Among most upscale baby-boomers, you're a lot more likely to find polyester in their closets and Velveeta among their cheeses than you are to find an honorable discharge from the U.S. military among their personal papers. Of those now in Congress who were born after 1945, 90 percent never spent an hour in uniform. For most of them, Vietnam was not a war; it was a cause to march either for or against.
Maybe that absence of personal exposure to the U.S. military explains why in their voting records on military and foreign policy matters, congressional baby-boomers overwhelmingly polarize themselves into one of two clashing camps: Hawks, who lionize and idealize the military, its budget and its agenda; and Doves, who frequently demonize the military as plun derers of the public purse, full of rabid Dr. Strangeloves.
On defense and foreign policy votes, the baby-boomers in Congress are five times more likely than the whole House to take extreme positions as either unquestioning boosters or unremitting critics. Because it is now this nation's established policy to exempt the Rich and the Smart from any obligation to defend the United States, it is only a matter of time before we choose a president who has not had firsthand experience with the United States military, who is probably either a Lionizer or a Demonizer. Because we once did believe that every American, irrespective of inheritance or IQ, had a responsibility to defend this country, every president since Harry Truman has worn his country's uniform.
A perceptive psychoanalyst might explain this baby-boomers' polarized position-taking in terms of overcompensation. The Hawks -- whether in Congress, the administration or the press -- emphatically endorse a policy of escalation without participation.
Three-term state representative Tom Vallely, 36 (D-Boston), wasn't in graduate school at the London School of Economics in 1968, nor did he show up at his draft physical armed with affidavits and excuses from his family allergist. He didn't have a family allergist. But he had more personal experience with U.S. foreign policy than most of his contemporaries now making it.
On Aug. 13, 1969, Vallely was a 19-year-old member of India Company, 3rd battalion, 5th Marines, on a strip of Vietnam they called the Arizona Territory. On that day, India Company walked into an L-shaped ambush sprung by the North Vietnamese Army. Pinned to the ground, the Marines could choose to lie low and get picked off one at a time or to charge the enemy machine guns and somehow shoot their way to safety. For charging those enemy guns on a day that ended with half his India Company either dead or wounded, Tom Vallely won the Silver Star. He came home an authentic war hero to become an anti-war political activist.
Of his experiences then, Vallely spoke during a week when Congress argued about U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras, and the rest of us learned that near Benghazi in Libya there was a Benina Airfield our pilots and planes had bombed. "I was young, and I was scared. You don't forget the smell of death or the stench of fear. I have seen blood squirt out of people's eyes when they got hit . . . and I do believe isolationism is un-American. But while I don't question Patrick Buchanan's patriotism because he didn't serve in Vietnam, Buchanan has no right to attack the patriotism of those of us who oppose President Reagan's policy in Central America."
Of course, he's right, this Boston Democrat who defies neat ideological pigeonholing. A supporter of U.S. backing for El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte, Vallely quips of the anti-Duarte leftists, "the FMLN has more support in Harvard Square than in Salvador."
But Tom Vallely, unlike most of his generation now in public office, knows from personal experience that the military is neither all-wise nor all-wicked. He knows there are con men, cowards and heroes in our military and in our Congress. A critic of aid to the contras, Vallely says the administration is either overstating the danger or understating its response: "If San Diego is in jeopardy from the continued existence of the Sandinistas," he says, "then Ronald Reagan ought to do at least as much as he did when 200 medical students were in jeopardy in Grenada."
When Pat Buchanan was in Richard Nixon's White House and Ronald Reagan was in Sacramento, Tom Vallely was facing death in the Arizona Territory, and Sylvester (Rambo) Stallone was passing up military service teaching in a Swiss girls' boarding school. War is not an abstraction to Tom Vallely. It's more than a policy option.
This would be a better country with a more hopeful future if the people who will lead it had, like Vallely, "learned a little about foreign policy in Vietnam." You can be sure we'd have a lot less Lionizing and a lot less Demonizing of the military. And a lot less romanticizing of war and combat.