Cleland’s War and Peace
Former Senator Settles Scores, Seeks Solace
Most would assume that war makes you a different person. Still, the lingering physical and emotional wounds that come from the battlefield can be hard to fathom. In his new memoir, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove,— former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) offers the chance to understand a veteran’s anguish and triumphs.
Cleland’s book is a broad account of his life from childhood to the present, filled with multiple historical sidebars. A triple amputee from the Vietnam War, Cleland tells an inspiring story. Unfortunately, his tone is too often acrimonious, clouding those parts of his life that are truly inspirational and that accurately paint many veterans’ struggles.
At the outset, Cleland addresses the vulnerabilities that often accompany war veterans, particularity the vulnerability that comes with being trapped in memory. But the book’s first pages make it clear that Cleland is also settling scores, particularly on that four-letter word — Iraq. The “emotional casualties of the misguided wars may be the hardest of all to bear,— he writes.
Such statements juxtapose with Cleland’s own vote to give George W. Bush the authority to pursue military action in Iraq. Further in, Cleland awkwardly recounts why he cast a vote of approval. Not to ruin the surprise, but he says it wasn’t his fault.
In an interview, Cleland outlined his aims with the book. First, he said, he wanted to provide encouragement to veterans because he “survived a hell of a lot.— While serving in Vietnam 40 years ago, Cleland lost three limbs from a grenade explosion in the Battle of Khe Sanh.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including nearly a year convalescing in military hospitals, Cleland went on not only to walk again, but to also have an impressive career in public service. Politics provided a way for him to cope, eventually allowing him to serve three elected positions in Georgia as well as to receive two presidential appointments. President Jimmy Carter appointed Cleland secretary of Veterans Affairs, and President Barack Obama made him secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
As a second goal (and where the Karl Rove part of the subtitle fits in), Cleland said the book serves as an example of what is right and wrong with the political process. In an interview, Cleland rattled off a litany of pejoratives for the former Bush adviser. Rove was described as everything from “a disciple of Lee Atwater— to “downright nasty,— evoking Cleland’s desire to “shower whenever I see him.— Such descriptions give a good preview of the tone of the book.
Infamously, Rove orchestrated a 2002 attack ad against Cleland that juxtaposed the Senator’s image with Osama bin Laden, implying unpatriotic behavior in Cleland’s votes against amendments to create the Department of Homeland Security.
In the context of the 2004 “swift boat— ads against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Cleland reiterated his belief that military service should be off the table in political campaigns. But when Republican opponents bring an absence of military service to politics, another standard just might apply. Cleland was quick to point out both in the book and the interview that his 2002 opponent, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), had received deferments from service in Vietnam.
Inconsistent as he may be, there is no doubt that the book served as a cathartic exercise for Cleland. Indeed, he said that was his third aim in recounting his life story.
The stories of Cleland growing up in a small town in the South and living as a young soldier are idyllic. Some of the vignettes are poignant, as when Cleland discusses his first taste of politics as a young boy with the John F. Kennedy campaign. Other stories — his path to discovery as a young man in college — are pleasant reminders of an earlier generation’s path to adulthood.
Some parts of the book are a little more scandalous. For example, readers come to understand how a Cleland aide had an unwitting role in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. The aide in question, Trey Ragsdale, was a White House intern at the time Lewinsky also interned. Lewinsky, who worked from the Executive Office Building, would frequently call Ragsdale, who worked in the West Wing, to meet in the White House mess for snacks. Clinton, conveniently, always happened to be in the mess when the interns would meet. Ragsdale thus “used to get Monica signed in to the White House without involving anyone in the president’s staff.—
Cleland’s tormented recovery makes for a sympathetic portrait. His agony of trying to walk again and the pain of replacing wound dressings provide a glimpse into veterans’ agonies to this day.
Although Cleland eventually gets around to saying that he has forgiven Rove and now lives in contentment, the book’s tone seems to indicate otherwise. Cleland’s life was rocked by his 2002 election loss and with the subsequent start of the Iraq War in 2003 — so much so that almost 40 years after his injuries he found himself back in Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a severe bout of depression.
As imperfect as the book may be, it is still a powerful testament to one veteran’s struggles and successes. Although Cleland chose to simultaneously address the toils of war and settle scores, one can still come away from his story inspired. His is a classic American triumph — though severely injured in war as a young man, Cleland went on to become a U.S. Senator through sheer determination.