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Commentary: Vietnam is not the test; but Cheney failed the test

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SAN DIEGO -- It's not just during presidential elections that Americans have to put up with the annoyance of politicians evoking Vietnam for their own benefit.

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This brand of political gimmickry is never dormant. It can erupt at any time -- like now, for instance, as the country debates what to do in a new war, the one in Iraq.

The latest eruption has me feeling conflicted. You see, I normally get fed up with politicians who bring up their service in Vietnam to prove their machismo or challenge the machismo of an opponent who steered clear of Southeast Asia. But when the practical effect is that Vice President Cheney gets the rhetorical equivalent of a punch in the nose, I can't help but grin.

Part of the reason I'm fed up with hearing about Vietnam is that I'm also fed up with baby boomers refighting the Vietnam War. Whether the idea is to bring up Vietnam to prove one's heroism or to challenge the courage of others, the device often leaves many of those in our 30s scratching our heads, feeling as if our elders are speaking some mysterious language only they understand.

As someone who spent part of the 1960s in diapers, the obsession of the baby boomers with Vietnam has never made any sense to me. But it made even less sense after the Sept. 11 attacks, when -- with the nation at war -- it seemed downright irresponsible to use what someone was like as a young man 30 years ago as a way of assessing whether he had the mettle to keep America safe for the next 30 years and beyond. The memory of Vietnam also made a mess of the 2004 election, when both Democrats and Republicans had trouble sticking to their own scripts about whether it was fair to bring up how George Bush and John Kerry behaved as young men in the early 1970s. For both parties, the short answer turned out to be: "It depends. When it makes my guy look good, it's fair. And when it makes my guy look bad, it's not."

Yet, at the same time, I'm also someone who -- while supportive of President Bush and much of his administration -- has often thought that the White House would be much better off if the vice president resigned.

So I loved it when Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a former war supporter turned war critic, let Cheney have it after the vice president accused critics of the Iraq War of losing their "backbone."

As Murtha rightly pointed out, that is bold talk for someone who -- during the Vietnam War -- avoided military service by seeking and receiving five deferments because, as Cheney later explained, he had "other priorities" as a young man.

I bet he did.

Cheney dodged military service when he had the chance, and now he has the audacity to say that others lack courage. He needed to be called on it, and, personally, I'm glad Murtha did just that.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with current policy on Iraq, or about whether Murtha was right to call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, or about whether Bush and Cheney are right that withdrawing would be a terrible mistake. None of this helps us gauge whether Murtha is correct in his assessment that our soldiers have gone from liberators to a "catalyst for violence," or whether it was fair for the White House to respond to Murtha's dissent by likening the decorated Vietnam veteran to filmmaker Michael Moore and the left-wing fringe.

While justified, Murtha's slap at Cheney was, at best, a sideshow. But it might have some limited practical benefit: It gives us the chance to finally put to rest this tired technique of using one's service in Vietnam, or lack thereof, as some sort of yardstick to measure courage.

That should never have been the standard. Vietnam may have helped define a generation. But it doesn't define the character, self-worth and leadership ability of every human in that generation.

Now why has it taken some Americans so long to figure that out?

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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