TCS Daily

Our Political San Andreas

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - August 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Vietnam is America's fault line. Like San Andreas, everyone knows it's there, but it enters our collective consciousness only sporadically -- in the form of an earthquake. The most recent quakes were in 1992, when draft dodger Bill Clinton ran for president against a war hero, and in 2000, when National Guardsman George W. Bush ran against a man whose service consisted of writing stories in military publications.

The war in Vietnam divided America like few events in our history. It made people reflect on the meaning and importance of such things as patriotism, life, death, trustworthiness, and power. It was about what kind of people we are and what our mission in this world is. Even the men who fought in Vietnam were of different minds about it. Even individual men were of different minds: We might call this condition ambivalence, but somehow that doesn't do justice to the conflictedness and perplexity people such as John Kerry felt and continue to feel.

John Kerry is the personification of the great rift. He is simultaneously a war hero and a war protester. One moment he was with the establishment; the next he was anti-establishment. To the Right, he went over to the enemy. To the Left, he came around. Nobody should be surprised that he remains deeply conflicted about his experiences or that he is a lightning rod for criticism by his fellow soldiers and sailors. He is a living symbol of something we cannot, and perhaps should not, forget.

One wonders whether a man who is so conflicted has the capacity to lead a great nation in dangerous and uncertain times. He seems sometimes to be living in the past, to be refighting old battles, to be trying to find himself. Some will say that it's others who insist on refighting old battles, but this would not be accurate. John Kerry can't let go of his past. He, not his critics, is the one who brings it up. Again and again. Even his supporters acknowledge this.

Sometimes I wonder whether -- and if so, when -- we will "get over" Vietnam. It would be nice to think that we'll get over it when all who served in that war, or who avoided service in that war, are dead. There may be a lessening of hostilities when we have a presidential election in which none of the candidates was old enough to have served, so that no question of anyone's military credentials arises. But everyone who fought in the American Civil War is long dead, and, while passions about that war have undoubtedly subsided, they have not died. The reason is simple: The central issue raised by the Civil War -- the proper relation of states to the union -- is perennial.

I believe that the fissure that is Vietnam will never close. It will elicit strong emotions a hundred years from now, when nobody who had anything to do with it is alive. Nor is it necessarily bad that it will never close, for it reminds us to keep asking important questions about what kind of people we are, what binds us together as a people, what we stand for (if anything), and where we are going. San Andreas will never disappear from the face of the earth, so we had better learn to live with, on, and around it. The same, I believe, is true of Vietnam.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington. In addition to being a lawyer and a philosopher, he has a Master's degree in history. His stepfather, Jerry Rowbotham, is a Vietnam veteran. Burgess-Jackson blogs at AnalPhilosopher, Animal Ethics, and The Ethics of War. He is a TCS contributor.


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