Kerry's service alone offers stark contrast

August 25, 2004|By Gordon Livingston

AMONG THE human attributes that excite the most contempt, hypocrisy occupies a special place. Those who say one thing and do another or who criticize others for moral deficiencies that they themselves exhibit are deservedly the objects of public derision.

So it is with the "chickenhawks" of the Vietnam generation currently providing what passes for leadership in this administration. They include Vice President Dick Cheney, who discovered he had "other priorities" during Vietnam, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who graduated from Cornell University in 1965 but decided to forgo military service during the war.

We recently have had a renewed opportunity to observe hypocrisy in action in President Bush's reluctance to disavow the contemptible attacks by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

This collection of veterans, angry at Mr. Kerry's antiwar activism after he returned home from Vietnam, continues to run TV ads attacking Mr. Kerry's war record. One of the group's leaders, John O'Neill, has published a book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.

The New York Times reports that "some people behind the ... ads had connections to the Bush family, to prominent Texas politicians and to President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove."

The Times also says that "the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men's own statements."

Whether this strategy will work is still a question. Redirecting public attention to Vietnam may prove unwise, considering the facts of Mr. Bush's own choice to avoid service in a war he purported to support. According to The Washington Post, "A review of Bush's military records shows that Bush enjoyed preferential treatment as the son of a then-congressman, when he walked into a Texas Guard unit in Houston two weeks before his 1968 graduation from Yale and was moved to the top of a long waiting list."

Safely spared the prospect of combat service, he then virtually disappeared between May 1972 and May 1973. There are few records to indicate his whereabouts during that time.

The Associated Press noted that a full release of Mr. Bush's records would clarify "allegations that potentially embarrassing material was removed in 1997 from Bush's military file when he was running for re-election as Texas governor."

Perhaps it's not important who chose to serve and who did not in that misbegotten war. After all, Mr. Bush and prominent members of his administration simply made the same decision to find some way to avoid service that was made by many of the privileged young men of his generation, including Bill Clinton.

What smacks of hypocrisy, however, is to attack the service of Mr. Kerry, who lived an equally advantaged life yet made the choice to expose himself to the considerable risks of combat.

That he was intelligent enough to learn something from this experience and came home to oppose the war appears to be the real sin in the minds of many Republican hawks. They still argue that Vietnam was, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "a noble cause." To change one's mind as the result of experience is, of course, to "flip-flop."

The issue here, in a presidential campaign, is not courage vs. cowardice. People go to war for many reasons. For young men of my generation, the system created a situation in which the largest proportion of those engaged in combat were those who lacked the education or connections to avoid it. It was a war fought largely by working-class and poor kids. (The majority of our soldiers in Iraq, despite an all-volunteer military, come from similar backgrounds.) Little sacrifice was asked of the society at large, particularly its most fortunate members.

This is what makes Mr. Kerry's decision to go to war all the more remarkable, whatever the complicated motives behind it. Whether he deserved his medals, whether he bled enough to justify three Purple Hearts, is irrelevant. That he went, in contrast to our current bellicose commander in chief, is enough, one would think, to earn the respect of those who chose not to. We have all, especially veterans, had enough of this contrived issue.

My Bronze Star citation contains some exaggerations written into it by the officer in my unit who submitted it. It was apparently felt that the award reflected well on my regiment and the Army and helped fill a national need for heroism in a decidedly unheroic conflict.

I, too, opposed the war when I got home, based on what I had seen there. I am prouder of that than anything I did with a rifle in my hands. Like Mr. Kerry, I believed that I had earned the right to speak out. I would prefer not to be criticized by those who didn't go at all.

Gordon Livingston, a West Point graduate who served with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam, is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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