WASHINGTON - There it was, slapped across the front page of the newspaper outside my hotel room door Thursday morning.
"I'm Sick and Tired of Refighting The Vietnam War.''
Finally, Arizona Sen. John McCain had weighed in.
Here, among the many stirring war memorials on the national mall, every tribute to bravery also reminds us that each war had its own controversies. Should Lincoln have fired McClellan long before he did? Should we have entered World War II much earlier than we did? Could more American lives have been preserved by invading Europe somewhere other than at the steep beachhead of Normandy? Was it right to use The Bomb?
For months now, we have relived the horrors of the Vietnam War. Then, Thursday brought the more-than-welcome McCain message: It's old news, and no good purpose is served reliving every detail in the middle of a presidential race more than 30 years later.
What added to the utter shell shock we now feel from the revived debate over Vietnam is that, when it really blossomed at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month, we were smack dab in the middle of debating another war.
The political sniping about Iraq began in almost exact inverse proportion to the chance such carping could do any good for the people who really mattered - the soldiers in the field, their families back at home, and the innocent Iraqi citizenry. The farther we move from the Capitol Hill debate over congressional authorization, the louder the war opponents have grown.
While the political right hires special prosecutors to quietly and methodically investigate their enemies, the anti-war left employs its only meaningful tool in this day of Republican rule in Washington - the protest. The contrived din of street demonstrations this week in New York is as sure to annoy as it is certain to change few minds.
With Howard Dean as their leader, these anti-warriors whipped themselves into a national frenzy and, a year ago right now, proclaimed themselves proud members of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party'' and nearly captured the presidential nomination. While the debate propelled the Dean candidacy for months before he finally managed to single-handedly submarine it, little has changed in the Middle East.
But in debating Iraq, Mr. Dean's candidacy guaranteed that we would have to ignore the painful Vietnam lessons against political meddling, and that we would have to rehash the 1960s. As a means of political survival, Mr. Kerry moved left in the primaries by voicing complaints about the execution of the Iraqi war, then used his war experience in Vietnam to move rightward to appeal to a general election audience.
The first political maneuver worked like a charm. We don't yet know whether he can pull off the second. One thing is clear - it's no fun finding out.
Thinking back over the past couple of presidential elections, I find it amazing - not surprising, but amazing - that so much has changed since 1996, when President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole hardly ever mentioned foreign policy. Even then hatred of America was boiling overseas, but the haters had yet to express it in a way we dared notice.
By then we had had the fallen airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, the truck bomb at the barracks in Lebanon, the first Gulf War, and the first bombing of the World Trade Center, but we somehow didn't put it together. There was no mandate for action against terrorists. Instead, we cared about welfare reform.
This year, the candidates mention domestic policy here and there, but their hearts don't seem to be in it. It's understandable. After all, what voter is going to make a decision this year about the presidency based on a health care insurance proposal?
No, we live in serious times, where life and death questions greet us every morning and linger in our brains as we close our eyes at night.
It is a time for uncomfortable discussions about war strategies and tactics, for talk of successes and failures. It is a time for which a future generation will no doubt build another inspiring monument somewhere here on the mall.
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