This week Republican Senator John McCain showed an unusual nuance in United States politics. He supported his party’s president, sort of, even as he dealt him one of the deadliest subtle put-downs in recent US history.
He called on the George W Bush campaign to condemn the recent anti-Kerry TV ads questioning the Democratic contender’s Vietnam War record, saying, “I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam. I think George Bush served honorably in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.”
The contrast is killing. The advertisement, paid for by “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, alleges to be from a group of veterans who seem to have some form of recovered-memory syndrome, since they have only chosen to speak out some 35 years late. They have ties to the Republican Party going back as far as Richard Nixon. But as McCain so subtly implies, they all inadvertently confirm one thing. Kerry was in Vietnam, in combat.
In contrast, not even the best investigator’s dirty-tricks department can find a single veteran who saw Bush in any military capacity whatsoever in Vietnam. Nor during his National Guard service in Alabama for 12 months from May 1972.
Indeed, there are no veterans to dispute the merit of First Lieutenant George W Bush’s combat medals or the quality and depth of the wounds that he suffered for his Purple Hearts. Because he was never in combat.
Of course, that is the whole barb of Vietnam veteran McCain’s nuanced knockout. Bush “honorably” chose the height of the Tet Offensive to engage in aggressive maneuvers – using his family influence to get into the Texas Air National Guard specifically to avoid being drafted to go to Vietnam.
To do so, he overcame a 25% score on his pilot aptitude test – and a series of driving convictions that should have required a special waiver. He was commissioned an officer despite having no pilot experience, no time in the Reserve Officer Training Corp, and without attending Officer Training School. He ticked the box saying “no” to overseas service.
It was not that he disagreed with the war. Not at all. He kept taking time off to go to campaign for Republican pro-war candidates around the US South.
It was in the course of one of these campaigns, in Alabama, that he secured a transfer to the local Air National Guard – and never turned up. He “failed to accomplish” his flight medical there, and then did not turn up to the inquiry that should have been called about his failure, which in effect deprived the US Air Force of several years’ expensive training as a jet pilot.
The organization that sponsored the anti-Kerry ads declares on its site: “We believe it is incumbent on ALL presidential candidates to be totally honest and forthcoming regarding personal background and policy information that would help the voting public make an informed decision when choosing the next president of the United States.”
One of the effects of recovered-memory syndrome is that the memories thus conjured up do not necessarily join up. None of these veterans seem at all exercised about the holes in Bush’s war record, let along the gaps in his public memories of this era.
Strangely, the group originally waxed angry because Kerry went home early from the war and denounced the free fire zones and “collateral damage” to civilians. The massacre of My Lai notwithstanding, these amnesiacs deny that any such thing ever happened, but now they claim that indeed there was at least one atrocity – young Lieutenant Kerry shot a fleeing wounded Viet Cong.
There are many strange aspects to this for non-Americans. Why is Vietnam an issue in a US election in 2004? For many voters today, it is almost as remote as the question of whether politicians in the 1960s had served in World War I.
Then there is the stunning sound of silence. There is no debate whatsoever about the ethics of a war that killed millions of Vietnamese, or about the way it was fought. Even Kerry, who returned from the war repelled by what he saw, and then campaigned against it, no longer seems to question why he was there.
It is of course the Republican Party that made the war its own and began to attack the integrity of those who did not serve in the “war of their generation”. Strangely enough, however, it was Democrat John F Kennedy who got the war rolling, his Democratic successor Lyndon Baines Johnson who pumped it up to its height – and the Republican Richard Nixon who eventually ended it and left America’s South Vietnamese allies in the lurch.
Now the issue has been an appropriated Republican one. Campaigners around the Bush family first drew blood with it. Their first big target was Bill Clinton, who disagreed with the war. Clinton had waffled a lot about it, and eventually put his name down for the draft – but with his typical luck, was not called.
As Clinton pointed out at the time, if he had had the blue-blooded connections of Dan Quayle, he could have wangled his way into the National Guard and avoided the war. But while Quayle’s intellect was often called into question, no one attacked his “patriotism”.
There was only one side firing this gun. His own evasion of war service didn’t really even become an issue for George W Bush in his various campaigns, not least since records frequently went missing and, after all, from a liberal-Democratic point of view, what was wrong with not going to Vietnam? It was only sensible to avoid it.
But as they got away with it, they became even more shameless. Democratic Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was unseated after a campaign that impugned his patriotism.
The same team even operated inside the Republican Party, suggesting that McCain, when he was running against Bush, had problems because of his long incarceration by the Vietnamese – in between allegedly fathering an illegitimate black child. (In fact he had adopted a Bangladeshi girl.)
So now we have a belligerent Republican administration, whose least bellicose member is the only actual Vietnam veteran, Colin Powell, whose president, vice president and leading hawks all dodged service in the “war of their generation”, who decided to attack Kerry’s fitness to be “commander in chief” in the “war on terror”.
Bush himself, notably with his landing in a pilot’s outfit on the USS Abraham Lincoln a year and 800 dead GIs ago to declare “mission accomplished”, has never missed an opportunity to appear on military bases in bits of uniform and declare himself to be commander-in-chief.
In the face of this assault, it made sense, of a sort, for Kerry to surround himself with veterans, to parade his military credentials, not least because he actually has them.
But it does present a bizarre spectacle for outsiders. The two contenders for the leadership of the free world and democracy are sparring about who is the best military commander with the best combat experience.
It only adds marginally to the oddity that the instigator of the fight has no military credentials, went AWOL (absent without leave) during Vietnam, and now has his country bogged down in a desert replay of that messy conflict.
However, fighting on the ground of who has more medals on his chest is fighting on the Republican ground where perception is everything. One cannot help but long for Kerry actually to state outright what he did 30 years ago. “I fought in Vietnam. What we did there was wrong for the Vietnamese, and wrong for Americans. And what you have done now is wrong for Iraqis and equally wrong for Americans.”
But he won’t, so this strange shadow-boxing will go on.
(Ian Williams’ latest book is Deserter; Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past (Nation Books).
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