For former senator, ghosts of Vietnam in Iraq war

April 09, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON - Yesterday, as Condoleezza Rice told the nation the truth about war as George W. Bush wishes it to be perceived, Max Cleland had one eye on the television set and one on the calendar. On the television, Rice testified about Afghanistan, but not much about Iraq. In his office, Cleland remembered Vietnam. Yesterday was 36 years since a grenade exploded there and tore away an arm and both of Cleland's legs.

The nation is consumed now by its post-Sept. 11 quagmire, which increasingly resembles Vietnam. On Cleland's desk, the morning newspaper describes the latest Americans to die in Iraq. The number, just getting started, is more than 600 now. By late yesterday morning, a TV announcer's voice described an "extremely explosive" situation in Iraq. Near Cleland was a photo of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, with the names of the dead. The number there is about 58,000.

For Cleland, the fighting in Iraq attaches to Vietnam's lessons, and its ghosts. Testifying before the 9/11 commission yesterday, Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said the struggle against terrorism will be fought for years to come. At his office here, Cleland spoke to old friends. They do it every year at this time. They sanctify the moment that left Cleland a haunting national reminder of wars that are entered without knowledge of how to exit.

Thirty-six years ago, when he was an Army captain with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Khe Sanh, Cleland was blown apart by a grenade accidentally dropped by one of his buddies. Flown to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, he endured months of grueling rehabilitation, then launched a political career - including appointment as head of the U.S. Veterans Administration and election as U.S. senator from Georgia.

Two days ago, Cleland sat in his wheelchair at the Export-Important Bank of the United States, where he serves on the board of directors, and reached his left arm upward.

"Give me a hug," he said.

Standing over him, Steve Miller reached down and hugged back. Miller drove down from Baltimore. He works for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services now. But 36 years ago, he was the physical therapist who helped heal Cleland and hundreds more who filled Walter Reed's wards during Vietnam.

"Max," Miller says, "was the point man of that whole group of young officers. He was the one they went to. He never felt sorry for himself. He wasn't going to give in. That whole group of young guys from Vietnam - they brought the war home with them and had to keep fighting it."

But Cleland has become a bridge between two wars: Vietnam and today's.

In 2002, running for re-election to his U.S. Senate seat, the Bush White House targeted Cleland. The president made five trips to Georgia on behalf of Republican Saxby Chambliss, turning it into a referendum on Bush's popularity. They ran TV commercials that have since become hallmarks of infamy.

Cleland had backed creation of the Department of Homeland Security - but had voted against amendments on labor protection. Result? TV spots in which a voice-over declared, "As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs TV ads claiming he has the right to lead. ... But the record proves Cleland is just misleading" - while the screen filled with the faces of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Some Vietnam veterans were enraged. Two Republican senators, John McCain and Chuck Hagel, wrote angry letters of protest. They were joined by Democrats former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Sen. John Kerry, who later called it "the most craven moment I've ever seen in politics, when the Republicans challenged this man's patriotism." But Cleland was beaten.

What has emerged since is Cleland in a new role - a reminder, in Kerry's presidential bid, of those who went to the hopeless war in Vietnam while Bush was (or wasn't) serving his time in the National Guard, and a reminder of the newest fighting.

And one more thing.

"What happened to me in Georgia," Cleland says, "was part of a pattern. Look what the Bush people did in South Carolina, with [John] McCain." He means the Republican presidential primary there, four years ago, when the now-famous rumors were spread that "McCain has a black child." (He does. He and his wife adopted one.)

"It's called slime and defend," Cleland says. "If you have a weak position, do whatever you can to drive up your opponent's negatives. But it hijacks the democratic process. Instead of compelling candidates to go to the middle, it polarizes everybody. And we're still seeing it. Look at O'Neill; look at Clarke."

When former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill described an inept, incurious Bush, the White House's immediate response was to investigate O'Neill and launch character attacks. When counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke questioned Bush's desire to invade Iraq, thus pulling resources away from Afghanistan and the search for bin Laden, Clarke's patriotism was questioned.

The questioning becomes a smoke screen. If enough mud is thrown at Bush's accusers, maybe we won't notice the accusations they're making.

"The moment you go against them," Cleland says now, "they go after you. They question your patriotism. But the questions about this fighting in Iraq - where are the answers? Now we're told we'll turn over power in Iraq in June. But who do we turn it over to? There's nobody. And, in that sense, it's Vietnam all over again. The war goes badly, so you defend it by attacking your critics. They went in under false claims, and they attack anybody who questions them. But, if this war is right, why is it getting worse?"

On television yesterday, Condoleezza Rice sat there for nearly three hours, but nobody questioned her about that. Max Cleland heard her. But he had one eye on her and one on history.

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