In Hollywood, Florida, a distraught father set himself on fire when US Marines came to tell him his son was killed in combat in Iraq. But the candidates running for president of the United States do not want to talk about the war that this month took the life of 20-year-old Alexander Arredondo in Najaf. They prefer to talk about a war that killed young Americans in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
That's American politics.
The ongoing conflict in Iraq has killed nearly 1000 American soldiers, wounded 12,000 more, and killed and maimed thousands of Iraqis. But the candidates running for president wrangle over decades-old service records, rather than focus on the war that dominates today's news.
That's American political debate.
John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero, wants to be a Iraq war hero and so does George W. Bush. Neither one wants to be a peace hero.
That's considered a sign of American weakness.
At this point in the race for the White House, voters know who did what 30 years ago during the Vietnam war era. John Kerry volunteered to serve, was decorated for bravery and returned home to oppose that war. George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard and cannot prove he always reported for duty.
Bush's reluctance to focus on Iraq is obvious. Acknowledging a war without clear end or mission is worse than acknowledging the privilege and connections that got him in the National Guard and, once there, protected him from scrutiny. Any personal embarrassment that comes with review of his past military file is preferable to the national embarrassment that comes with review of his ongoing war.
Kerry's reluctance is rooted in a misguided belief that the four-and-a-half month-long slice of his life in Vietnam is so compelling, he can sidestep the current conflict. He is worried that criticizing Bush's war makes him sound weak to non-liberal voters. And he is boxed in by his vote authorizing war and a series of statements offering different explanations for the vote.
But the controversy stirred by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth demonstrates the inherent political risk of banking an entire presidential campaign on a war that still turns baby-boomers against each other and will always divide them from the World War II generation. After two weeks of rope-a-dope about medals and Purple Hearts, the anti-Kerry veterans are coming in for the real punch. Kerry's testimony about what happened in Vietnam probably represents the most truthful utterances of his public life. At the same time, his testimony was self-serving and hurtful to others who served honorably.
Self-serving truth has its rewards and its punishments. Now, it's payback time.
It remains to be seen if Kerry underestimated the depth of veteran bitterness and its ability to influence a broad swath of voters in 2004. At the very least, this fight with fellow veterans makes him look like another divider rather than the uniter the country desires. Yet, uniting is what Kerry says he wants to do. Articulating how remains a challenge.
Today's Democrats are so afraid of sounding like last century's peaceniks, they cannot feel the 21st century desire for freedom from daily headlines about death and destruction in Iraq. Democrats talk about winning over "NASCAR moms" as if these women represent some strange breed of American female. They are mothers whose sons and daughters often look first to the military for a step up the socio-economic ladder. And no parent, no matter how patriotic, wishes to put their child in a war zone rather than a peace zone.
The most recent Los Angeles Times poll puts Bush slightly ahead of Kerry, 49 percent to 46 percent, for the first time this year. The poll showed that attacks by Vietnam veterans criticizing his combat performance and antiwar protests are undercutting some of Kerry's support.
But part of the shift away from Kerry also lies in these polling statistics: 58 percent of those surveyed said they knew a fair amount about the general policies Kerry would pursue; but 4 out of 10 said they knew not much, or nothing at all. Seventy percent said they had a good idea what policies Bush would pursue.
It's time to stop talking about Vietnam and start talking about Iraq.
Voters don't know what either candidate would do next in Iraq after taking the oath of office, besides hope the insurgents take their fight somewhere else.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.