Vietnam War lives again as a powerful symbol

Campaigns: Even aside from the candidates' service, the last generation's conflict can evoke patriotism and fear of disaster.

Election 2004

September 23, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A veterans group that has assailed John Kerry for his Vietnam service is airing a new commercial this week that likens Kerry to one-time war protester Jane Fonda, accuses him of meeting in secret with the enemy and concludes that he is unfit to serve as a wartime president today.

From the other side, the latest ad from a Democratic-leaning group uses the Vietnam-era buzzword quagmire, contending that President Bush got the nation into a mess that only a new president will be able to fix.

"It's like 1969 all over again," said Richard Weidman, director of government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit service group. "The anger over it is just that deep and just that wide and just that intense."

Usually, the issue of Vietnam plays out predictably when sons of the '60s enter presidential campaigns: Did one candidate work the system to avoid combat? Did another protest too loudly to serve credibly as commander in chief?

Until recently, that was the role of the Vietnam War in this campaign. But now, the specter of Vietnam has changed its shape. Instead of re-hashing what the candidates did during the war, Vietnam is emerging as a metaphor for the conflict in Iraq.

This week, Kerry highlighted his plans for Iraq by referring to a "growing insurgency" and an "ever-widening war zone" - terms recalling when Vietnam divided the home front. He said he feared that under Bush the country would "repeat the same mistakes" of the past.

"I know this dilemma firsthand," the Vietnam combat veteran said Monday at New York University, in his most sweeping speech on Iraq to date. "I saw firsthand what happens when pride or arrogance take over from rational decision-making.

"And after serving in a war, I returned home to offer my own personal views of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it to those risking their lives to speak truth to power. And we still do."

And with Bush on Tuesday delivering an optimistic assessment of the Iraq conflict to the United Nations, both candidates obviously were seeking to shift attention to the current conflict after weeks of their Vietnam-era service dominating the news.

But to some, even this new focus on Iraq carries allusions to Vietnam. Some political observers say that, as during Vietnam, there is a disconnect between how the administration is portraying the conflict and the reality of the war. Others compare what they see as the worsening situation in Iraq to the way the Vietnam War fell apart.

While many of the Vietnam allegories are employed by Democrats seeking to mobilize the anti-war vote, they haven't all come from one side.

Last week, Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, summoned Vietnam's ghost as well.

"The fact is, a crisp, sharp analysis of our policies is required," Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran, told the CBS program Face the Nation. "We didn't do that in Vietnam, and we saw 11 years of casualties mount to the point where we finally lost. We can't lose this. This is too important. There's no question about that.

"But to say, `Well, we just must stay the course and any of you who are questioning are just hand-wringers' is not very responsible. The fact is, we're in trouble. We're in deep trouble in Iraq."

Vietnam imagery is appearing with new ferocity in TV ads, too.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization that has released the new political ad titled "Friends," alleges that Kerry met with "enemy leaders" in Paris during the war, after he had returned from combat and took on a new role as an anti-war spokesman.

The commercial, now airing in swing states, relates to a 1971 meeting that Kerry attended with Communist representatives at the peace talks. It then links Vietnam to the war in Iraq.

"In a time of war," it asks, "can America trust a man who betrayed his country?"

The Kerry campaign calls the charges baseless, arguing that while Kerry spoke with a South Vietnamese negotiator at those talks, he never attended formal meetings. The campaign also said the episode was not secret because he testified about it before Congress not long after it happened.

In an anti-Bush ad released last week, Vietnam exerts a more subtle pull. MoveOn PAC's ad shows a soldier deep in sand with his rifle over his head and notes that more than 1,000 soldiers have died in Iraq.

The ad uses familiar Vietnam language: "George Bush got us into this quagmire. It will take a new president to get us out."

The Bush campaign argues that the ad, by depicting that raised gun, really shows a soldier surrendering. Though the ad was not created by the Kerry campaign, Bush's backers demanded an apology from the campaign for imagery it said attacks U.S. soldiers.

This stand-off carries reminders of the 1960s. Some political analysts believe both campaigns are using Vietnam as a stand-in - mobilizing voters by exploiting the social rifts and cultural politics from that war.

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