While their rabid supporters fought about the combat records of Bush and Kerry, I was remembering two GIs I'd served with long ago and far away. I hadn't thought of them for many years. Then I couldn't get them out of my head.

They couldn't have been more different from one another nor from our presidential candidates. Neither looked like a proper soldier. Whomever you favor, you have to admit that our president and his challenger both look good in uniform. Not my guys.

One of my totally-un-presidential Vietnam contemporaries weighed about 120 pounds. He was a nervous kid. The other one slumped like a saggy duffel bag stuffed with 200 pounds of dirty laundry. They weren't teachers. They did what they had to do. Yet they taught me that moral courage and physical bravery aren't the same thing.

Rico Colalucci was my platoon sergeant in the First Air Cavalry. A skinny kid from North Boston, Rico gave off energy like helium leaking from a balloon. He never stayed still. He wisecracked, fidgeted, and fussed in constant motion.

I literally couldn't understand him. Rico spoke pure Bostonian: "Ya take the T, not ya cah, to get to Cambridge," Rico warned, "or you're just a wicked stoopid pissah. Nobody drives in Havad Yad."

Platoon sergeants were supposed to be grizzled NCO lifers in their late 30s. Rico was 19, a year out of high school. I wasn't much older (24) but fuzzy-cheeked enlisted men still called me "The Old Man" with no irony.

On our first mission, helicopters deposited our company on a mountain a few kilometers from Laos. Our job was to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a crazy network of monkey tracks and foot paths. This was no American interstate. Loads were carried by men wearing sandals made from old tires. We dropped tons of bombs and defoliants, obliterating maybe ten percent of the jungle, but we left plenty of cover for the bad guys.

Our North Vietnamese enemies were tough, mean, and all around us. We made contact with them nearly every day. Ambushes, mines, grenades, mortars: little flare-ups and a few big rumbles. Sometimes they found us. When we were lucky, we found them. Regardless, metal flew through the air and people bled.

Every day, fresh fire fights. Every day, Rico demonstrated his gift.

When shots sounded, suddenly, Rico would materialize from the jungle. Where bad things happened, he arose like a phantom, M-16 ablaze, rallying us. He had an uncanny instinct for plugging the worst holes. Don't misunderstand. He wasn't calm when bullets zinged by. He was no John Wayne, code in Vietnam for glory-seeking hot dog. Far from it. As time passed, he was a twitching, scared mess who often looked trapped in a mythic caricature he'd created for himself. We expected him to act heroically, and he delivered. It got harder when people nearby him were getting shot and maimed. Rico's eyes would go wide with fear, but his body still did the job.

When it counted, Rico was there. Whatever his inner demons, he quelled them and soldiered on. Golly, I loved that guy. No one who faces death isn't afraid. It's what you do with the fear that counts. Rico was The Man.

The other guy who impressed me was a private I met far from physical danger at Fort Dix, N.J. My last, cushiest Army job was strictly nine to five. I ran the physical training test range. Basic trainees had to meet standards for strength, speed, and agility, or they repeated basic training, a big incentive for getting in shape. This easy work was a blessing to me. I gathered wits that were badly scattered by too many close calls.

Let's call this second guy Private Jones.

He didn't look like much. He slouched. He mumbled. His posture was deplorable, his military bearing, nonexistent. Drill sergeants yelled at him in a constant din. They'd been yelling at him for eight weeks. Jones responded silently. He ignored all commands as if he were deaf or autistic.

Despite threats from his contemptuous drill instructors, Jones was a stone, a cipher. He refused to do any of the five mandatory events; not the low crawl, dodge-run-and-jump, man-carry, overhead rings, nor the mile run.

His company mates sweated and hustled. Jones ignored them. He was heedless to taunts.

On break, his NCOs decoded the mystery for me. His draft board had turned down Jones' application for conscientious objector status. He wasn't against all wars, he'd testified: just this one. That's not right, the draft board decided. There's no Chinese menu here, no good war/bad war choices available. You take the full course - you're a C.O., a pacifist - or you'll get nothing.

After he got drafted, his instructors had to prove to this sad-sack refusenik, his comrades, and the whole U.S. Army, that principled defiance is unacceptable. Dangerous ideas are pathogens: they must be exterminated. Individualism is good in civilian America, but it's anathema to unit cohesion . in America, Russia, or Mongolia.

Jones' refusal to become a soldier in the face of these assaults on his character struck me as pure courage. I couldn't have done it. It wouldn't have occurred to me to try, because I believed in the war when I went in, and because I respond to peer pressure the way most people do. I cave in.

Jones was the opposite of a politician. He acted from principle, and it cost him. So what's the point about Rico and Jonesie?

Courage is a strange, complicated thing. It isn't a patriotic slogan or a slick campaign ad. It's action. It's principle. Sometimes, it's inaction. I see Rico in both Kerry and Bush. I see some Jones in Kerry. You may find that a reason to vote against him. Not me.

But just when I'd given up hope that these two presidential antagonists could pull themselves out of the Vietnam-era mire -- two campaigns bogged down in squabbling about Swift Boats and National Guard service -- in last night's debate, both candidates were graceful, even gentlemanly, on the character issue. Challenged by moderator Jim Lehrer to itemize defects in their opponent's character, neither did so. In fact, George Bush praised John Kerry's service, both in the military and the Senate. Moreover, John Kerry didn't even broach the question of Bush's alleged lost year of Guard duty.

Maybe we finally extricated ourselves from that old Big Muddy at long last, and now, we can focus on what we need to do in our fetid new rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.

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