Published on Monday, August 30, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Kerry's Real Heroism Came After The War
by Harley Sorensen
To be fair about it, George W. Bush did what many of us would have done given the chance. He ducked the war in Vietnam and got free flying lessons in the deal.
That he stopped attending Air National Guard meetings is really no big deal. Those meetings are boring and unproductive.
What is troublesome is Bush's hypocrisy. He has no qualms about sending others into battle, but he himself did a sophisticated cut and run when the shooting started.
That is one reason, when it comes to waging a war, John Kerry might make a better president than Bush.
Kerry's record in combat seems to be mixed. It is apparently true that he took a risk in rescuing a crew member, but what else could he do? If he'd left his buddy behind, he'd never be able to look his crew in the eye again.
Putting Kerry's heroism in perspective, any infantryman who goes out on patrol takes at least a big a risk as Kerry did the day he won his Bronze Star.
As for Kerry's wounds, he apparently did what any sane man would have done in his situation: He worked his wounds for all they were worth. Three Purple Hearts and you're out of 'Nam. Any scratch counts. Kerry apparently got a couple of scratches that could have been overlooked, but he used them as his ticket back to the States.
Who can blame him?
But his real heroism revealed itself when he became a front man for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We Americans don't like to admit it, but we live in a culture that adores war. Our World War II veterans were long ago promoted to sainthood, and our younger men deliriously want the same kind of respect. The nation as a whole sees our success in WWII as "the good old days."
So in our national psyche, war is good. By logical extension, people who oppose war are bad.
It seems there are two kinds of war veterans: those who make their war experience the cornerstone of their existence, and those who come home, try to forget, and get on with their lives.
In the case of Vietnam veterans, the first kind, the "professional veterans," are angry and bitter because they never got the kind of respect accorded to WWII vets.
The "forgetters," on the other hand, don't care. They've gotten on with their lives. That was then; this is now.
In any event, it took a remarkable amount of courage for John Kerry, and others like him, to take an active public stand against the war they had just helped fight.
They knew that in a pro-war culture they would be looked down upon as traitors. They knew they'd be linked with Jane Fonda and the myths surrounding her anti-war efforts.
They knew all that, but they also knew what was right. They knew the war was wrong. The bogus "domino theory" (if Vietnam falls, the entire region becomes communist) was such a shallow lie it could have been something today's so-called neo-com advisers would have whispered into President Bush's ear.
The vets who dared speak against the war knew there was nothing about Vietnam that justified the deaths of tens of thousands of American boys and an estimated 1 million Vietnamese.
They'd been there. They knew it was wrong. And they had the courage to say so in a country that thrives on war.
The Vietnam vets who despise Kerry do so because he has helped rob them of the glory they feel they deserve. Most of them, like most of the WWII vets, were dragged into battle through the Selective Service System. They were drafted. They didn't want to be in a war. But once there they did what was expected of them, which was no more nor less than the WWII vets did.
They crave the same respect.
The war in Iraq is, in a way, a continuum of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. So America in my lifetime went from its most noble war, to its forgotten war, to its unjustified war, to the hopeless quagmire we're in now in Iraq.
Does John Kerry still have the courage he exhibited after returning from Vietnam? If he does, and if he's elected, our troops will be out of Iraq by next February.
Courageous or not, Kerry is a peace-loving American's only hope. The incumbent president (Mr. Bring It On) has signaled he'll be sending others off to fight for as long as he holds the office.
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist. His column appears Mondays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2004 SF Gate