whip up frenzies, power they or their mentors wielded during various difficult periods--for example, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, and, yes, Vietnam. That memory whets their appetites for contemporary conquests, so every faux pas becomes a controversy, every controversy a Watergate, every war a Vietnam.

Nearly a year ago, with Iraq firmly under Saddam Hussein's heel and war still only a threat, newscasts tried to foment protest by showing thirty-year-old film segments of placard-carrying protesters. They lamented the lack of popular protest against liberating Iraq; the segments should have been accompanied by Peter, Paul, and Mary singing, "Where have all the protesters gone / long time passing?" Today the same networks, along with would-be Democratic candidates, are quick to portray the occupation of Iraq as a Vietnam-like "quagmire." Both responses show that their rose-colored nostalgia blinds them to today's realities. Comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam, both before the war and now, are an insidious intellectual cancer.

The action we took against Iraq was different in kind, character, and motivation from Vietnam, but politics and ideologies enable some to equate such unequal things. Need we point out what should be obvious differences? The measured cat-and-mouse actions in the no-fly zones from 1991-2003 could not compare to the 1960s build-up of US ground troops in Vietnam, but people ignorant enough of military affairs to call an eight-month prelude to action a "rush to war" may not be able to recognize the difference. Why do journalists not vilify another Texan President, who sent a half-million troops halfway around the world so many years ago? It could not be because he was a Democrat, so maybe they recall a surprise attack that claimed thousands of US lives and justified the Vietnam buildup. If they do remember the very real attack of 11 September 2001--which they seemed to do during the anniversary memorials--they have as yet been unwilling to connect the aims of the 19 mostly Saudi assassins with those of a regime that offered cash payments to families of youth who would mount other suicidal attacks.

We must wonder whether the media are disappointed or mystified that popular opposition to the Second Gulf War did not grow. They seem to miss the salient point that in the 1960s and 70s many protestors with grand visions of giving peace a chance were also exercising definite self-interest in opposing the draft; in contrast, the Terror War is not "real" to people today the way the Vietnam War was then. The draft claimed friends and family members across the nation--unlike the attack of 2001, which was vivid but localized--and threatened to snag student protestors when their educational deferments ran out. (The story comes to mind of a future politician, studying abroad, who wrote scathing letters to his Reserve Officer Training Corps unit.) Today, despite Selective Service registration and recent short-lived proposals, young men are under no threat of conscription. Why? Because our military men and women volunteered to "stand between their lov'd homes and war's desolation."

Just as reporters seemed surprised that protestors did not swamp the White House with demands to keep the brutal Iraqi dictator in power, Senator Kerry and the other would-be Democratic candidates may be surprised that patriotic fervor has not dimmed appreciably in the last two years. Possibly, having absorbed the 2001 attack as a pivotal event in our lives, people today are more devoted to kin and country than those who were the protesters of yesterday. Not as patriotic as those who, after Pearl Harbor was attacked, lined up outside mustering stations to defend freedom and democracy, but certainly not as quick to second-guess, deride, and thwart the freedom-defending policies of the present day.

By virtue of the sacrifices of those we lost two years ago, our citizens are mature enough to realize that all life requires sacrifice. Everyday sacrifices like driving an older car in order to afford your child's braces, less common sacrifices like leaving home and hearth to stand against aggression or advance into the enemy's capital, and even ultimate sacrifices like searching for survivors in collapsing buildings. Loving one's neighbor as one's self does not mean it will never be necessary to lay down one's life for a friend.

Unfortunately, most so-called "liberal" reporters and politicians are not in a position to learn that lesson. They enjoy the power of influence but shirk and deny the power of responsibility. Instead of looking forward to the payoffs of today's sacrifices, they look backward to a different war. But even in their ranks they look backward for different reasons: some to remember how they "won" by opposing the war, some to how they might embrace its memory to win more power and prestige. It is revisionist history being played out before our eyes, Orwellian doublespeak coming through loud and clear, especially when a warrior turned protestor asks us to remember his heroism and forget his protests.

But this attempt to redeem the Vietnam War for political gain raises an interesting possibility. Years from now a veteran of Gulf War II may run for President, and whether soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, that candidate will be able to point with genuine pride to their actions and sacrifices that made the world a safer place. That will be a celebration, not a redemption.

Copyright © 2003 by Gray Rinehart

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