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When John Kerry and Chuck Hagel climb Capitol Hill seeking Senate confirmation of their Cabinet nominations, John McCain’s ring is the one they must kiss. McCain is effectively sponsoring the Democrat Kerry but promises tough questions for Hagel, the maverick Republican who may well challenge Pentagon orthodoxies. The real heat, though, comes from the still smoldering ruin of the Vietnam War, which set the three on career paths that now intersect.

In the late 1960s, Hagel had just completed a tour leading infantrymen in combat when Kerry took the controls of his Swift boat — while McCain languished in a Hanoi prison. The unfinished character of the long ago war is revealing itself yet again. Even as each of these boomer politicians is entering what may be the last chapter of his political life, each man’s authority on national-security issues rests on his Vietnam experience.

For war records from almost half a century ago to remain relevant political credentials would be like Franklin Roosevelt centering his war Cabinet in 1941 on veterans of the Spanish-American War. (In fact, Roosevelt’s Hagel was the Republican Henry L. Stimson, whose defining military experience was in World War I.) But Vietnam’s place in American self-understanding is unique, a matter not only of past trauma, but of present denial, and the future’s looming challenge.


The party-transcending bond between Kerry and McCain goes back to their service in the early 1990s on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. Their joint investigation punctured the Rambo-movie myth that American prisoners were still being held in jungle tiger cages. The senators’ work enabled Bill Clinton to end the punitive US trade embargo against Vietnam and normalize diplomatic relations — steps a supposed draft-dodger president could not have authorized without cover from two war heroes. At last, America stopped thinking of itself as the Vietnam War’s main victim.

But that was an incomplete accounting, since the renunciation of victimhood did not lead to an embrace of moral responsibility. John Kerry came to prominence as the veteran who challenged a Senate committee in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” That question kept the focus on American suffering, but Kerry’s testimony actually emphasized brutality inflicted on the Vietnamese. It included veterans’ admissions of widespread rape and mutilation, of random shootings of civilians. Kerry stridently denounced American “war crimes . . . not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” In what was taken at the time as withering criticism of American conduct, Kerry declared that US bombing and enemy terrorism had “ravaged equally.”


In fact, with dead Vietnamese reliably counted in the millions, there was no equality in the ravaging. Vietnam smolders in the American conscience because, while widely acknowledged as a “mistake,” it even now has yet to be confronted as the crime it was. Kerry himself stopped speaking of it in any such terms, but this incomplete ethical reckoning is the subtext of his public life. The same is true of McCain and Hagel. A criminal war made them what they are.

Now, in a striking turn of fate, Hagel and Kerry take major responsibility for US national security just as the nation’s foreign preoccupation swivels back to Asia for the first time since the Vietnam era. Warnings abound, especially from conservative Republicans, of a new Cold War with China — which alone, not incidentally, would justify today’s defense budget. Will the ignorant paranoia that fueled American militance against Hanoi be reignited? In 1971, Kerry mocked that mindset, saying, “The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands.” Today, McDonald’s has taken over China, where it opens new restaurants almost daily. However contentious the US-China rivalry becomes, that emblem of the new global economy suggests the dangerous absurdity of Cold War thinking.


Hagel and Kerry are similar proponents of what is taken to be Vietnam’s main lesson: the importance of “avoiding quagmires.” But while we have accepted this modicum of self-interested pragmatism, we still look at our own motives uncritically. This hubris is evident today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the bloated Pentagon budget.

Self-criticism is the point. America’s national security leaders must know of the country’s capacity not only for mistakes, but also for crimes. The quest for post-Vietnam redemption will be concluded only by unprecedented displays of American restraint and moral humility.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.