- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

They were two years apart, these two Yale boys, these sons of privilege, and so the moment of truth came first for John Kerry, later for George W. Bush. Each faced the same life-changing question as did so many others of their generation: What to do about Vietnam?

Mr. Kerry, part of the class of 1966, signed on with the Navy late in 1965, then had months to ponder his decision before entering officer candidate school after graduation. The war, his decision, his doubts, all hung over him as he spoke at commencement the following June.

“What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” he told fellow students. He had to know his life was set on a course for Vietnam.

For Mr. Bush, a member of the class of 1968, his last year in college seemed to signal the end of a time of innocence.

“The gravity of history was beginning to descend in a horrifying and disruptive way,” he wrote in his 1999 biography. “By the time the ball dropped in Times Square to welcome 1968, the situation in Vietnam had escalated from a conflict to a raging war. Every night the newscast included a body count.”

Mr. Bush debated options over Christmas break back home in Houston, took a pilot aptitude test after he got back to school in January, and chose the National Guard.

Nearly 40 years later, the choices made by these two young men are reverberating through the presidential campaign as part of a larger debate over patriotism, leadership, duty, character. Each man is defined in part by the path he chose, and by the level of commitment he demonstrated along the way.

“We are all hostage to decisions we made in the past,” said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at the University of New Orleans who has written a book about Mr. Kerry’s war years.

Mr. Brinkley said the two-year age difference between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush is an important backdrop to the courses they set.

In 1965, when Mr. Kerry decided to enlist, students “still saw the world in black and white,” Mr. Brinkley said, and “not serving wasn’t really an option” for the son of a foreign service officer. “His big decision was which branch of the military to join,” Mr. Brinkley said. “Did he want to go to Vietnam? No. But how could he live with himself if he finagled his way out of his duty?”

By the time Mr. Bush joined the Guard in 1968, Mr. Brinkley said, the horrors of Vietnam were playing out nightly on television and sentiment against the war was hardening. “By 1968, smart kids weren’t going. It became OK not to go. So Bush looked for a way not to go,” he said.

“If he had been the class of ‘66, it may have been different for George W. Bush.”

Mr. Bush spoke about his decision to serve in the National Guard in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “I put in my time, proudly so. I would be careful to not denigrate the Guard. It’s fine to go after me, which I expect the other side will do. I wouldn’t denigrate service to the Guard, though.”

Neither Mr. Kerry nor Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general, have made a point of personally raising Mr. Bush’s military record on the presidential campaign circuit, but both say when asked that legitimate questions have been raised about the record.

“It’s almost like an inverted time warp,” said Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at the City University of New York. “The point of it is that, ‘I’m a war hero and you’re not.’ And the implication is that because you’re a war hero, that gives you a special standing to talk about war and strategy. But it doesn’t follow.”

Hardly a speech goes by in which Mr. Kerry, a decorated war hero, does not invoke Vietnam and its legacy. Vietnam buddies travel with his campaign entourage and appear in his ads.

“The entire heart and soul of John Kerry’s persona is Vietnam,” Mr. Brinkley said. “What happened to him is so seared into his being that it’s almost like rings in an old redwood tree.”

Mr. Kerry’s fierce criticism of the war upon his return to America did not sit well with some veterans, and still doesn’t.

As an antiwar leader, he asserted in testimony to Congress that U.S. soldiers had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads randomly shot at civilians poisoned food stocks” and committed other atrocities he later acknowledged he had not witnessed.

Mr. Bush is facing a new round of questions about his Guard service on issues that first came up during the 2000 campaign: whether family connections helped him get into the Texas Air National Guard; whether he showed up for duty while assigned to Guard units in Alabama; why he was allowed to end Guard duty about six months early to attend Harvard Business School.

Mr. Bush was honorably discharged and said the politically motivated attacks have been discredited.

Maurice Udell, one of Mr. Bush’s flight instructors at the Ellington Air Force Base in Texas, remembers Mr. Bush as a standout student. “I’d rank him in the top 5 percent,” says Mr. Udell, now 73 and retired.

Mr. Udell says Mr. Bush asked about a program under which National Guard pilots were assigned to Vietnam, but Mr. Udell told him he wasn’t eligible because he was certified on the F-102, which the military was phasing out.

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