We sat up a little higher in our seats, shut our mouths and watched the film with the added weight of reality sitting right there in front of us. Unlike us college kids who were toddlers during the war, these guys lived it.
To me, Vietnam has been a misunderstood trauma that has plagued American life for the past four decades. Not only have we continued to fight the culture wars that Vietnam sparked at home -- wars won, largely, by the likes of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush -- but our foreign policy has slipped back into a Vietnam mindset as we've occupied Iraq. And having a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war running for president brings that history front and center.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hatever you might think about John McCain, know this: He is one tough customer. He cheated death many times before surviving melanoma eight years ago. McCain crashed three Navy planes before seeing combat, survived the massive fire on the deck of the USS Forrestal and even ditched an ultralight after coming home.
But McCain's real test started 41 years ago this month, when he flew right into the teeth of Hanoi's air defenses; a few hours -- and broken bones -- later, he was imprisoned, and he stayed that way for nearly six years.
McCain's incredible story -- shared by all POWs -- is detailed in Robert Timberg's 1995 classic, The Nightingale's Song, which traces the Vietnam experiences of five Naval Academy graduates. After the war, Timberg details how McCain set to learning all about what went wrong in Vietnam. That detail makes it even more surprising that McCain was among the first and loudest cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq. Couldn't he see how many ways it could turn into a replay of Vietnam? For one so marked by war, it's also odd that he has such an itchy trigger finger when it comes to Iran -- a trait made even worse by how dismissive he is about the power of diplomacy.
Many other veterans took very different lessons from Vietnam. One of them is James Webb, the U.S. Senator from Virginia, who led a Marine infantry unit in Vietnam and is one of the other major figures in Timberg's book. Webb has always been quick to defend the honor of serving in Vietnam, but in his recent book, A Time to Fight, he shows he's no blind loyalist, as he underlines many mistakes we are repeating. Specifically, the inability of politicians to get out of the way and let the military wage war when the time comes -- it was LBJ and Nixon in Vietnam, and in Iraq it was been President Bush who "persisted in distorting the integrity of the military's officer corps by rewarding sycophancy and punishing honesty" (as in how many troops it would really take to secure Iraq).
Or consider Oliver Stone, the director who dropped out of Yale, enlisted in the Army and requested combat duty. After his highly decorated tour, he came home and immediately wrote the screenplay that would become Platoon. Stone's wisdom is spoken by Charlie Sheen's character: "We did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days. ... Those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he gulf between John McCain and Oliver Stone couldn't be wider, and maybe that's because McCain's experience as a POW was very different than Stone or Webb's as village-to-village fighters. That's not to say one is more valid than the other; they're just different.
Also consider that John McCain was perhaps the best known pilot in the entire war -- his father and grandfather were both admirals; his captors called him the "Crown Prince." Sound familiar? George W. Bush, like McCain, was born to privilege -- both third-generation members of prominent families. Biographers point out that both men were very rebellious, chafing under the weight of too many famous fathers. It makes a kind of perverse sense that a guy who did all he could to avoid Vietnam wound up forcing us to relive it via the invasion of Iraq. But why would a guy who had been right in the thick of Vietnam help him take us there?
Vietnam is the clearest window on McCain's essence. As a nation, we need to learn from Vietnam -- or any trauma -- and move forward based on those lessons. McCain, meanwhile, seems to want to fight it all over again, which I fear has turned him into just the kind of man Winston Churchill had in mind when he said, "I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
Churchill lived in a war-torn era, and he fought when he had to. But like Dwight Eisenhower and others profoundly changed by the human cost of war, he found wisdom along the way. I'd prefer a president who actually paid attention to those kinds of hard-won lessons, as when Churchill said, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."