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Vietnam is no Iraq

SOME MONTHS ago, before the election campaigns became heated, a distinguished British journalist called me to ask if I thought Vietnam was finally fading from the American psyche. No one would ask that question today.

Vietnam, like some creature from the black lagoon, has reached up out of the swampy past to wrap its tentacles around the election of 2004, nearly 30 years since that conflict ended in shame with helicopters lifting off from the American Embassy in Saigon.

Round and round we go about what two Yale graduates who want the White House did or did not do when they were in their 20s. And like some virus let loose it has infected many who have come close, producing some of the most awful negative advertising of the entire political year, impugning and ruining reputations right and left.

The now-famous swift boat ads did their best to discredit John Kerry, calling into question his service in Vietnam and his decorations. Much of this has been revealed as a lie, but I am sure damage has been done.

The latest round seems to have been a blatant attempt to besmirch the reputation of the president by implying that he weaseled out of his military duties in the National Guard by using family influence. Unhappily for CBS, the latest documents to that effect turn out to have been unreliable, possibly forgeries. CBS news, once the most respected voice in television, now joins the growing list of news outlets that have badly stumbled over fake stories, driving more nails into the coffin of the public's trust.

And to make matters infinitely worse, I heard the excuse that the thrust of CBS's story was true, even though the evidence was false. Sorry. That is not the way journalism works.

John Kerry deliberately based his early campaign on his Vietnam service. One can understand why. He needed to prove his credentials as a potential commander in chief in these troubled times with the United States fighting two wars and facing a terrorist threat. I am sure this tactic helped him when Democrats came to the decision that he had a better chance of being elected president than Howard Dean.

But it was always a two-edged sword. Kerry's antiwar activities after he left Vietnam were bound to cause some resentment among Vietnam vets. I suspect that much of today's culture war springs from a resentment of the long-haired, rebellious '60s. John Kerry was careful not to burn an American flag or get too close to Jane Fonda, but the antiwar protest was an anathema to some in this country and still is.

Whatever his motives, however, Kerry's campaign became too Vietnam-centric and obsessive.

As for President Bush, he chose not to follow his father's example to enlist in his country's war. He seems not to have objected to Vietnam as a matter of conscience. He just didn't want to go. But then not serving in Vietnam was no less a dishonor than President Clinton's avoidance of that war. Indeed many of their generation made a similar choice. Whatever his detractors might wish, it seems clear that George W. Bush received his honorable discharge from the National Guard, and none of the raking of the muck has come up with anything to the contrary.

But the real problem in this week of dredging up the '60s and '70s is that it is all a distraction from what really matters. Long articles in the nations newspapers, and Dan Rather's face on the cover of Time Magazine with six weeks to go to the general election, are sad comments on our times. George Bush will shortly have served four years as president. He should be judged on what he has or has not done in his present job, not what he did or did not do 30 years ago.

The same is true of John Kerry. He has proved to the country that he can be president, but not yet that he should be president. And in that equation what he did in Vietnam 30 years ago will play only a minor role.

If the candidates are moving on to other issues now all, well and good. More than 120 million Americans have been born and are coming of age since that long lost war in Southeast Asia, and today an impending disaster -- potentially far worse than Vietnam -- looms in Iraq to cloud that generation's future.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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