The liberal revival of the Vietnam War in this election year is an exercise in nostalgia. For the baby boomers who played through those days of rage, it's like "they're playing our song." It's a revival of the energy of idealism in the service of revolution, "us against them" in the sensual pleasures of protest. The South of Faulkner's telling is right, after all: The past is not dead, the past is not even past.
John Kerry gets the best of all possible worlds. He can put on one halo with the medals he once pretended to throw away, the man who went off to war and came home a hero. He can put on another halo as the man who, safely home, told a committee of the U.S. Senate that the soldiers he had left behind in Vietnam were rapists, baby-killers and artists of unimaginable atrocities.
George Bush, like Dan Quayle before him, is tarred and feathered for having served in the National Guard service while Bill Clinton's draft-dodging is kept out of sight, out of mind and off-limits to purveyors of nostalgia.
If the proverbial Martian were to land among us, he would think the war we're in is not against terrorism but against the Viet Cong. The world we live in is so different from the world in which we fought the Vietnam war that it's both decadent and dangerous to play out that past as a guide to the future. But the Democratic primaries give the angry, out-of-power leftists a sense that they can revive the '60s and revel again in war, revolution and fun in the sleeping bags spread out across the living room floor.
They ignore the big questions. Has anyone asked Kerry whether his views on Vietnam have changed over the years? If so, how? Has the conduct and corruption of the communists in Hanoi led him to think again? Did the plight of the boat people refine his understanding of how the hot war played out in the Cold War?
Many Vietnam protesters (including me) have put away the childish naivete of youth even if we haven't renounced our criticism of how Lyndon Johnson conducted the war. Unlike a rolling stone, we've gathered a little moss.
Before Kerry revived Vietnam and his several positions on the war, we were sharply focused on the fight against terrorism, facing up to the difference between the world before 9/11 and the challenge after 9/11.
In an essay, "The White Man Unburdened," in the New York Review of Books, Norman Mailer argued that the war in Iraq returned to white males a virile rejuvenation that had withered in comparison to the women's movement and black celebrity sports heroes. The Kerry fad is about returning to the disenfranchised lefties in the Democratic Party an ego rejuvenation and a reassurance that the good ol' days are just around the corner. It's time to start planning to levitate the Pentagon again.
The lefties are not driven by cynicism so much as by opportunism in their accusation that the president and his administration lied about weapons of mass destruction. The senator himself had the same information about the weapons the president had when he voted to support the preemptive war. He now suggests he would have done things differently. That's 20/20 hindsight.
The online Deaniacs were the post-modern equivalent of Eugene McCarthy's Children's Crusade in 1968, struggling against the war in Vietnam. Then, as now, the crusaders wanted to change the nature of the Democratic Party from top to bottom. But John Kerry, like George W. Bush, actually is a child of the Old Guard of Washington insiders. Different parties, same insiders.
John Kerry has leapfrogged over the Deaniacs to build on his updated image as a hero of the '60s. His troops are the soldiers of the blue states, going forth to battle against the soldiers of George W.'s red states.
Pollster John Zogby finds the red states and the blue states gridlocked just the way they were in 2000. The blues are the hipsters, railing with righteous indignation (their leader talks their language of the '60s, even including the f-word in his interviews with with-it journalists); the reds are the defenders of the faith (whose leader even talks about his faith).
A candidate who ignores the significance of the culture wars is out of touch with the times. The singer Beyonce was the one entertainer to come out of the Super Bowl universally praised. She wore a neatly tailored suit, escorted by a Marine general, and sang "The Star Spangled Banner" with a dramatic range of heartfelt love of country. No wardrobe malfunctions for her.
The war has even revived nostalgia for Bob Dylan's war hymn of the '60s. The times, they are a-changin' - again.