The politics of Vietnam

James Harding

Financial Times

August 14, 2004

A few years ago, there was a billboard advertisement for Pirelli. It showed a muscular Carl Lewis, hunched in the sprinter's starting position, wearing a pair of bright red stiletto shoes. The catchline was: "Power is nothing without control".

It was an effective message for a company trying to sell tyres. It is also an axiom for America today. The unexpected lesson of Iraq, the one that will force the US to rethink its foreign policy for years to come, is about the limitations of the sole superpower. As the US learned in the alleyways of Falluja earlier this year and again on the outskirts of Najaf this week, its destructive power does not translate into a capacity to direct events.

In the race for the White House, John Kerry's challenge to George W. Bush is about much the same thing: the misguided application of force. The Democrats have not come up with a message quite as pithy and vivid as the Pirelli people. ‚Stronger at home, respected in the world‚ is modular, pedantic and uninspiring, like a song written by an actuary. Still, the core of Mr Kerry's pledge to ‚restore credibility to the White House‚ is an argument with Mr Bush about how to wield power: with due caution rather than moral conviction, with friends rather than alone - and with a plan to win the peace rather than wishful thinking.

Mr Kerry's chosen metaphor is his own biography. To be more accurate, it is the scrapbook pages that cover his Vietnam story of service and rebellion: the posed footage of a gangly soldier in fatigues; the anti-war activist pictured with John Lennon; the testimonials of his ubiquitous swift boat crewmates; the official record of his heroism - the three purple hearts, one bronze star and one silver star; and the only indelible line of his convention speech: ‚I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty.‚

There is something bizarre about all this Vietnam nostalgia, particularly coming from the Democrats. The party of Lyndon Johnson running on Vietnam? It is hard to imagine what reception Lt Kerry and his ‚band of brothers‚ would have received from his party just 20 years ago, when Vietnam was roundly judged a fiasco, if not a crime. To those Democrats convened in San Francisco, Mr Kerry's declaration last month that "I defended my country as a young man" would not have sounded like a statement of presidential eligibility but a piece of revisionist history. In the deference being paid this year to Mr Kerry's service in Vietnam, it is tempting to see evidence of a nation that is moving on. Time, it might seem, has done some healing. The protest generation of the late 1960s and 1970s is older and no doubt, more mellow. Platoon, the last Vietnam film to capture the national imagination, is already 18 years old. For voters aged 18-35, My Lai and Kent State were history assignments. Their reference point for Americans in uniform is a New York fireman coated in grey ash.

But the vicious argument over Unfit for Command, the book published this week alleging that Mr Kerry lied about his wounds in order to rack up medals and then betrayed his comrades by lying again about their atrocities in Vietnam, has put paid to any idea that the 2004 election campaign was somehow rehabilitating the Vietnam War. The wounds are still open an d, over the past few days, have been bleeding. Television talk shows pitting Democrats against John O'Neill, the author whose 30 years savaging Mr Kerry culminated in the new book, have been as stormy as the Jerry Springer show. It has been a dishonourable debate driven by anger undimmed.

Vietnam's prominent place in this year's election is simply politics, a coincidence of party strategy and the candidate's personality. In the first presidential election since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, the Democratic party, the natural home of the campus protesters of the 1970s, needs to show it has no aversion to the use of force. Nothing does that quite as succinctly as the fact that Mr Kerry killed a Vietcong soldier at close range. The war hero story not only provides a neat biographical shorthand for Mr Kerry, it also plays well against the president's occasional appearances at the Texas Air National Guard.

Previously, though, Mr Kerry has abhorred the use of Vietnam for political purposes. In 1992, he came to the defence of Bill Clinton, whose avoidance of service had become a campaign issue for George H. W. Bush. ‚I'm here personally to express my anger, as a veteran,‚ Mr Kerry told National Public Radio, ‚that a president who would stand before this nation in his inaugural address and promise to put Vietnam behind us is now breaking yet another promise and trying to use Vietnam and service in order to get himself re-elected. That is not an act of leadership, that is an act of shame and cowardice.‚

Mr Clinton would have been lucky to scrape his party's presidential nomination this year. The Democrats in 2004 are not trying to show they can feel pain but that they can inflict it. Any sign of softness is seized on by the Republicans. Dick Cheney, the vice-president, this week mocked Mr Kerry's suggestion that he would fight a ‚more sensitive‚ war on terrorism. No war, Mr Cheney said, ‚was won by being sensitive‚. The worrying irony of this is that perhaps a ‚sensitive‚ war is precisely the way to defeat al-Qaeda, but not George W. Bush. The Vietnam references do not provide a reliable measure of how he would handle the presidency. Ninth US president William Harrison's courage on the battlefield could not save him from dying of a cold once in office. Nor does command of a swift boat provide guidance on how to fight terrorism.

Vietnam is emblematic of strength in an election that has come to resemble an arm-wrestling contest. We shall see more of the muscular message, no doubt, when both Mr Kerry and Mr Bush address the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Ohio next week. Terrorists, though, will not be defeated by bodybuilders. At a time when the US faces an agile and complex enemy, it needs a president as nimble as he is strong. It requires the political equivalent of a decathlete. And it needs one who knows when to wear sneakers, rather than jackboots.

The writer is the FT's Washington bureau chief