Once more a nation divided

By David Hackworth

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

The Vietnam War rages on. Witness the barrages being fired by Viet vets on the right and the left: “George W. Bush is a draft-dodger”; “John F. Kerry isn’t a war hero.”

Once again, that tragic war divides America – and this time around, it’s vet pitted against vet.

Sure, Bush dodged the draft, along with a reported 14 million other Americans with the savvy to work out that Vietnam was a no-win, sorry war. But although he had the luck and the connections to land a spot in the Air Guard, he did put his butt on the line flying a machine for which he was entitled to hazardous-duty pay – and that’s because zooming around in a jet fighter was and still is highly dangerous.

And sure, Kerry’s campaign push on how he Ramboed his way through the war – for four months – rubs a lot of vets the wrong way. And it does take its toll on those of us who prefer our heroes to be modest, unassuming types like Alvin York – who stayed the course until it was “Over, over there.”

But politics and style aside, Kerry did serve with distinction in Vietnam when he easily could have avoided that killing field. His service to his country shouldn’t be diminished by the same despicable, politically motivated tactics visited upon Sens. John McCain in South Carolina and Max Cleland in Georgia, also Viet vets. This kind of gutter-bashing doesn’t belong in American politics, and vets shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as ammo for cheap shots at one of their own.

The stalwart Brown Water Navy warriors who fought at Kerry’s side say he was A-OK, which is good enough for me. The muckrakers such as John O’Neill and his SWIFT-boat snipers – who didn’t sail on his boat but served anywhere from 100 meters to 300 miles away – are now coming off like eyewitnesses when in fact not one of their testimonies would hold up in a court of law. A judge would call these men liars and disallow their biased statements.

I’ve been in a fair number of battles in my lifetime, first fighting for my country in several hot wars, then covering a dozen conflicts as a correspondent. And I’ve learned that if you can’t see the fight right up close, smell it, hear it and touch it, you can’t possibly bear witness.

This isn’t the first time Kerry’s been sniped at. Joe Klein wrote in the New Yorker that Nixon aide Charles Colson formed the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace in 1971 solely to attack John Kerry.

Colson told Klein that Kerry “was a thorn in our flesh. He was very articulate, a credible leader of the opposition. He forced us to create a counterfoil. We found a vet named John O’Neill and formed a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. We had O’Neill meet the president, and we did everything we could do to boost his group.”

O’Neill and his chorus of haters are still in their get-Kerry mode. I suspect the decades-long fury is still fueled by Kerry’s high-profile anti-war stance when he returned home. A position that was taken by hundreds of thousands of other Viet vets, including myself in 1971 – which, according to Joe Califono’s recent book “Inside: A Public Life,” almost cost me my life.

McCain has already asked President Bush to distance himself from this “dishonest and dishonorable” attack. Advice that Bush should take one step further by ordering Vietnam draft-dodger Karl Rove and the rest of the character-assassination squad who zapped McCain and Cleland to back off. And then publicly stand tall and say that this type of behavior insults every vet who’s served America in peace and war.

As our commander in chief, Bush also needs to bear in mind that the U.S. Navy and its high standards for handling awards are now on trial as well. Hopefully, the president’s righteous actions will expedite that institution’s exoneration along with Lt. John Kerry’s heroism.

Hopefully, too, these angry, troubled vets still haunted by the Vietnam War will eventually find closure. But one thing I know for sure – it won’t come from fratricide.