David Crisp: ‘Truth’ reminds us of Vietnam’s lost lessons


The movie “Truth” centers on Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett, standing at left. She and others at CBS lost their jobs in a controversy over George W. Bush’s military service records.

Nobody knows for sure who will be the Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. president in November, but we know one thing for sure: Neither will be a military veteran.

The last time that happened was in 2012. Before that, you have to go back to World War II to find a presidential election without a veteran in the race.


David Crisp

Among the Democrats this year, Hillary Clinton was of military age at a time when women were not expected to serve at all and were not allowed to serve in combat. Bernie Sanders applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War but became too old to be drafted before it was issued.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump had various deferments and, for a time, 1-Y status, which meant he would have been drafted only in case of a national emergency. John Kasich, Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz all want to command the U.S. military, but they never volunteered to be commanded.

All of which made the Sunshine Week showing and discussion of “Truth” on Tuesday feel slightly dated. The League of Women Voters in Billings sponsored the movie at the Art House Cinema as part of Sunshine Week activities.

The movie, which showed here last year only at the Art House Cinema, starred Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in a faithful dramatization of Mary Mapes’ book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power.”

Mapes and other CBS staffers were fired in 2004 after allegations surfaced that a news report on George W. Bush’s military service may have relied in part on forged documents. She and Dan Rather, who was nudged out of the anchor chair at CBS after the report, both maintain to this day that the documents were genuine and that they raised serious questions about whether Bush met his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard.

The same year, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. Their allegations have been widely and justifiably discredited. Most of those who raised the allegations had no direct knowledge of his service, and many were clearly still just angry that he later spoke out against the war.

We will probably never know the full story behind those CBS documents. The originals apparently no longer exist, and document analysts say it’s basically impossible to tell if a copied or faxed document is genuine. But it’s pretty clear that the basic story behind Bush’s service was accurate.

His political connections really did help land him in the National Guard. He really was grounded for failing to take a physical. He really did get credit for spending part of his service in Alabama, although nobody seems to remember seeing him do any service there.

The odd thing is that the false allegations against Kerry probably hurt him more in the presidential campaign than the actual facts about Bush hurt him. It’s a funny world.

More important, perhaps, is the question of whether the facts really mattered one way or the other. The allegations against Kerry were disgraceful, worse even than Trump’s slurs against prisoners of war. But that was just a political dirty trick, not a serious reflection on Kerry’s fitness to run the country.

And even if Bush did skate on his last couple of years of military service, so what? Lots of people did. In a way, the whole country did, and we have the footage of desperate Vietnamese clinging to our departing helicopters to prove it.

Even I got out of the final year of my four-year commitment to the U.S. Army, not because I had friends in high places, but because we lost the war. The Army didn’t need me anymore, and I sure didn’t need it.

Since I had been asked to lead a discussion of “Truth” following the showing, such thoughts weighed on my mind last week as I sat on a rock on a mountainside south of Red Lodge and recalled my own military service. It was March 8, the 43rd anniversary of the day I got out of the Army. In my younger years, March 8 was set aside for a day, or two, of heavy drinking, but now it’s a day of contemplation, along with a couple of shots of Jägermeister.

Scarcely anybody had easier military duty than I did—nearly two years of training before spending a year listening on radio to the East German army—but it was still a dark time, a time of petty frustrations, deferred dreams and squandered energy. Images of old friends, some of them now gone, swirled in my memory.

Now, the Vietnam War is further back in time for my freshmen college students than World War II was when I was in college. TV shows clips of the 1968 Democratic Convention, a convention riven by war and violence, and pundits wonder whether a Trump convention will produce similar disruptions.

But the complaints of Trump supporters are trivial. At least in 1968, Vietnam was something worth fighting about, if not worth fighting for. Like most of us, and like all of the presidential candidates, George W. Bush sought a soft landing.

All is forgiven, and all of the hard lessons of Vietnam are forgotten. Except for those who gave everything to that cause, and for those who loved them, everybody now gets a pass.

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