I am from that generation of younger brothers who just missed World War II and went to war against communism in Korea in 1950. Many of us became fathers to those who fought in Vietnam and grandfathers to those fighting in Iraq.
I would not presume to speak for a whole generation, but as a veteran of that combat, I say it is time to tell both presidential campaigns to cease their macho posturing and get on with real programs to run -- or save -- our country.
In our long-ago time, we went to war reluctantly against an unknown enemy in an unknown land.
But, we went.
The conditions were harsh. The fighting -- pre-instant TV -- was ferocious at the front and mostly unseen at home. When we came back, no one particularly cared, and only one film ("Pork Chop Hill") and a handful of books remain to mark our passing.
That and a free South Korea.
We weren't noticeably upset at men who deferred service and went to college (except those who stole our girls). We didn't come home with rows of medals -- although many of us came home with injuries that still warn us of changes in the weather. We didn't do any complaining. We just came home and got on with our lives.
Why did we go? Why did we allow our young bodies and our young psyches to be subjected to a war so forgotten that even today it has not been mentioned by either candidate, both of whom failed to notice the anniversary of its June beginning and July ending?
I believe it was because we knew that we should. Some of us enlisted as regular Army infantry privates and later became combat officers because other men of the "greatest generation" had done it and we should too. It is a young man's reaction to a sense of responsibility and duty, done without much forethought.
That, I believe, is the key ingredient in John Kerry's service in Vietnam -- and why both campaigns should drop this contrived issue.
He did not have to go -- because he had been. His tour on a destroyer was overseas time enough. But he went to the boats because other young men were there. The men and the boats had a mission -- and he commanded, because he could. That is enough for me. I couldn't care less whether he received a medal. The rest of it is frosting. There is no honor in this debate for our country. We need to know whether a man can save the economy and slow terrorism, not listen to harangues about who was a shooter and who was a dodger.
Most of the real heroics are performed by young kids and young officers who just accept it as a cost of doing business in the peculiar exchange that is a combat battleground. The whole place -- and it does not matter which war we describe -- is one of fear, noise, smoke, confusion and a strange comradeship where you might risk your life for someone you will never see again. I don't know what the expression is in the Navy, but the Army's bittersweet joke is that the two most dangerous words in the English language are "follow me." It takes courage to utter those words and to follow that command -- something any veteran of any combat will recognize.
It is time for some of us older veterans to take one last stand and call on both parties to drop this base and meaningless debate. At the end of the day, and the end of the battle, medals are just symbols. And the bravery of thousands of our soldiers has passed into history unheralded by stars and ribbons. By engaging in mudslinging over this issue, both campaigns undermine the bravery and honor of all who serve in times of war and peace. And they distract us from the real issues of this election.
John Kerry heard the siren song of his moment -- that fragile call on the wind that is the call to the colors. He went. He came back. I give him credit for that. If he threw some ribbons over the fence, he's welcome to mine. They lie quietly in a desk drawer, entombed with memories of better men who lie in the dirt of faraway fields, where there really is no glory, but where courage and compassion came with the C-rations.
They believed ours was a great country, one that fought not for conquest or for gain but because freedom isn't free and someone has to pay for it. The bill comes due again in this election. Let's hope these two candidates don't leave us paupers.
The writer, a Washington businessman, was a combat infantryman in Korea and a war correspondent in Vietnam. He served as a presidential commissioner on the Korean War Memorial advisory panel.