So why do both of them get under my skin?
Let's start with Kerry. We are exactly the same age. When we graduated from college in 1966, the Vietnam War was relatively new, seemed winnable, and enjoyed wide support. We were high school seniors when President Kennedy inspired our generation to fight global Communism by paying any price, and bearing any burden.
As Kerry did, I volunteered for military service. Our war turned out to be more vile than noble, but we didn't know it then. Ours was a small band of brothers: fewer than a third of the 27 million men who came of draft age during the eleven-year war served in the military. Just 1.6 million of us saw combat. Junior combat officers like Kerry and me were especially vulnerable. Fortunately, we didn't die, unlike 55,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese.
Kerry and I were wounded, as were 266,000 other Americans. Like Kerry, I was wounded three times. Our wounds were minor, we recovered, and we are aging jocks.
We were both decorated for valor. I got a Bronze Star for repelling a North Vietnamese sapper attack that had killed or wounded two dozen Americans. After the enemy hurt several of my guys (with satchel charges, little blocks of dynamite) I dispatched three sappers myself with grenades. They were twenty feet away from my bunker. It was that close.
We'd both like you to remember our brief flashes of courage like this one and forgive our shaky, panicky mistakes. Many times during that war, I was paralyzed by fear. Kerry must have felt dread, too.
However, although I think Kerry earned his medals and deserves to be proud of his conduct under fire, he reminds us of his feats too often for my taste. Contrast his boasts with John McCain's modesty about his own five valiant years as a P.O.W. Kerry toted a movie camera along to war. I'm not shy, but few grunts who pounded the ground in the Army like me lugged cameras. Our packs weighed 70 pounds: even a Kodak Sure Shot was too heavy for us.
Unlike many of my fellow Vietnam Veterans, I don't think Kerry was wrong to protest the war when he got home. That took guts. Or maybe I'm just projecting. Back at home more than a year after surviving combat duty, I was almost as unnerved fighting against the war as I had been while actually being shot and rocketed. In 1970, I was safely back at the University of Pennsylvania. My challenge was simply to ask my fellow students to contribute to an anti-war advertisement. At the time, students in several business schools were trying to fund an ad in the Wall Street Journal to tell Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon why expanding the war into Cambodia was wrong.
My quick speech interrupted a final calculus examination in a big room that was thick with nervous tension before I arrived. Of the 200 test takers, half were veterans wearing faded fatigue jackets like mine. It was a lousy place to proselytize. My peers booed me and called me a commie-symp-traitor. I got nothing from them but jeers.
Getting shot at was worse, I suppose, but getting ridiculed for what you think is your fine moral position isn't a lot of fun, either.
But Kerry wasn't content to condemn the war. He stepped over the line. Criticizing our flawed foreign policy was fine. Ripping the poor bastards who carried it out was bad. Yes, it's too easy to blame only old fools who send young men to war: if kids don't go, wars don't happen. But in a string of nationally televised diatribes, Kerry accused his co-veterans of war crimes. Many vets haven't forgotten his calumnies.
During the war's last bitter years, I came to mistrust people on both sides of the pro-and-anti-war lines. In 1970, my Wharton friend Scott Lederman and I drove from Philadelphia to Wall Street. We planned to join protestors who were confronting counter-protestors down by the Stock Exchange.
When we arrived, police separated roughly a hundred giddy protestors from thousands of red-faced, screaming, hard-hat-wearing construction workers. Bricks and building stones flew overhead. Rough-talking, love-it-or-leave it guys in hard-hats menaced us with hammers and curses.
Scott entered the circle, dancing and chanting amid a bunch of lefties and flower children. Goofy, high on idealism, they ignored the thugs around them, but I was all too aware of their presence. I stayed outside, thinking: this is not how I want to die. Not at home, bludgeoned by flag-waving fellow citizens. No thanks.
Turning chicken, I retreated from active protests then and forever.
Every time I thought about getting back on the barricades after that day, I remembered what the loonies on both sides of the police lines looked like: they were angry, hateful, or maximally blissed out. Their convictions had become contempt - or simpleminded rapture.