Georgie Anne Geyer

What Difference Does a Military Career Make?

WASHINGTON --

-- Sen. John Kerry appears in his campaign performances loyally surrounded by old comrades from Vietnam days; this, after all, is the man who came back from Southeast Asia so disillusioned that he organized Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

-- A notably irked President Bush is forced to defend his military record for the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama to critics who seem to be saying, "Service in the armed forces during war does matter in this nation."

-- Gen. Wesley K. Clark, hero of the Kosovo campaign, has never let his supporters forget that he was not only a soldier, but he was in fact the supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe and shouldered responsibilities to Washington, to other NATO nations and to the world that none of the other candidates even dreamed of.

-- Secretary of State Colin Powell looks noticeably chagrined after Dr. David Kay's detailed exposition of the findings of no weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaida contacts in Iraq. It was Powell, after all, who was sent by the White House and Pentagon war party to put his own integrity (a rare and fleeting bird in this administration) on the line at the United Nations last year and convince the world there was reason to attack Iraq.

This week, Secretary Powell said he was not sure he would have recommended an invasion had he known Saddam Hussein did not have the supposed potential stockpiles that the administration cynically manipulated to get into a war -- a conflict its radical neoconservatives had begun to plan in the early '90s.

I find nothing but a tragedy of personality and integrity here: Remember, it was young Colin Powell who returned in disillusionment and despair from Vietnam, saw his wife for the first time in many months, and told her passionately that, once his generation held military power, such wars would never happen again. And yet when the moment came, he did the administration's bidding.

Finally, there are the neocons themselves -- Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, Irving and Bill Kristol -- who have been rather quiet in this game of who is the greatest military hero. It's not surprising, I suppose.

All of them, whether fanatic Cold Warrior, avid supporter of the Likud party in Israel or greedy American empire-builder, actively and deliberately sought out deferment after deferment.

They are actually proud of not serving. "We are thinkers," one told me; "we deal with ideas." Even Vice President Dick Cheney had five deferments during Vietnam and later dismissed it by saying, "I had other priorities."

As I observe this ongoing, curious conversation over the military in our presidential campaign, I wonder about its sinuous courses.

John Kerry seems rather clear. The man is still deeply moved by Vietnam and what it did to all of us. We all recognize what a costly disaster that first "war of choice," or "predetermined" or premeditated" war, was -- and his continued opposition is valorous. He is using his military credentials to run to Bush's left on social programs, but on the president's right as a veteran who knows evil firsthand. It would be hard for the Republicans to dismiss John Kerry as a limp-wristed peacenik.

But when you listen to the American public today and at ITS attitudes toward Iraq, the picture of the others, and of us as well, becomes far less clear. "Where are the American people?" we ask in every conversation here over the war. "Why don't they raise hell? Every reason this administration used to go to war has turned out to be false, and yet they say nothing?"

Think back to Vietnam. After the first few years of involvement there, when the American people were compliant because we thought our leaders must know what they were doing, all hell broke loose across the country. The anti-war movement, the demonstrations, the intense dissatisfaction over the war among the troops overseas: Except for the shameful way the troops were treated once they came home, all were healthy responses to this first unnecessary war.

This uproar was followed by years of heated and probing discussions at the various war colleges by military leaders desperate to find out what went wrong in Vietnam. But because of the neocon takeover of the defense secretary's office and thinking, the uniformed military dropped its opposition to an Iraq invasion and went blindly ahead -- once again.

Why, this time around? In large part because the American military is volunteer, but also because of large and dangerous disconnects in the country -- citizen vs. alien, breakdown of the party systems and of community action, the vulgarization of American culture. Americans today are all too happy to either applaud the war or pretend it isn't happening. Give the troops all the praise we can, so long as they do the dirty work instead of our children. And don't complain about certain things that our troops in Iraq are doing in our name that are, in fact, close to war crimes -- that might cause us as a nation to finally examine and publicize the motives of the men who got us into Iraq -- or even to restore the draft.

And don't expect this administration, which has cynically cut benefits for veterans, as well as for all those policemen and firemen they eulogized after 9/11, to do much for future veterans. There was not one word about veterans in President Bush's State of the Union speech, although there were 99 words about drug abuse and athletes using steroids (wherever that came from).

One must conclude that, to this administration, American fighting men and women are merely chess soldiers to be moved around on their unreal chessboard of all the countries they want to invade. After all, as the neocons say repeatedly, they prize themselves on ideas -- although the ones they employed in Iraq do not exactly inspire confidence.

It is immensely refreshing to see the real soldiers, the John Kerrys and the Wesley Clarks, in this campaign and to realize that integrity such as theirs still exists.

But I think we have to be very careful at this moment in our history. We may later be found guilty of uncritically and indiscriminately praising our military simply to get us off the hook for not taking responsibility for the ongoing conduct of this second unnecessary war.

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