The deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid was an ironically perfect setting for the September 7 “Commander-in-Chief Forum” debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What was originally a World War II flattop is now a museum, and hovering in the background of the set was a Vietnam-era A-4 jet, and a good deal of the discussion was framed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump and Clinton are almost certainly the final “Baby Boomer” presidential candidates, and the ghosts of the generation haunted the evening.
The Intrepid, one of 24 Essex-class carriers, was launched in 1943. She fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, survived five kamikaze strikes and continued in service until 1974. It is hard to imagine a better talisman of America’s “greatest generation,” or at least its extraordinary victory in the Pacific. The A-4 Skyhawk was the workhorse naval strike plane of the early Vietnam years; at one point in 1966 the Intrepid was launching an aircraft every 26 seconds. In NBC’s staging of the New York forum, a gleaming A-4 was highlighted in a golden glow in the background, almost silhouetting the candidates.
Clinton is now 68, Trump 70; they were children of the Vietnam era and it is hard to avoid the feeling that both have internalized the supposed “lessons” of that war. At the forum, both these potential commanders-in-chief expressed deep reservations about the purposes and efficacy of American military power. Both clearly saw Iraq as a kind of replay of Vietnam.
Hillary was in full apology mode when asked to explain her 2003 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq: “From my perspective, it was my mistake.” And she quickly went on to assert, “We are not putting ground troops in to Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting troops into Syria.” At the moment, there are more 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and with operations to retake Mosul looming, the Obama Administration has announced plans to send another 500. The deployment includes a hefty portion of commandos and teams of advisers with Iraqi army battalions; they are most definitely “on the ground.” This is double-talk that Lyndon Johnson would approve.
Indeed, Hillary’s further purpose was to deny Trump his anti-Iraq talking points. “He told Howard Stern he supported it,” Clinton reminded the audience. Trump insisted he was “totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from 2004.” He then tried to change the subject to the question of “taking [Iraq’s] oil….you know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, believe me, there was no victor there.” Trump also sounded Nixonian in saying he had a secret plan to destroy ISIS.
Journalist Andrew Sullivan once observed that the Baby Boom generation should not be understood as a demographic cohort, but culturally by a set of ideas shaped by the social revolutions of the 1960s, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements; by this definition, Barack Obama qualifies. America has been governed by Boomers since 1992, and we have at least one more Boomer commander-in-chief to go. Is there light at the end of tunnel, or is it an oncoming train?