Neil Sheehan is the author of A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, one of the best books written by a journalist about the Vietnam War. If you're interested in the war but haven't read Sheehan's book, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1989.
Sheehan published an op-ed entitled "A War without End" in yesterday's New York Times. He cogently explains how the legacy of the Vietnam War is influencing the election:
Seeking to convince voters that he would make a better commander-in-chief in the war on terror than Mr. Bush has been, Mr. Kerry placed his status as a Vietnam War hero front and center, only to find his reputation under assault by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. As well as can be determined, the accusations are unfounded and Mr. Kerry deserved his medals.
Mr. Bush has his own problem with Vietnam; he did not serve there. In the spring of 1968, when he was a senior at Yale, casualties in Vietnam were averaging 414 killed and 1,160 seriously wounded a week. Draft calls were running commensurately high to replace the fallen. In contrast to the present, when the National Guard and the Reserves are ransacked for replacements for Iraq, both institutions were safe havens during the Vietnam era. Mr. Bush used his father's political influence to leapfrog the waiting list into the Texas Air National Guard.
One must be careful in pointing a finger at those who avoided service in Vietnam. Many, like President Clinton, had moral objections to the war. The gimmicks they used to stay out of it were tawdry, but they acted from motives of conscience. Mr. Bush - like his father's vice president, Dan Quayle, who sheltered in the Indiana National Guard, and his own vice president, Dick Cheney, who obtained five draft deferments - are in a different category. From what can be discerned, none of them opposed the Vietnam War. Had the younger Mr. Bush not stood aside from the central, transforming event of his youthful years, his performance as president might have been closer to that of the wise and capable commander-in-chief he claims to be but has not been. He might have learned a lesson from Vietnam - do not become involved in an unnecessary war.
That's a fine way to describe Bush's failures as commander-in-chief. It's hardly necessary, of course, to have served in a war, good or bad, to know not to become involved in an unnecessary war. I would add, though, that an unnecessary war is not always an unwise war. But the Bush administration has bungled, it seems, almost everything since Baghdad was captured in April 2003.
Perhaps the war in Iraq, which was a war of choice, could have been wisely conducted by another administration. As this article shows, Bush is barely willing to reflect on the past, which is hardly the path to wisdom.
Unnoticed in the controversy over the Swift Boat group's accusations is an undercurrent that lingers from the war. The men who fought in Vietnam and survived came back as divided as the public at home. Most suffered in silence, then picked up their lives and went on. But some, like John Kerry, were so disillusioned that they felt they had to do something to stop the war. Another minority persisted in their faith that the war could be won, that America is an exception to history and can do no wrong.
The nation has yet to come to grips with what really happened in Vietnam, and Mr. Kerry's accusers are among those who simply cannot and never will. They are driven by more than a political desire to further the fortunes of George Bush. Their remarks make clear that what they really hold against Mr. Kerry are his antiwar activities after his return and his testimony then that atrocities were being committed in Vietnam. They regard these as undermining the war effort and casting aspersions on their service. "We won the battle,'' one of Mr. Kerry's accusers, former Navy commander Adrian Lonsdale, said. "Kerry went home and lost the war for us.'' The group's second television commercial focuses on this issue, running bits of old news film of Mr. Kerry's testimony in a 1971 Senate hearing, excerpting his remarks to twist their meaning.
The truth is that atrocities were committed in Vietnam. The worst and most horrendous atrocity was officially sanctioned. The American command coldbloodedly set about to deprive the Communists of the recruits and other assistance the peasantry could provide by emptying the countryside. Peasant hamlets in Communist-dominated areas were deliberately and relentlessly bombed and shelled. Free Fire Zones - anything that moved, human or animal, could be killed - were redlined on military maps.
By 1968, civilian deaths, the great majority from air strikes and artillery, were estimated at about 40,000 a year and seriously wounded at 85,000. The wholesale killing cheapened the value of Vietnamese life in American eyes. It created an atmosphere that fostered the massacre at My Lai hamlet on March 16, 1968, when 347 Vietnamese old men, women, boys, girls and babies were butchered. That same morning another 90 unarmed Vietnamese were slaughtered at a nearby hamlet by a second army unit.
In Vietnam, America the exceptional joined the rest of the human race and demonstrated that it could do evil as easily as it could do good. Mr. Kerry undoubtedly said some intemperate things in 1971. That is the way of youth. But he also showed the moral courage to try to persuade his fellow citizens to halt actions that were disgracing their nation.
Sheehan then offers his readers this wise conclusion:
There is a way to honestly confront the reality of Vietnam and yet still honor the men who fought there. One must learn to distinguish between the war and the warrior. It always galls me when I hear the generation of World War II referred to as the "greatest generation.'' They were a great generation, but so were the men who served in Vietnam. The soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen who fought there did so with just as much courage as anyone who fought in World War II. The generation of Vietnam had the ill luck to draw a bad war, an unnecessary and unwinnable war, a tragic, terrible mistake. But valor has a worth of its own, and theirs deserves to be honored and remembered.
Sheehan was reporting in Vietnam starting in 1962. If only the legacy of the war could always be addressed in such mature terms.