WASHINGTON (AP) – Four of the senators who will vote next week on putting more troops in Iraq bear the scars of another war in another time, in a place called Vietnam. Three will vote against sending more troops. One will vote the other way.
John McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, was captured by the Vietnamese, tortured and imprisoned for more than five years. Knowing what it’s like to have fought before and lost, he’s with President Bush on sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq.
Chuck Hagel, an infantryman in Vietnam, was seriously wounded by an enemy mine explosion beneath the armored personnel carrier he and his brother were in. He opposes the troop increase.
So does Senate newcomer Jim Webb, an ex-Marine who speaks Vietnamese, who opposed the Iraq war from the outset and campaigned for the Senate wearing the combat boots of a son who recently went off to the war.
“Welcome to hell,” he wrote in March 2003, the month of the U.S. invasion. “Many of us lived it in another era.”
Webb, 60, a Democrat from Virginia, was wounded while commanding a Marine rifle company during some of Vietnam’s bloodiest fighting, in the An Hoa Basin west of Danang. He had shrapnel lodged in his left knee, left arm, back of the head and right kidney. Webb said the experience changed him.
“I was probably older when I was 24 than I am right now,” he said years after the war.
John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran as well as a Vietnam war protester, also opposes sending more troops into Iraq.
Senators next week are to consider a nonbinding measure expressing disagreement with Bush’s plan to augment the forces in Iraq.
All four of the decorated, one-time warriors, the most outspoken of the Senate’s Vietnam-era military veterans, have brought their experiences and passion about Vietnam to a debate that is already packed with emotion.
McCain, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, was captured after his plane was shot down while on a bombing run over Hanoi in October 1967. The then-31-year-old, who landed in a lake with both arms and a leg broken, spent the next 5 years enduring torture and solitary confinement.
He used his memory of books and movie classics like “Casablanca” to keep his spirit alive, despite two suicide attempts after his captors tried to beat a confession out of him. Both times he was caught and beaten again.
Freedom came in March 1973 with the Paris Peace Accords. He went home a hero for refusing an offer to be released ahead of his fellow prisoners.
McCain, 70, a Republican senator from Arizona making his second presidential run, has taken his and the country’s painful lessons from Vietnam into the Iraq debate.
“I’m saying it took us a long time to recover from losing a war, didn’t it?” McCain demanded of a fellow Vietnam veteran, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, at a hearing on Petraeus’ nomination to be top U.S. commander in Iraq.
“Yes, sir,” Petraeus replied.
Hagel, 60, a Republican senator from Nebraska, draws just the opposite conclusion from his Vietnam ordeal.
He’s criticized the troop increase as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam” and challenged fellow lawmakers to take a stand. “What do you think? Why were you elected? If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.”
Hagel served in Vietnam side by side with his brother, Tom, both of whom were infantry squad leaders with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in 1968, the worst year of the war. He suffered burns – they took a decade to heal completely – when an enemy mine exploded underneath their armored military vehicle. Hagel’s brother was knocked unconscious. Hagel pulled him to safety.
Webb returned home from Vietnam a decorated – and still wounded – hero, and came face-to-face with an anti-war movement he found puzzling at first, then infuriating. He bitterly denounced “the rhetoric of the anti-war Left.”
Among those he singled out for criticism by name was then-Rep. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., now Webb’s colleague in the Senate and a presidential hopeful.
This time, Webb is one of those leading the opposition, but always careful to commend the troops.
Webb has considered McCain, another of his Senate colleagues, through the prism of the Vietnam experience, as well.
Assessing McCain’s appeal as a presidential contender in 2000, Webb wrote in an opinion piece that McCain had benefited from a “halo effect” for his POW years.
He wrote that McCain’s “historic contribution, it would seem, was to rot in a Hanoi hellhole for more than five years as the nation ripped itself apart in venomous political debate.”
But Webb went on to say that McCain deserved esteem for his work to normalize relations with Vietnam.
As early as 2002, Webb warned of a Vietnam-style quagmire in Iraq. He broke with the GOP and was elected to the Senate as a Democrat.
Kerry, 63, a Democrat from Massachusetts, won recognition for bravery fighting in Vietnam and for his passion in protesting the war once back home.
In 1969, Navy documents show, Kerry’s swift boat was steaming down the Mekong River with four others when an underwater mine exploded under one of them, injuring its crew. Kerry’s boat was then hit by an explosion that knocked an Army Green Beret into the water. Kerry turned his boat around and, with his injured right arm, pulled the soldier aboard.
Back in the U.S., he became a protest leader and electrified a congressional hearing on Vietnam with the words, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Kerry invoked those words again, just last month, but this time he was talking about Iraq.