Candidates’ service records

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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore reflects on the importance of a candidate’s military service record during a presidential campaign.

(Dunsmore) Do the Vietnam War era military records of President George W. Bush and likely Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry really matter?

According to the prodigious amount of recent commentary and analysis by historians and pundits, they don’t. It’s old news, most of them are saying and voters will ignore it in November.

Historians list presidential contests where military records were not a factor and stress that neither Abraham Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt, two of the greatest war-time presidents, had virtually any combat experience at all.

Pundits argue that Viet Nam is ancient history and that what Bush and Kerry did when they were fresh out of Yale is not relevant to the foreign and military issues the country is facing today. They usually cite the last three elections as proof that military experience doesn’t matter.

I respectfully disagree. I would argue that Lincoln and FDR are irrelevant to today’s debate and that the elections of 1992, ’96 and 2000, are historically unique. Bill Clinton avoided the draft and Bush the Younger had a spotty record with the Air National Guard – but nobody cared. They didn’t care because America had just emerged victorious from the five decades long Cold War and no major new conflict was on the horizon.

But 9/11 changed everything. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the United States was attacked on its own soil and thousands of American’s were killed. Since then, Americans have become an anxious people. They may not tell pollsters that fear of war and terrorism will dictate their vote, but such fears are still very close to the surface.

I think an important reason Howard Dean flamed out was that even among likely supporters, at this time of high anxiety there was a reluctance to put the safety of the country into inexperienced hands.

Actually George W. Bush has made his military record an issue, claiming on Meet the Press, that he is a “war president.” He’s referring to post 9/11 of course, but it seems to me his early decisions regarding war also tell us something about his character. As a draft deferred student, he supported the Viet Nam war and expressed disgust with the anti-war campus protests. But when it came his time to serve, he chose the Texas Air National Guard, which in 1968 was protecting the country from air attacks from Mexico.

And it’s also interesting that among Mr. Bush’s most prominent war-time advisors, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon Advisor Richard Perle, all chose not to serve in Vietnam.

Later, they would all become Cold War hardliners – and – they were the driving force behind the war in Iraq. That’s why, particularly among veterans, they are frequently derided as “chicken hawks.”

So in my view, the focus on what one did in the Vietnam War may have changed, but as another military stalemate looms in Iraq, Viet Nam is still not a dead issue in American politics.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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