More than 30 years after the last helicopter carried the last American out of Saigon at 07:53 on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War is still being fought in the American media and the presidential campaign.
The subtext of the McCain campaign’s constant references to McCain’s Vietnam War military service and his years as a POW is that by electing McCain, America will finally win the War in Vietnam and redeem our national honor.
While the logic of the claim is absurd, its symbolic and emotional appeal is powerful.
We have no national heroes from the War in Vietnam. The US commander for the bloodiest years of the conflict, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, was vilified by both the Left and Right for his conduct of the war, libeled in the mainstream media, and could not even get the Republican Party nomination for Governor from his home state of South Carolina. The war’s battlefield heroes, including the 246 servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor, are long forgotten. I doubt whether a handful of Americans could name a single one. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., listing the names of more than 58,000 American dead, radiates sorrow and regret, not glory and redemption.
Yet a longing for a heroic conclusion to the Vietnam War lives on in the American psyche, the hope for a release from the deep national shame for our defeat and a yearning for a long-after-the-fact victory.
This longing needs a hero, someone who can embody the revisionist history of the war, and who can convert the war’s shame and loss into a belated (albeit imaginary) triumph.
So many years after the war, where could this hero be found?
Thus far, we have never had a president who served in Vietnam, let alone served with military distinction. Both Clinton and Bush avoided the war. Al Gore, who volunteered for service in Vietnam immediately upon his graduation from Harvard, was too removed from combat to qualify as a hero. Vietnam veteran John Kerry was far too outspoken in his subsequent opposition to the war to qualify as a war hero despite his Silver Star and Bronze Star for heroism and his three Purple Hearts.
But now we have John McCain, a man who even his political opponents hail as a genuine and incontrovertible hero of the Vietnam War.
With McCain's candidacy, Americans for the first time are being offered the chance to elect as president a Vietnam War veteran who has always been unambiguously proud of his service and his conduct in the war.
The McCain message is: Here, at last, is our national hero of the Vietnam War. Here, at last, is the symbolic means of declaring victory and redeeming our national honor. Elect John McCain and we will have won the war we thought we lost so many years ago.
I am sick and tired of the War in Vietnam.
Friends of mine were killed there, and many more friends were wounded, in both body and soul, by their service.
Electing John McCain will not bring them back or heal their wounds.
Nor will it restore America’s honor.
It is time to end the war, once and for all.