Those who fought wars can also lead the fight for a better country

Published9/30/2007 5:59 AM

In watching Ken Burns' "The War," the compelling documentary on World War II, I found myself drawn to the faces of the veterans being interviewed. You would expect to see deep lines of stress and ravines of remorse etched in their faces, after what they went through.

But no. What I saw were old faces, but not forlorn faces. Their eyes sparkled with satisfaction. Their smiles radiated the joy of a good life, one of accomplishment. When they spoke of the grim things they saw in the war, there was pain and anger in their faces, but also a maturity from meeting the challenge of confronting everything evil civilizations had to offer, and becoming better for it.


The faces of the Greatest Generation.

And they made me deeply miss a man who was one of them. My late father, who fought in the Pacific.

They also made me turn to the DuPage County Veterans Memorial, to look up the names of the 345 men from the county who were killed in World War II. It made me sad, not only for them and their families. But that they couldn't be among their fellow combat veterans in providing the strong leadership and ethics that we saw from them in post-war America.

Strong leadership that took some of them to the very top. Dwight Eisenhower. John Kennedy. You know that their service in World War II -- Eisenhower winning the war in Europe and Kennedy's bravery in action -- had to matter to voters.

Yet, just how important is that anymore?

George Bush Sr., a World War II hero, got stopped from having a second term by a draft dodger, Bill Clinton.

Sen. John Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, not only got beat in his White House bid by Bush Sr.'s son, who sat out the Vietnam War in the relative safety of the Air National Guard. But some other Vietnam veterans managed to unfairly portray Kerry's heroism as a hoax, to Bush's benefit.

Sen. John McCain, a graduate of Annapolis and U.S. Navy pilot, was captured after his fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam. He was tortured, bayoneted and beaten over the 5½ years he spent in a prisoner of war camp. He emerged from this experience to become one of the nation's foremost political leaders in the U.S. Senate. But no one wants him to be president. At least not so far.

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McCain did beat Bush in the New Hampshire primary in the GOP presidential primary in 2000. But Bush went on to win a slew of primaries after that.

I hate to think that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War has made voters think less of the leadership qualities of candidates who fought in it. Then again, that might not be true at all, given what happened to Bush Sr. Keep in mind, too, that former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, who was wounded terribly in World War II and was decorated for heroism, lost his White House bid to the draft-dodger Clinton.

I am not saying heroic military service should automatically make you president. You still have to make a case with voters with good campaigns and stands on issues that appeal to voters. It could be said that Bush Sr., Kerry, McCain and Dole failed in that regard, though McCain is back in the White House race again.

But I do wonder how much distinguished service in the military -- a trait in some of our greatest presidents -- even matters anymore among a voting population of which the majority never fought in a war and have exercised their right to opt out of war.

But military service still ought to count for an awful lot. It can make good leaders of men and women. Just look in the faces of those who fought "The War."

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