WASHINGTON. — Washington--Being a war hero doesn't guarantee getting elected, but it helps. If the height of one's heroism determined who would win and who would lose in politics, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska would be the next president of the United States.
The word ''hero'' has been thrown around generously in recent years, perhaps because so many modern Americans have no experience in military affairs, and can't tell an authentic hero from somebody who merely got his ticket punched. There are degrees of heroism, ranging from Ronald Reagan's in the movies to the quiet death of thousands who did more than their duty on the battlefield.
Senator Kerrey is, I believe, the only winner of the Medal of Honor ever to run for president.
Of our 40 presidents, 26 did military service. The only outright draft dodger among the 40 was Grover Cleveland, who hired a substitute when his number came up in 1863.
Most of those who served actually got shot at, and some were wounded. James Monroe was hit in the shoulder at Trenton in 1776. Rutherford B. Hayes was wounded in four different battles of the Civil War. John Kennedy got the Purple Heart after his torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943.
Career generals like Eisenhower got enough foreign and domestic decorations to cover their chests with fruit salad, but they earned most of their glory far behind the lines. It's the enlisted troops and junior officers who take the risks the generals make necessary. Some people judge manhood by who did what kind of duty, and that fact has had an unexplored impact on American history.
Lyndon Johnson, for example, bought a Navy uniform and went briefly to the Pacific while he was a congressman during World War II. Because the plane on which he took a patrol flight was shot at by the Japanese, he got a strictly political Silver Star -- a medal supposedly awarded for bravery in combat.
Jack Kennedy was not a mere tourist in that war. His boat was run down by the Japanese during a hectic night battle in the Solomon Islands. Some say he blundered into the collision. Whatever the details, he was in the thick of the war.
I suspect Kennedy's record made both Johnson and Richard Nixon feel inadequate. When Mr. Nixon sweated and trembled in that first 1960 campaign debate against Kennedy, he was not just a nervous introvert shaking hands with a handsome young stud, but a rear-area poker player confronting a man who had proved himself up front.
And when Johnson became president and had to decide what to do with Kennedy's war in Vietnam, he felt he had to prove himself to the country and the cocky Kennedyites who measured men by their toughness. He'd be damned if he'd pull out -- and so what happened happened.
It is reasonable to wonder whether Ronald Reagan's aggressiveness toward the Soviet Union and lesser annoyances like Libya and Grenada was his way of making up for acting his way through World War II. While George Bush has no need to compensate for his role in the big war, his excursions vs. Panama and Iraq have effectively quieted those who used to call him wimp.
What Mr. Bush did in 1944, continuing his bombing run after the plane was hit, won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Many have called him a hero. I don't put him down when I suggest that he simply did his duty, did well what he was trained to do. Thousands of aviators -- including George McGovern and Lloyd Bentsen -- have won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
To be a hero, a man soars above and beyond the call of duty. One night in 1969, Lt. j.g. Bob Kerrey led a Navy SEAL team scaling a 350-foot cliff to surprise a North Vietnamese command post on an island off Nha Trang. When the team came under heavy fire, he was ripped by an exploding grenade. In shock and pain, he called in fire support, staying in action though almost unconscious, ordering his men to defend a landing site for rescue helicopters. He lost his right leg below the knee.
Only 238 men, most of them dead, won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Nearly 9 million Americans served during that war.
Does that mean Mr. Kerrey would make a good president? Not necessarily. Perhaps his was the wrong war. But he is powerfully equipped to debate anyone who waves the flag to cover up what they are doing to their country.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.