Poor John Kerry, who with less than two months to election time seems to want to play Hamlet instead of becoming president. The Democratic candidate, a Vietnam veteran visibly for and then against the war, remains doubtful as how to play his cards. To date he appears to want it both ways—to be a war hero on one hand, and a trenchant critic of the conflict on the other.
This indecisiveness proves not only that Vietnam as contested history and memory is still very much with us, but that Kerry walks a fine line between being saddled with the role of Democrat George McGovern (1972) and/or Michael Dukakis (1988). Republican Party polarizers, who have raised the meanness quotient in domestic and world politics to unprecedented heights, gleefully accentuate Kerry’s irresolution, insinuating that the Massachusetts Senator lacks the firm character to lead a nation involved in a war on terror.
Kerry’s failure is both maddening to Americans who wish to support him, and proof of how far rightward the political centre shifted after 9/11. Dissent in wartime is a tricky wicket at the best of times, and thus far the Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, whatever those may be. Perhaps it’s because Americans have a hard time really believing that they are “at war,” what with the conflict being far away and fought by a volunteer army. “Fight ‘em over there, and not over here,” runs a common Republican refrain.
Yet given the dubious underpinnings and results of both the war on terror and the ongoing war in Iraq, Republican George W. Bush is vulnerable. Indeed, so badly awry has the Republican incumbent’s attempt gone to redraw the Middle East according to American co-ordinates, that an opponent with courage—and belief in himself—has myriad points at which to attack. Yet Kerry has not drawn Bush’s weaknesses in bold strokes, not even the president’s capacity to evade National Guard service to defend Alabama during the Vietnam conflict. Indeed, to a man all of Bush’s Vulcan associates found ways to escape service in Southeast Asia.
Recent polls indicate that most voters do not appreciate this point, as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Company make it appear that despite three Purple Hearts earned in Vietnam (see www.jibjab.com), Kerry is the weakling—the “girly man,” in the words of California governor-laureate Arnold (The Terminator) Schwarzenegger at the Republican convention.
Thus far, Bush has focused entirely on 9/11, 24/7—and his message has resonated in Peoria and many other places too. For the attacks of that date precipitated not only debate on national security, but they also undermined American identity—making clear that the notion of “free security” no longer applied in such a dangerous world. In the last three years Bush’s advisers have likened him to FDR and even Winston Churchill during the dark days of World War II, defending the indefensible by joining Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the villain’s circle, and getting away with it.
Bush dissed the international community after 9/11, as the United States moved to extend its influence in the Middle East by martial might. Ignoring Middle Eastern culture and the lack of a pro-American infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Doctrine embraced preemptive war, unilateralism, and the aim of establishing liberty and democracy as new values in the contested areas.
But what appeared to be two swift victories turned out to be nothing of the sort. Large parts of Afghanistan, though under a titular president, is again in the hands of warlords more interested in profit from the heroin trade than democracy. Iraq seems a perfect Orwellian reading of “victory,” with another leader handpicked by the United States doing all he can to avoid assassination. Iraq today is a laboratory of a failing cause, with town after town increasingly hostile to the victors and their promises.
How might John Kerry stand and be counted in these last weeks before the vote? He could do worse that being consistent in the argument that he served his country well in Vietnam, then served it even better by recognizing that it was a bad war, undertaken for unsound reasons. His protest reflected both heart and mind, as his conscience directed him. This is a simple point, direct and truthful. As the carnage continues, it might yet serve him well. There is still time.