WASHINGTON -- It was a mistake for John Kerry to spend four days at the Democratic convention establishing his connection to Vietnam. But it was oddly appropriate. More than any other politician of our time -- including John McCain, who spent five and a half years in a Vietnam prison camp rather than four and a half months on a Swift boat -- Kerry has been haunted and shaped by Vietnam.
Kerry in turn has been one of the most important shapers of the meaning of Vietnam for the rest of the country. Over the course of his three decades in public life, he has presented Vietnam in three very different ways.
First, the one that electrified the nation and made him famous, was Vietnam as moral outrage, a crime, a place where American soldiers ``with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command'' acted like ``the armies of Genghis Khan.'' That was Kerry in his antiwar phase testifying before Congress in 1971.
Second, Vietnam as a strategic error, a quagmire stumbled into by a well-meaning nation. That was Kerry for the next 30 years. In a now-famous Senate speech denouncing American support for the Nicaraguan contras, Kerry cited his own searing experiences in Vietnam (and Cambodia, he claimed) as an object lesson in not intervening abroad.
Third, presented to the nation at this year's Democratic convention: Vietnam as field of glory. Hence the flourish and fanfare for the Swift boat vets, the biopic featuring riverboat exploits, culminating in ``I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.''
Unfortunately for Kerry, field of glory does not work in a place he himself once proclaimed the scene of a crime. There is simply no escaping the dissonance of glorying in a military service of which Kerry said, as he concluded his 1971 statement to Congress, ``We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service.''
Yet Kerry's convention strategy was perfectly understandable. He would use Vietnam to establish his credentials as a credible commander in chief. Having not distinguished himself in any way on national security in his 20 years in Congress -- a deficiency Hillary Clinton shares and which she is astutely addressing by establishing herself as a rather hawkish member of the Armed Services Committee -- he fell back on his Vietnam heroism to cross the minimal threshold required in any wartime election. Cross the threshold, then go back to ``the economy, stupid.''
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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