Kerry's Battle Cry

By Richard Cohen

The Washington Post

Saturday, July 31, 2004; Page A23

On a single day in October 1967, 58 American soldiers of the storied Black Lions battalion were killed in Vietnam. At the same time, an antiwar demonstration was held at the University of Wisconsin, and while some heads were bloodied, no one died. Yet in the newspapers and TV of the day, there was scant mention of the Black Lions and much attention given to the University of Wisconsin. I tell you that because on Thursday, as everyone was paying attention to John Kerry and the Democrats in Boston, still another American soldier was killed in Iraq. In the month since the vaunted handover of sovereignty, more Americans have died than in the month before.

Kerry gave the speech he had to give Thursday night, presenting a package that can only be called presidential. He came across as thoughtful and smart and experienced and, critically important, personally compelling. But a speech is only a speech, a collection of words that the wind can take this way and that, while the death of even a single person is an immutable fact. Any government will waste money. Only the worst waste lives.

Men who have never faced combat wonder whether they would have measured up. They wonder whether they could have, as Kerry did, reverse a boat and plunge back into gunfire to save a comrade. They wonder, too, whether combat teaches some universal message. The evidence is otherwise. Some combat veterans support the war in Iraq, some do not.

The qualities that make for a good or great president are far removed from the battlefield. It is impossible to imagine World War II without Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office (and on the radio), yet he never saw combat. The lately iconic Ronald Reagan wore a uniform, but it was more of a costume than anything else. Still, I think he would have made a swell wartime president. I admire and am charmed by Sen. John McCain. Yet, despite his bravery and his wholesome honesty, I am not sure he is suited for the White House. I like him just fine where he is.

In the end, I choose to believe that combat teaches something -- maybe only that death is not an abstraction but an awful wound and lots of pain and, for loved ones, a closure that never comes. It is not a movie and it is not some euphemism about "the fallen," or some other way of ducking the awful reality. It is a terrible fear and an embrace of fickle luck. I think it matters that the men who took this nation to war in Iraq were never in one themselves. The odd man out was Colin Powell, who did not enlist in this war but was drafted for it. For him, as it was for Kerry, Vietnam was a life's lesson. Kerry said a lot of good things Thursday night, but he was best when he simply said he had been there:

"I know what kids go through when they're carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe. I know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the next bend. I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're not sure that's true. As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way, but we had no choice.' " There is the ultimate indictment of George Bush. The 42 Americans who died in Iraq in June and the 48 or more (the final figure is not yet known) who have died in July did so because Bush chose to fight an unnecessary war. For a vast and populous country, three dozen deaths a month is not only bearable, it is virtually unnoticeable. John Kerry's task will be to give name and face to the anonymous dead, for us to see, in the confident middle-aged man he is, the occasionally terrified young man he used to be.

On Thursday, in a good speech with a great passage, he reminded us that the war in Iraq is not merely a mistake that can be rectified by some commission or another. It is a personal tragedy, one after another after another -- as immutable as a graveyard headstone.

cohenr@washpost.com