2016-07-27
Like John Kerry, I served in Vietnam and protested the war. George W. Bush and I were once self-satisfied party boys who later turned our lives around.

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.

That was the year I first became aware of Mr. Kerry. Soon he was on TV, on Dick Cavett, testifying to Congress, then running for office. He'd decided that the war and the people who fought it were evil. It was an uncharacteristically bold opinion that I emphatically didn't share.

Yes, being a protester took guts. I respect Kerry for acting on conviction while I resent what he said about fellow vets.

By opposing the war on principle, as he did at first, Kerry gallantly established some middle ground between the flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it faction, and the scruffy Americans who had apparently joined Ho Chi Minh's fan club. However, the more opprobrium Kerry heaped on our veterans, the less noble he seemed to people like me - we who hated the war and the enemy with equal fervor.

I identify with - and dislike - George W. Bush for similarly personal reasons.

George Bush and I were both complete louts in college, more or less the same time, and not far from one another. While he was being silly in New Haven, I was delinquent in Lewisburg, PA. We'd prefer you call us "underachievers" to "spoiled jerks," but like George W., who is two years my junior, I was a party animal endless seeking open beer taps. We barely squeaked through four dissolute college years; his at Yale, mine misspent at Bucknell. I skipped more classes than I attended.

Unlike the president, I'm not a born-again Christian, but I too understand the powerful desire that provokes repentant sinners to reform themselves. I wanted to redeem my squandered youth as Bush would do later. Our suffering parents might forgive our wayward dissipations, but they deserved better. Personally, my epiphany was in Vietnam. Watching men get their asses shot off, struggling to survive bad wounds and bad luck, I was ashamed. I realized that I'd wasted many blessings before arriving in that terrible place.

In a battlefield conversion, I vowed to do better if I lived. And I hope I have.

Bush never got a chance to come to terms with the lessons of combat, but that's not entirely his fault. When he got out of college in 1968, the national sentiment about the war had completely changed. Anyone who didn't think about minimizing his risk of dying in Vietnam in 1968, `69, or `70, wasn't paying attention.

Serving in the Air Force, as Bush did, and flying jets was honorable and not entirely risk-free duty. It's not an easy thing to do even if nobody is shooting at you. Sure, W. never got called up, but he didn't know that would be his fate back in the day. Yes, he was a lucky shirker who used family connections to get out of harm's way. Yes, he's been less than forthright about his actions since then, but after CBS blew its investigation of his Alabama Guard duty, we'll never learn if the worst indictments of his actions were true.

John Kerry tells us too much.

George Bush doesn't tell us enough. However, had W. not pulled strings at that point in the war, his peers would question his sanity if not his nerve.

I don't begrudge Bush his efforts to avoid going to combat, but it bothers me he's just as sanctimonious as Kerry. W isn't likely to confess that he got off easy back then. More important, we probably won't hear him confess a more consequential recent mistake - getting us into the Iraqi mess for the wrong reasons. These recent mistakes should have infinitely greater relevance to this election than whether or not he slid out of his 30-year-old service obligations.

I don't dismiss Bush for his lack of combat experience -- Lincoln and FDR managed their respective wars without benefit of any personal time in the trenches. But I do mistrust his reliance on a coterie of middle-aged chicken hawks, people like Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, John Ashcroft, and Richard Pearle, who weaseled out of service back in the day but have proven eager to test their utopian theories with the flesh and blood of our young people.

Bush's newfound discipline impresses me. However, his certitude that God predestined him to lead us and forgives his mendacities are sad bits of egomania.

I just wish he would admit that he knows he was lucky instead of pretending he is flawless.

So I've figured it out: they don't drive me crazy despite their similarities to me; they drive me crazy because I'm so much like them. I identify with them. Yet because I took the same journey, I know that their spiffy resumes just aren't true. That damnable war just wasn't a clean cut affair: it soiled us all.

That Old War, My New Flashbacks

A physical calamity befell me just as the Swift boat controversy was erupting, only shortly before the so-called "Texans for Truth" began attacking the Bushies. After chemo, radiation, and two operations for cancer, in the hospital, flushed, fevered, and demented by painkillers, I began hallucinating about Vietnam.

VC were in the bathroom. NVA were in the ceiling. A vase of flowers morphed into a diabolical booby trap. I blamed Kerry and Bush for my nightmares. (Perhaps my problem was Vietnam-related: Agent Orange causes cancer and diabetes, and I'm a double winner.)

As the opiates, fever, and infections have all receded recently, I realize that I've been hard on both men. They're both smart, they're both strong, albeit in different ways. In a sense, both men have followed admirable, idiosyncratic journeys.

The thing is, we know too much about our would-be presidents these days. We see their feet, mired in clay, on endless video loops. Their biographies are too much with us. After finding their Vietnam-era performances less than stellar, I'm basing my vote on what they're saying - and doing -- now. Different chunks of America have concluded that Bush and Kerry were devious or ignoble in the 1960s and 1970s, but really, who cares?

Who's the coward? Who's the leader?

Both? Neither?

Historian James MacGregor Burns warns against using military records for choosing presidents. Although most of our presidents served in the military, and quite a few saw combat, great leaders like Jefferson, Wilson, Lincoln, and FDR never saw combat.

But at a time when the nation craves Lincoln's wisdom, Washington's vision, and the confidence of Roosevelt, either Roosevelt, we seem to face a choice between two androids of two mediocre former presidents: a modern version of the wooden Franklin Pierce, and a likable but shallow new facsimile of Warren Harding.

They called New Englander Pierce "Dough Face. " That isn't far from "Horse Face," Kerry's baleful moniker. Pierce was an okay president at best.

Harding was an affable conservative, like our president. Delegating details to underlings, Harding was a big-picture guy. His administration wasn't exactly a pillar of truth-telling, however. Every year since his death, his reputation has dipped farther down into the ranks of our nation's most inept leaders.

We should cut both candidates some slack. They're smart, they're strong, they're better than they seem in the heat of this super-hot moment. That said, true believers worry me. Occasionally Kerry admits doubt. That's good. The Oval Office is no place for absolutists. Bush's self-proclaimed certainties frighten me, as do the unquestioning depth of his self-righteousness, and his scary conviction God is using him to shape the world.

Kerry has moments of self-reflection. Too many moments? Perhaps. Yet Bush seems mulish, his stubbornness substituting for resolve. He would have made a terrific military leader. Too bad he didn't get the shot, and worse, too bad he's working today just a pay grade or two above his true calling.

I voted for him the last time. I supported his war in Iraq, at first: the one we fought over weapons of mass destruction, you'll remember. And I'll vote for either one who shows some flicker of born-again humility. Last time I voted for Bush against veteran Al Gore. This time I'm voting for Kerry, failing a last-minute humility injection from Bush, because he seems slightly more willing to admit his frailties.

Funny: I thought AA taught people to be humble. Bush must have missed that day. Just as he apparently missed the lesson in humility John Kerry & I learned from fighting an ignoble war: Most wars begin with ideals and hope that sacrifices will make for a better world. Most wars end in squalor: hope and humanity are dashed.

We must all pray that such a dreadful outcome doesn't befall us in Iraq.

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