Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Joshua Green in the current Atlantic (January/February 2006) invites us to be surprised by the bumper crop of returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who are currently planning a run for political office. But in comparing the greater, more immediate political participation of today's returning Iraq vets (and yesterday's WWII vets) to the veterans of Vietnam he overlooks some basic facts. The average age of combat soldiers in the Vietnam War was only 19. The average age of combat soldiers in WWII was 26. The average age of today’s active-duty soldier is 28. The average age of today’s reservist? 32.

The youthful Vietnam veteran often had years of work ahead of him to gain or complete an education and establish a career before he could seriously consider running for office -- or be considered seriously as a political candidate. Plus, he had to do so in competition with a great many service-avoiding contemporaries who were already steps ahead of him (and who dominate our politics today).

This age difference alone made it easily predictable that returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would, like the veterans of WWII, enter the political arena sooner and, perhaps (only time will tell), to more immediate and greater effect than the veterans of Vietnam.

Green also asks us to be surprised that the overwhelming majority of these vets intend to run as Democrats -- suggesting that this is made possible because the party has become less "anti-GI" than during the Vietnam era. But the suggestion that that era's Democratic Party was "anti-GI," is totally unsupported. Veterans, in fact, dominated the party at the time and for many years after. The party’s most out-spoken liberal critics of the war were veterans (and, of course, not all of that eras outspoken critics of the war were Democrats). Those Vietnam veterans who did eventually enter politics were as likely, if not more likely, to do so as Democrats.

Was there anti-soldier feeling among some of the most extreme, youthful anti-war contemporaries of that war's veterans? Sure. But those movement extremists weren't fans of the Democratic Party, either. More significant but mostly overlooked by all but the veterans who experienced it; anti-soldier feeling wasn't limited to opponents of that war.

Many war supporters disdained the young men who fought it and blamed them, personally, for its humiliating loss. The "we won our war" sneers of older vets that greeted returning vets like my brother at the VFW were much more deeply wounding than any criticism from the political fringe. In addition to the relative youth of the Vietnam era vet, this attitude of war supporters -- who saw these young soldiers as feckless losers, rather than as heroes -- was a significant reason why service in Vietnam was and remains less of a political asset than service in other wars.

That lack of respect for the soldiers of Vietnam sadly still persists -- and is not limited or defined by political ideology. In fact, one of the most common arguments against a draft that conservatives make today is the, in their estimation, "poor quality" of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. And, as recent political campaigns demonstrate, it is the Republican Party that has perfected assaults on and found great advantage in exploiting lingering disappointment and doubts about the personal character and ability of that war’s soldiers. (In campaigns against Republican veteran John McCain as well as Democrats.)

Will Republicans, whose current leaders almost to a man avoided service in Vietnam, be able to successfully use similar character attacks to good advantage against the Iraq War’s politically active vets?

The answer to that may lie, in some part, in how wedded those in the media remain to the kind of unexamined political clichés on display in Mr. Green’s report.


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