BOSTON — THIS IS NOT going to be another Vietnam. The president has said so -- once, twice, three times. The other day, he closed his interview with David Frost by earnestly repeating the line in tones that made it sound like a vow. This is not going to be another Vietnam.
What is to be made of this refrain during a jittery January while we count down to the 15th like spectators to a military blast-off? Are we supposed to feel reassured as the promise is chanted by an entire chorus of Bush men?
If so, I would first like to ask the president a question. Forgive my grammar, but precisely which ''Vietnam'' is this not going to be ''another'' of?
The ''Vietnam'' that was lost? Or the ''Vietnam'' that was never winnable? The aggression that destroyed our self-image as good guys? Or the defeat that humiliated us as we beat a hasty retreat?
Which Vietnam will this not be? The ''Vietnam'' that cost 50,000 American lives? The ''Vietnam'' that split our own country apart? The ''Vietnam'' that was fought without a declaration of war? Or the ''Vietnam'' that destroyed the country the war was supposedly saving?
The inquiry is not an idle one. On the brink of a new war, Americans have only the most fragile consensus about the old war. Twenty years ago, Vietnam fractured our country, and we papered over the wounds with the thinnest of wrappers. Now they are being used to cover another venture, and they shred easily.
Take a poll and Americans -- hawks to doves -- will agree that the Vietnam War was a long, drawn-out loser of a fight. But push a little further and that tacit agreement is in tatters. As Stanley Karnow, a chronicler of the war, says: ''The whole country is haunted by Vietnam, but everybody has his own ghost.''
To one person, the ghost of ''Vietnam'' is the war we shouldn't have lost. To another, it's the war we shouldn't have fought.
To some,''Vietnam'' is the classic example of what happens when the military has its hands tied. To others, it's the classic example of what happens when the military runs amok. To some, it shows America's fatal lack of resolve. To others, America's fatal miscalculation about the world.
The difference is more than one of semantics or even history. It drives our sense of the future, the next war, the un-Vietnam.
It is fair to say that the president has one image in mind when he vows ''no Vietnam.'' He is heir to the hawkishly anti-war sentiment that said we should win or get out. His explicit promise is that this time we will win, and quickly.
But it's also fair to say that an old protester and new senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, had another image in mind when he stood before the Vietnam Memorial saying: ''This is not the time to rush to war.'' He absorbed the other lesson from 'Nam -- that wars are easier to start than to end.
In his book ''Wartime,'' Paul Fussell wrote, ''Wars are all alike in beginning complacently. The reason is psychological and compensatory: No one wants to foresee or contemplate the horror. . . .''
In the strictest sense, war in the Gulf would never be another Vietnam. The terrain is different, the politics are different. Vietnam was a civil war and Iraq is an aggressor. We got involved in Vietnam by increments. We are in the Middle East by the hundreds of thousands.
Nor is any war precisely like the last. The Second World War, we were told, would not be like the First. Vietnam would not be like Korea. They weren't. But in their descent from complacency to horror, they followed the chilling pattern of more than a century of wars.
''A singular fact about modern war,'' wrote Bruce Catton about the Civil War, ''is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men's control. Doing what has to be done, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society's roots are nourished.''
Now the president swears that this will not be another Vietnam. But no vow can ensure that. If he chooses war over sanctions and fighting over waiting -- precipitous combat -- his desire to avoid another quagmire may become a gory rerun in the sands.