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Archive for Sunday, February 15, 2004

Experience colors view of war

February 15, 2004

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— Is this what the election will be about? The man who ran as a compassionate conservative in 2000 plans to run as a "war president" in 2004.

This is how the president presented himself to Tim Russert and the country again and again: as a man who makes decisions "with war on my mind." If some Americans do not understand how treacherous the world is, if some do not understand that Saddam, with or without weapons of mass destruction, was more dangerous than we thought, well, it's his job to protect us. Anyway.

So George W. Bush now officially offers himself as the father who knows best, and I do not mean that sarcastically.

But what happens if John Kerry continues his near-sweep of the Democratic primaries? We may well have an election that posits two very different military models of men and leadership. As different perhaps as father and brother.

George Bush found his mission after 9-11 as a middle-aged president. John Kerry found it in Vietnam as a young soldier. The military image of Bush is in a flight suit on the deck of aircraft carrier. The military image of Kerry is in fatigues on the front of a Swift boat.

Bush speaks in the language of a father figure. Meanwhile, John Kerry talks about the wartime experience of a "band of brothers."

During this roller coaster of a primary season, Kerry gradually gathered the stardust or just the shared dust of Vietnam. This was no surprise to those of us who have known him the longest. In his hot-and-cold, on-and-off-again political campaign, the senator has always been at his most authentic when he talked of war. Vietnam takes the Brahmin off this Bostonian.

This year, he resonates with the crowds more as a Vietnam vet than a Vietnam protester. "We're a little older and a little grayer," Kerry tells them, "but we still know how to fight for our country." Often accompanied by James Rassmann, whose life he saved, or Max Cleland, whose Senate career was ended and whose patriotism was smeared, Kerry appeals to the idea of soldiers who watch out for each other.

Father and brother. In our culture, the military is seen as both a hierarchy and a democracy. It's a top-down, follow-orders institution. And it's a world in which men -- and now women -- bond as equals across differences. It's a place where troops are ordered into danger. And take care of each other.

For a time this winter, retired Gen. Wesley Clark tried awkwardly to bridge these images, to embody a dual model of leadership by describing his work as both a commander of NATO forces and a caretaker of military families. Then in one intemperate moment, he chose sides. "With all due respect," he said, comparing his experience to Kerry's, "he's a lieutenant and I'm a general."

As for a match-up between the lieutenant and the commander in chief? Whatever today's headlines, I don't believe a Kerry-Bush election would be about dueling Vietnam-era service records, one with a Purple Heart, the other with question marks on his Air National Guard attendance records.

But such a contest may well hinge, consciously or not, on the model of leadership we trust in a time of danger. Models that were molded in the images of warriors.

After 9-11, the pollsters told us, soccer moms became security moms. Women, in particular, turned their eyes toward safety, searching even for a father-figure protector.

The president, who sees the world as a dangerous place, appeals to that vulnerability with a promise of security by being tough, laying down the law -- "I'm not going to change, see?" -- and making other countries come to heel. But a man who has lived with a "band of brothers" may understand that danger to those brothers can also come from misguided leadership.

I am not surprised that two different worldviews come out of the Vietnam generation, if not the Vietnam War itself.

In the Russert interview, Bush said "I supported my government. I did." For him, the "essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War" are Oval Office strategies: politicians shouldn't make purely military decisions. That's it.

What did Kerry, who carries the tragedy of that war with him, learn, on the ground, in Vietnam? In his mid-20s, Kerry wrote that "when a good friend was hit and perhaps about to die, you'd ask if it was worth just his life alone -- let alone all the others or your own."

As the war in Iraq goes on and the explanation for launching that war seems more and more like an excuse, when we look for someone to trust, how will a father compare to a band of brothers?




- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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