02/19/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Kerry and Hagel, Vietnam and Iraq

It's a welcome step to see President Obama appoint two Vietnam veterans to serve as Secretaries of State and Defense. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are two people who have experienced war directly and have voiced publicly their deep ambivalence about war.

Too bad in 2002 neither of them were willing to risk their political standing as U.S. Senators to vote against the congressional resolution that gave George W. Bush carte blanche to do whatever he pleased in Iraq. Kerry and Hagel (like Colin Powell) missed their historical moment. Had they opposed Bush's war they might have made a difference. Now perhaps they can use their cabinet posts to implement a policy or two of atonement.

During the John F. Kennedy administration, Republicans and Democrats among that era's leadership class had shared the experience of World War Two. Nearly everybody served in some capacity and their common understanding carried into their style of governance. There were intense disagreements over foreign policy, civil rights, and a thousand other issues, but there wasn't the gridlock and brinkmanship we see today. Despite their wrangling, in the years after Joe McCarthy's downfall, there was a consensus that governing mattered and after the campaigns were over they had a responsibility to run the country.

The Republican right has been very good in recent years at exploiting the legacy of the Vietnam War for political gain in a way that would have seemed strange to the World War Two generation. By the time Richard Nixon was inaugurated the unpopularity of that war led official Washington to become concerned about the public's new skepticism regarding foreign policy. In the Cold War context the nation's elite sought a cure for what they called the "Vietnam Syndrome," and think tanks and policy makers set out to find ways to counteract the American people's war weariness.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a "noble cause" that had been lost in Washington through a "lack of will." This line of attack allowed Reagan Republicans to smear Democrats as "weak" on defense while at the same time pointing to the general incompetence of the federal government. In 1991, after the conclusion of the First Persian Gulf War, President George Herbert Walker Bush proclaimed: "By golly, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." The elder Bush seemed to rejoice in the idea that he and future U.S. presidents would once again be able to send the Marines wherever they wanted.

In the 1990s, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and other congressional Republicans, most of whom avoided serving in Vietnam, denounced President Bill Clinton as a "draft dodger" for using student deferments to get out of a war he didn't believe in. They questioned his "patriotism" for stating the obvious about Vietnam even though most Americans agreed with him. And then they took it a step further (as they always do) by implying he was a "traitor" for participating in anti-war demonstrations (on "foreign soil") while studying in Great Britain as a Rhodes scholar. (Apparently, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Ted Nugent, Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and the thousands of other right-wingers who also evaded service in Vietnam, unlike Clinton, were ducking out in a way that was consistent with the highest ideals of our national creed).

In 2004, the Democrats nominated a decorated Vietnam War hero to take on George W. Bush to blunt the neo-cons' use of their "strength" in the War on Terror as a cudgel with which to beat down opponents. John Kerry's Ivy League pedigree meant that he could have easily escaped the war, but instead he enlisted in the Navy. He was in Vietnam at a particularly "hot" time (1968) and he risked his life on small and vulnerable naval vessels that were often likened to targets in a shooting gallery. Three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star Medal later, the Democrats thought Kerry impervious to the kind of slander that had been aimed at Clinton.

But they were wrong. Pulling a page from Lee Atwater's book, Karl Rove got a front group to impugn Kerry for not really being a "hero" at all, charging that the U.S. Navy was either duped or duplicitous in awarding him his "undeserved" medals. (Jerome Corsi, of "birther" fame, co-wrote the fabricated Regnery "book" airing the Swift Boat claims.) The Vietnam War became a backdrop for smearing the Democratic nominee based on vile lies. They dug up a gaggle of crusty right-wing hypocrites to pretend they had intimate details of his service. Then they raked him over the coals in TV ads and on talk shows. For the first time in modern history political allies of an incumbent president's reelection campaign urinated all over the military record of the opposing candidate.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the launching of the war in Iraq the car bombings, political killings, and sectarian bloodletting unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation continue. The strategic geniuses among Bush's neo-con dream team -- Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and Donald Rumsfeld -- ended up strengthening Iran's hand in Iraq and cementing bonds between Iranians and Iraqis that would have been highly unlikely without the American intervention. Add to this disaster the grim tally of well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed and 4,487 dead American soldiers, the hundreds of thousands of wounded people, the PTSD, high suicide rates, alcoholism, and other maladies afflicting veterans, and the $3 trillion charged to the national credit card to pay for it, and it begs the question: What was the point?

In the fall of 2002, when Karl Rove orchestrated his grand symphony of war drums they reached their crescendo right before the mid-term elections. Bucking historical trends, he herded the hapless Democrats into a position where they didn't want to look "soft" on "defense" after 9/11. It took some effort but Rove and the neo-cons had the enthusiastic assistance of "journalists," like Judy Miller and Michael Gordon, who screeched in New York Times headlines tales about Saddam Hussein's (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction. They also had the help of think-tankers, like Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who assured us strategic "victory" was just around the corner; and pundits, like Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff, and Christopher Hitchens, who magnanimously shared their boundless sagacity with us in fomenting war.

One of Rove's aims was clearly to transform Bush into a "wartime" president in time for his reelection campaign. The May 1, 2003 "Mission Accomplished" stunt aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, which corporate media types like Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, and Joe Scarborough lapped up, had as much to do with burnishing Bush's Commander-in-Chief bona fides to milk the war for political advantage in 2004 as it did with any grand neo-con objectives in the Middle East.

The whole sordid episode, in hindsight, looks like a national disgrace made possible by the failure of the Democratic Party to act like an "opposition" party. Kerry, Hagel, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Christopher Dodd, Charles Schumer, and all the other Democratic "leaders" who voted for Bush and Cheney's war gave bipartisan sheen to what was a highly partisan project. They all owe the nation something (although I don't know what) for their cowardice when the times called for courage.

The "we all got it wrong" argument we hear often enough from people who seem to regret their role in pushing the war, like Colin Powell and Lawrence Wilkerson, is absolute self-serving bullshit. When that fateful vote took place in October 2002 what was largely missed in the councils of government and in the corporate media was that before voting to give the president the "option" of taking the nation to war any responsible representative must first take into account exactly who that president is and what he or she stands for. No politician or pundit who supported giving Bush the war powers should be allowed to hide behind the notion they had "no idea" he would launch the war and commit the nation to a lengthy occupation of Iraq. In the case of Bush, it was abundantly clear that it was in his nature to use those powers once they were granted to him. One hundred and thirty-three House members and 23 Senators voted against Bush's war, which shows that even in the Congress not everyone "got it wrong."

Often overlooked is that outside of Washington there were millions of people who also didn't "get it wrong." The 15 million people who marched all over the world on February 15th, 2003 against the war didn't "get it wrong." For the first time millions of people mobilized and demonstrated against a war before it had even been launched. The United Nations refused to vote for a resolution authorizing the use of military force, which in terms of international law makes the Iraq War a war of aggression (just like Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait). The governments of France, Germany, China, and Russia, along with the Arab League, the Islamic Conference, and Pope John Paul II, all openly opposed going to war. And the millions of people who participated in anti-war demonstrations in cities across America throughout the fall and winter of 2002-2003 didn't "get it wrong."

What the Iraq War showed was how little those in power -- in government, in think tanks, and in the mainstream media -- have changed since the Vietnam era. Like Vietnam, there were mass protests and solid critiques of the motives and characteristics of the war and occupation, but like Vietnam, the power elite just blew them off. It took many years for the peace movement to influence elite opinion. When you see people like Dick Cheney telling a rapt Charlie Rose about his views on war and peace, it remains to be seen whether the elites will acknowledge their responsibility for the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq at all.