One of the things that’s struck me about the difference between this presidential campaign and the last 40 or so has been the lack of war talk. If ever there was an indication that the realities of war-without-end has ground out nearly all the enthusiasm in the country for foreign military ventures, it’s that candidates are not crisscrossing the land rattling sabers and promising death to somebody, a staple of national politics in almost every country.
In peacetime this usually meant questioning a candidate’s readiness to be commander-in-chief and, in the case of men of a certain age, whether or not they actually served. This was taken to great heights in the 1992 campaign during which Bill Clinton’s opposition to the Vietnam war was a major part of the GOP’s strategy to paint him as irresponsible, unpatriotic and unready – a cleaned up hippie in a suit.
Here in North Carolina, a state that’s home to huge numbers of active and retired military folks, issues of war and peace are important and personal. People here want to hear specifics, not just lofty rhetoric about staying strong. Staying strong as defined over the past decade has put a hell of a burden on communities throughout this state, especially in the base towns of eastern NC. In these places, it’s been endless war with all the sacrifice and hardship that entails. They have a right to a little more attention. It’s a shame that the pending sequester of roughly $500 million in military spending over 10 years, a crude tool employed during last year’s even cruder political joust over the debt ceiling, is getting more attention in this election cycle than those wounded or killed on the battlefield and their loved ones back home.
Somehow the other night, in the most important speech of his life, the man who wants to be commander-in-chief failed to mention the sacrifices of the past decade or even give a nod to the tens of thousands serving today in a hostile places around the globe. He did not say “Afghanistan,” a nation this country invaded and currently occupies along with our NATO allies. And, with the erasure of George W. Bush from the history of the Republican Party almost complete, he dared not mention Iraq.
Mr. Romney is going to have to change that if he wants to reap the votes that are waiting for him in the 910 area code and elsewhere in the state. And he’s going to have to offer something tangible alongside the talk about preserving freedom around the world. There’s a price to that in human terms and when he travels to the base towns of North Carolina, he’ll have to meet some of the people who have paid dearly. He’ll have to look them in they eye and talk about where and when and why. He’ll have to talk VA and benefits and PTSD. He won’t just be able to talk tough about Syria and Iran, he’ll have to talk about the realities of Afghanistan and the consequences of Iraq. He’ll have to provide some proof that he won’t just restaff the DOD and his cabinet with the same people who sent millions overseas to fight without a clear objective and a way out.
And if there is a just God, he’ll have to talk about Vietnam. He’ll explain how it was that he stayed out of service in Vietnam at the same time he protested in favor of the war and others being drafted to fight it. When he visits Fayetteville or Havelock, he won’t be able to sell the idea that his time in France during the war was tough because of anti-Vietnam sentiment. He’ll have to talk about it because of his own history and also because it taught this country a harsh lesson about war and commitment. Many North Carolinians who fought in that war have sons and daughters and grandkids in uniform today. They deserve to know something of what the future holds and they deserve to know from any candidate for president, especially one who was able to serve at the time, what lessons he learned from ‘Nam.
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