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Lessons of Vietnam and the 2004 election
by Joan Vennochi
Boston Globe
April 30, 2004

AMERICAN SOLDIERS died in Vietnam because American presidents lied to the American people about the need for war. American soldiers are dying in Iraq because an American president lied to the American people about the need for war.

That is why the Vietnam War is relevant to the 2004 presidential election. Oddly enough, John Kerry, presidential candidate and decorated Vietnam War veteran, needs to be reminded of that as much as anyone.

The fact that Kerry served in Vietnam is fine; the fact that George W. Bush did not serve does not make the difference between who should win the next election. The fact that Kerry served, came back with the understanding that the war he and others fought honorably was a mistake, and told that to the American people is relevant, if linked to what is happening now in Iraq, compliments of the Bush administration.

In both wars, the government set up a false premise to justify US involvement - the ''domino theory'' in Vietnam, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In both, it was assumed that America's superior military force would quickly finish off the enemy. In Vietnam, the United States eventually turned its weapons on the people we were fighting to free; the same is true in Iraq.

In Vietnam, the war dragged on, beginning in 1961 with American ''advisers'' and ending in 1973, with 60,000 dead American soldiers and several million dead Vietnamese. How long will this latest war of choice, propelled by a lie, go on? How long will the United States government tell its citizens it must destroy a country to save it?

The over-40 crowd is already bored with the Vietnam comparison. Those younger are bored and ignorant. That's too bad, because they are the government's next sacrificial lambs, whether sucked into war by economic need or patriotic idealism. America's young people need to understand the lessons of Vietnam and their parents need to be reminded of them.

When Vietnam War era video rolls on the television screen during presidential campaign news, the teenager in my house sees musty history, groans and itches to switch to ESPN. Why do the talking heads keep on talking about these ancient battles? Without a draft, war is a choice for young Americans.

The big picture is easy to ignore when it doesn't look like you or anyone you love will be anywhere near it, but it is no less dangerous for the country.

That's why the American history Kerry lived through is relevant in this presidential campaign. The words that came to represent Vietnam, from quagmire to body count, from winning the hearts and minds to destroying the village to save it already resonate in Iraq. The question Kerry famously asked before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971 - ''How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?'' - could be asked today in Iraq.

We already have a president who will not admit any mistakes. So far, Kerry is also unwilling to label this war a mistake, whether out of pride or fear of turning off the political middle by appeasing the political left. It will be interesting to see if Kerry's position shifts with the latest New York Times/ CBS News poll, showing that support for the war in Iraq is eroding. The public is now evenly divided over whether the United States should stay for as long as it takes to stabilize Iraq or pull out as soon as possible.

Support for Ralph Nader totals 5 percent in this poll and draws from the Democratic candidate. Some of Nader's support comes from voters who understand the lessons of Vietnam whether or not they served in the war.

Forget the debate over who fought in Vietnam and who did not. Forget whether Kerry threw medals or ribbons over a fence in Washington 33 years ago. The debate in this presidential debate shouldn't be over Kerry's war medals or Bush's National Guard service. It should be over how this president led this country into Iraq and how the president elected in November gets us out of it.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.
Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

Posted: May 4, 2004


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