Who could have predicted that the presidential election of '04 would turn on what happened in a war we fought 40 years ago? The two aging boomers who are the focus of the debate we all thought had been stuffed down the nation's memory hole are two of the oddest fellows to deliver the issue into the 21st century.
Partisans are eager only to reprise the clich?that polarized those days of rage. Neither of the candidates appear to have bought the pop culture mantra of those days of yore: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
George Bush admits to being young and irresponsible in that time when a lot of us were young and irresponsible, and cheerfully concedes that his participation in the Air National Guard, good and honorable though it was, is not the stuff of heroism.
Like many other boomers who (like Al Gore, for example) wangled positions behind desks or on bases far from the sound of the guns, he escaped hellish duty. But he did duty. (Many National Guardsmen were, in fact, called to Vietnam; there has never been a suggestion that the young Bush would have avoided Vietnam if he had been ordered to go there.)
John Kerry took another route. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He casts aspersions on George Bush's National Guard service and Dick Cheney's student deferments. However, it's not necessarily clear where, or if, he would have enlisted had he had been granted the student deferment he sought to study in Paris.
The London Daily Telegraph dug up an interview with young Kerry in the Harvard Crimson in 1970: "When (Kerry) approached his draft board for permission to study for a year in Paris, the draft board refused and Kerry decided to enlist in the Navy."
This fact - and the Kerry campaign has not denied it - would be of little consequence if the candidate were not so smug about "reporting for duty." This actually humanizes the man, showing him to have had the urges in his senior year in college that have compelled young men in all our wars to find the best duty available.
Once he chose to make Vietnam heroics the central focus of his campaign, he eliminated this option to show that honest side of himself. If he preferred nibbling croissants in a sidewalk caf?n the Champs-Elysees to supping on nuoc nam from a sidewalk cart on the rue Catinat in Saigon, we could understand. Who wouldn't? But like so much else in Kerry's biography, this fact is erased from his past because he thinks it doesn't work for him.
John Kerry and George Bush treat their pasts in very different ways. Kerry tries to wish inconvenient parts away, like having his first marriage of 18 years annulled. If he emphasizes the medals he won on the Mekong, he thinks we'll forget how he either threw away, or pretended to throw away, those very medals.
He was young when he testified to Congress that the men he left behind were war criminals, raping and pillaging and cutting off ears of peasants. He was so caught up in the fervor of '60s protest that he couldn't make inconvenient distinctions. Why not accept responsibility now for some of his most irresponsible statements? Why can't he just say that the man wised up when he was no longer a boy?
He doesn't because there's a methodical calculation behind the flip-flops. Ron Rosenbaum, who was two years behind Kerry at Yale, describes in the New York Observer the draft culture on campus in those days. "When Mr. Kerry was there, local draft boards still had the option (but not the requirement) to extend undergraduate deferments from the draft to those who pursued graduate study. The clued-in people, many of them well-connected preppies, knew that if your draft board wasn't going to give you a deferment the savvy thing was to try to get an officer's commission in the Reserves or the Guard."
The Vietnam War, like the Civil War, the Spanish American War and the two world wars, is over. (Grenada, too.) We've got problems, so let's face them. Any survivor of the '60s could tell you that you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.