Playing the Vietnam card

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Feb 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Political fads come and go, but who of a certain age would have imagined that military service in Vietnam someday would become the plum presidential resume item?

Baby boomers and their parents remember too well when Vietnam was synonymous with shame. In our inside-out world, those who fought bravely were greeted with boos and hisses, while those who protested became heroes.

It was a tragic, messy time, and today's political manipulation of those sad hours invites only new shame.

For months we've been hearing of Sen. John Kerry's heroism and more recently of President George Bush's "lesser" record. Forgive my bluntness, but this all reeks of shawizzle and is disrespectful to veterans still struggling with the lingering pain of that undeclared war.

I've heard from dozens of Vietnam vets who are outraged by Kerry's playing of the Vietnam card given his own equivocal position on the war. With great passion, these veterans hold Kerry personally responsible for emboldening the enemy and endangering American lives by his antiwar displays back home.

Until now I've kept my own counsel because, like many of the Vietnam generation, I struggle with my own conscience and ambivalence.

I have the greatest respect for veterans and admire John Kerry's war service. He was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for wounds he modestly says put him out of commission for two days, but which permitted him to seek an early return home. Good for him. Glad he made it.

Once home, Kerry joined the antiwar movement, testified before Congress, made a great public display of throwing away some medals (not his own, which are showcased in his office), testified before Congress, and built a political future on his antiwar profile.

Fine. Such were the times. Lots of veterans turned against the war.

I also admire my Marine brother, who like Kerry earned a Purple Heart, came home on a gurney, spent a month in Philadelphia's Naval Hospital, but who unlike Kerry never talks about his stint in Vietnam.

At the same time, I don't disrespect those who protested, were conscientious objectors or served in some branch of the service that minimized their chances of seeing combat. I certainly don't disrespect Bush for seeking National Guard duty and learning to be a fighter pilot, hardly a sissy exercise.

Yet because he didn't see combat, some critics have denigrated his service. And because some portions of his records are unclear about attendance during a commonplace transfer to Alabama for a civilian job, he's being accused of no less than AWOL and desertion.

In a letter Wednesday to The Washington Times, retired Col. William Campenni, who served with Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, expressed his frustration with Bush critics, who "do not comprehend the dangers of fighter aviation at any time or place."

"Our Texas ANG unit lost several planes right there in Houston during Lt. Bush's tenure, with fatalities," he wrote. "Just strapping on one of those obsolescing F-102s was risking one's life."

In defense of Bush's record, the White House has produced military pay receipts. Outside entities, including The Annenberg Political Fact Check, a project of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, have investigated records and found nothing to substantiate claims of desertion.

Kerry wisely has taken the high road during this obvious witch-hunt, saying he has no interest in Bush's record. Of course as long as he has people like Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe cluster-bombing the media with AWOL charges, the high road is a pretty easy leap. There's no way to go but up when the source for "desertion" is movie producer Michael Moore.

Given that military service neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for political office - and given the fact of Bush's honorable discharge - it's time to dismount this jackass. Vietnam is over. To judge people now on the basis of what they said or did then is to forget how emotionally riven we were. And how young and naive we were.

By that standard, it is possible to forgive Kerry's 1970 Harvard Crimson interview in which he said he wanted to eliminate CIA activity and turn our troops over to the United Nations. He's changed his tune. Presumably he's wiser. So are we all.

What's more important now is what would a man do as president? We know what Bush would do. Kerry voted for the war on Iraq but against funding to finish the job, thus making life more difficult for our service men and women still on the front lines.

Which Kerry would be president, the hero who advances assertively against the threat of danger? Or the antiwar demonstrator who turns protest into political currency?

That's the only question that counts.