Like it or not, Iraq has become the most significant American project of this century. Every day it produces fresh deaths and fresh reasons for shame, pride or despair. But you could hardly guess that truth from the presidential campaign. Instead of debating Iraq, the supporters of George W. Bush and John Kerry have been bickering over Bush's draft-dodging in the Vietnam era and Kerry's record as a Vietnam warrior turned peacemonger.
Historians routinely accuse slow-witted generals of trying to fight the last war, but this is the first example of leaders fighting the war before the last one. The Bush and Kerry camps are reaching back beyond the first Iraq war of 1991 to the disputes surrounding a conflict that ended 30 years ago. It is as if in 1948 president (and ex-Artillery Captain) Harry Truman had campaigned on who did what against the Germans in 1918, which was then also 30 years in the past.
As Kerry approached the primaries last year he seemed to have no damaging political baggage. His votes in the Senate tend to cancel each other out, so it's hard to say where he stands on anything. For instance, no one can prove he's against free trade -- or in favour of it, either. But in fact he arrived with a whole airport carousel's worth of suitcases and backpacks, each of them with a Vietnam label.
His supporters claim he fought nobly for his country in Vietnam, then turned against the war and campaigned, again nobly, for the peace movement back in the United States. Even if this is entirely true, it's an ambiguous story he can't tell clearly to the satisfaction of anyone. It remains incomprehensible, at least within the boundaries of ordinary political discourse. We can paraphrase his frequently stated position as: "I fought bravely -- I was a decorated hero, in fact -- in a cause that was fundamentally unjust." That would be a silly boast and a perverse slogan.
Kerry seems to have been the last to notice this obvious contradiction. He emphasized his war record in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, thereby opening it to more intense scrutiny. He must also have baffled and alienated voters who are less than half a century old. A 30-year-old of today, remember, was just being born as the Vietnam war ended. But if young people find these long-gone arguments about Vietnam baffling, their elders must feel even more uncomfortable; after all, the middle-aged have been telling themselves for a decade that finally America has put all that behind it. The revival of bitter old disputes proves William Faulkner's belief that we are condemned to live within our past. "The past isn't over," as Faulkner famously said. "It isn't even past."
Kerry would have been better advised to avoid mentioning Vietnam except in brief answers to questions. But if the meaning of Kerry's record remains obscure, Bush was certainly a dodger. Though he didn't altogether evade military service, as Bill Clinton did, Bush escaped Vietnam by getting into the National Guard, then a favourite tactic of combat-avoidance. Still, if Kerry followed his own logic (the logic of the war-resister he became), he would praise Bush for not fighting in a war that Kerry ended up hating. Instead, the Kerry forces imply that Bush should have gone off to Asia and killed Vietnamese, which would then have made him one of the war criminals Kerry denounced after coming home.
Both sides look ridiculous when working over the three-decades-ago military records of their opponents. But perhaps they prefer Vietnam to Iraq. Bush knows that many millions of his fellow citizens hate him for starting the Iraq war. Their hatred seems to me unreasonable, but it can hardly be ignored. His supporters still regard his cause as honourable even if the results have been tragically frustrating, but Bush knows that Iraq won't win him any votes that are now uncommitted. So he's glad to change the subject.
Kerry's position is more curious, and apparently self-defeating. He can't formulate a consistent position on Iraq because, it seems, he can't figure out what he thinks about it. This miserable war is the one great issue that history has handed to the Democrats, but because of Kerry's indecision they seem unable to deploy it. So far as we can tell at this point in the campaign, the Democratic Party has found the only Democrat in America who lacks a strong position on the Iraq war -- and nominated him for president.