The Fragging of John Kerry

The worst quagmire of the 1960s wasn't Vietnam but the decade itself. It's an era that sticks to the bottom of our shoes like sun-gooed Dubble Bubble. Or worse, it's a case of cultural herpes, incurable and featuring inconvenient eruptions.

While wandering through Hempfest last weekend, I was struck with how much it seemed like one of those faux medieval "faires" at which people re-enact the simpler times of plagues and peasantry. Except that at Hempfest, the pot-Hobbits are real-life throwbacks to the kinds of gatherings that were the signature of the '60s, from the love fests of Sky River and Woodstock to the bad acid of Altamont and Satsop. After almost 40 years, the bad hats, the hair, the smoke-shrouded vibes are virtually the same. The only new stuff are imaginative bongs that look like they could have been blown by Dale Chihuly. Otherwise, it's stoner decay on display. Time seems stuck. Quag, meet mire.

If that were the worst of it, however, it would be no big deal. If the Deadheads want to truck on, fine. But now that the Greatest Generation has aged out of the running for the Oval Office, the boomer wars that began with Quayle and Clinton seem to be gaining momentum. When we could be talking about Iraq, the economy, taxes, and health care, we're instead revisiting Vietnam and the Texas Air National Guard. In this era of the so-called War on Terror, the boomers' war is a generation's touchstone. Like World War II, everyone who was there—or not—is judged: "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" is not the only relevant question. "How did you oppose that immoral war, Daddy?" is also in the mix, as is, "How did you dodge the draft, Daddy?" Since Vietnam lacked the moral clarity and the popularity of our fathers' war, and because it ended in defeat, the moral dilemmas it raises continue to provide fodder for re-evaluation. It is frustrating that we can't escape it, but utterly inevitable that we fiddle with it to death.

We are electing a president, yes, but as a country at war, we are also electing a commander in chief. The candidates' behavior during their war is relevant, not simply because both Bush and Kerry have campaigned on their warrior cred, but because their judgment, leadership skills, and character are important. So, too, is how they conduct themselves during an election, which is a mini-war itself: a "campaign" run out of a "war room" for "battleground" states featuring "attack ads." We aren't just discussing war; we are waging one for electoral votes.

The swift boat veteran sleaze being tossed Kerry's way should be no surprise. Not only are such smears Bush business as usual, but it's the same way Bush and company have waged the war in Iraq: with lies and with a dedication to the bullying principles that might makes right, that the ends justify the means. "Strong leader" is code for maintaining a course of action regardless of what other people think and regardless of whether it's right or wrong. It is better to be simple than complicated; it is better to act than to think; it is better to stay a course than show "sensitivity" by altering it. "Nuance" is so French. Bush comes from the old school of Vietnam-era thinking that maintained that a steadier and heavier hand would have won that war. Most of the old hawks now know better, but that would complicate the story.

Kerry provides perfect fodder for Bush's attack because Kerry's story has a plot twist or two in it. Here was a soldier who served capably in a bad cause, then crusaded against that cause when he came home. Bill Clinton gamed the system to get out of the war and keep himself politically viable, which was pragmatic. But no sane person, let alone a soldier, became an antiwar activist to gain viability. The risks were huge, personally and politically. People who weren't around then have no idea how important Kerry was as an antiwar symbol, not to radical America but to Middle America. Here was one of our best boys who was willing to speak an awful truth: That a bad war commands good people to do bad for no good reason—and the effects of that on us all are dreadful. The band of brothers Kerry led most ably wasn't his Navy crew but the Vietnam vet protesters who helped turn the tide of public opinion.

Kerry and Bush are at war with each other and must attend to the here and now. Bush is unapologetic about the Swift Boat attack ads and would rather change the subject to the organizations paying for them. Kerry must remember his Swift Boat service tactic of turning toward the enemy, firing, and running him down. He must also remember his postwar leadership as a young man who took on the establishment, not because it was smart or convenient, but because it was right. He did that by appealing not to simpleminded truisms but to the rougher truths of a country that had to wake up and make a moral choice. Kerry may have been a war hero in Vietnam, but his heroism on the home front was greater, and for a just cause. It will take both John Kerrys to win this fight.

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