The attacks on John Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have struck a raw nerve in many Americans, particularly among veterans of the Vietnam War. To be sure, if John Kerry lied about his wounds or lacked courage under fire it would be a legitimate issue in the campaign. But the central charges have largely been discredited by the Navy's records and by serious reporting in the mainstream media.
It is regrettable that this criticism persists. But it is even more regrettable that it has focused the nation on events of long ago rather than how the candidates would handle the future, particularly the war against terrorism. Kerry has called on President Bush to repudiate these ads. He should do so.
But Kerry, who first criticized the Vietnam War in 1971, should also ask a more relevant question. What was the view of Air Force National Guard Lt. George W. Bush on the Vietnam War in 1971? Did he, like Navy Lt. John F. Kerry, realize it was a folly? Did he have the wisdom and foresight to understand that the United States had gotten itself in a terrible quagmire and lacked the fortitude and leadership to get out without further useless loss of life? What is the record of the young George Bush's view of Vietnam?
We got into Vietnam for reasons that were thought to be both strategic and noble. But it didn't take long to recognize the terrible misjudgments we had made. Former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara has recently written that "we could have ended the war as early as 1962, and not later than 1967, without any significant loss in our strategic position." A young Kerry recognized that in 1971. Did a young Bush?
It was the rigid thoughtlessness of the Johnson and Nixon administrations that kept us in Vietnam and kept us from finding a way out. The rigid thoughtlessness of the Bush administration risks a similar tragedy in Iraq. We have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, which is a great achievement. But we did not find weapons of mass destruction, and we have generated a deep and pervasive hatred of the United States that will take generations to overcome. That makes us less safe, not more. Kerry recognizes that. Does Bush?
It is understandable that veterans of the Vietnam War are angry at people who criticized the war. After all, they lost best friends and cannot accept the idea that their deaths may have been in vain. I was angered at the time by Kerry's allegations of widespread war crimes by American forces, remarks the senator has recently acknowledged were "over the top." But the returning veterans who spoke out against the war were not, for the most part, criticizing their fellow soldiers. They were engaging in a higher act of patriotism, namely raising their voices to point out the madness of our policy. It takes a special courage to speak out against a cause for which you were once prepared to die -- a cause that, as a combat leader, you asked others to be prepared to die for. Kerry has that kind of courage. Does Bush?
I did not serve in Vietnam, but hardly a day passes when I don't think about my 33 West Point classmates killed there. One classmate, Wes Clark, used his Vietnam experiences to shape his thinking and a career that culminated when, as supreme allied commander in Europe, he led NATO forces to a brilliant victory in the Balkan war. Clark learned the right lessons of Vietnam. Has Bush?
A true test of any future president should be whether he can recognize a failing policy and has the moral courage to change course and lead our nation out. Bush has not demonstrated that he understands the magnitude of the errors he made in getting us into Iraq. Even some leading Republicans, including Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, have now said the war was a mistake. Does Bush recognize that?
The debates of 1971 have echoes in our current one. We have gotten deeply involved in a region that we do not understand, and we have unleashed forces we cannot control. We must have a president who can recognize our strengths and our shortcomings, who will ask hard questions and who will challenge advice, even intelligence information that is presented to him. Did Bush ask those hard questions before making the decision to send our forces to war?
In 1971 Kerry recognized that we needed to change our policy. In 2004 he recognizes the need to change our policy. That is the issue. Who is better equipped to lead us: Bush, who rigidly insists that he is right, or Kerry, who has charted a new direction?
In his powerful farewell to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in May 1962, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, "The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
Those wounds and scars can teach a lot. We must learn from them, and we should elect a president who has also learned from them.
The writer is a former general counsel of the CIA.