The presidential pageant has now risen full in the sky and is blocking out the sun. Until November, we dwell in a weird half-light, stumbling into spooky shadows but shielded from the harsh glare of the nation’s actual circumstances. Down is up, fiction is truth, momentous realities are made to disappear from the public mind. The 2004 spectacle is not the first to mislead grossly and exploit emotional weaknesses in the national character. But this time the consequences will be especially grim.

The United States is “losing” in Iraq, literally losing territory and population to the other side. Careful readers of the leading newspapers may know this, but I doubt most voters do. How could they, given the martial self-congratulations of the President and relative restraint from his opponent? High-minded pundits tell us not to dwell on the long-ago past. But the cruel irony of 2004 is that Vietnam is the story. The arrogance and deceit–the utter waste of human life, ours and theirs–play before us once again. A frank discussion will have to wait until after the election.

Several Sundays ago, an ominous article appeared in the opinion section of the New York Times: “One by One, Iraqi Cities Become No-Go Zones.” Falluja, Samarra, Ramadi, Karbala, the Sadr City slums of Baghdad–these and other population centers are now controlled by various insurgencies and essentially ceded by US forces. This situation would make a joke of the national elections planned for January. Yet, if US troops try to recapture the lost cities, the bombing and urban fighting would produce massive killing and destruction, further poisoning politics for the US occupation and its puppet government in Saigon–sorry, Baghdad.

Three days later, the story hit page one when anonymous Pentagon officials confirmed the reality. Not to worry, they said: The United States is training and expanding the infant Iraqi army so it can do the fighting for us. That’s the ticket–Vietnamization. I remember how well General Westmoreland articulated the strategy back in the 1960s, when war’s progress was measured by official “body counts” and reports on “new” fighting forces on the way.

But this time Washington decided the United States couldn’t wait for “Iraqization,” a strategy that might sound limp-wristed to American voters. The US bombing and assaults quickly resumed. The Bush White House is thus picking targets and second-guessing field commanders, just as Lyndon Johnson did forty years ago in Indochina. Bush is haunted by the mordant remark a US combat officer once made in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Meanwhile, Bush’s war is destroying the US Army, just as LBJ’s war did. After Vietnam, military leaders and Richard Nixon wisely abolished the draft and opted for an all-volunteer force. When this war ends, the volunteer army will be in ruins and a limited draft lottery may be required to fill out the ranks. After Iraq, men and women will get out of uniform in large numbers, especially as they grasp the futility of their sacrifices. Yet Bush’s on-the-cheap warmaking against a weak opponent demonstrates that a larger force structure is needed to sustain his policy of pre-emptive war. Kerry says he wants 40,000 more troops, just in case. Old generals doubt Congress would pay for it, given the deficits.

Iraq is Vietnam standing in the mirror. John Kerry, if he had it in him, could lead a national teach-in–re-educate those who have forgotten or prettified their memories but especially inform younger voters who weren’t around for the national shame a generation ago. Kerry could describe in plain English what’s unfolding now in Iraq and what must be done to find a way out with honor. In other words, be a truth-teller while holding Bush accountable.

Kerry won’t go there, probably couldn’t without enduring still greater anger. His war-hero campaign biography inadvertently engendered slanderous attacks and still-smoldering resentments. Kerry, like other establishment Dems, originally calculated that the party should be as pro-war as Bush, thus freeing him to run on other issues. That gross miscalculation leaves him proffering a lame “solution”–persuading France, Germany and others to send their troops into this quagmire. Not bloody likely, as the Brits say.

Bush can’t go near the truth for obvious reasons. If elected, he faces only bad choices–bomb the bejeezus out of Iraq, as Nixon bombed Vietnam and Cambodia, or bug out under the cover of artful lies. The one thing Bush’s famous “resolve” cannot achieve is success at war. Never mind, he aims to win the election instead.

So this presidential contest resembles a grotesque, media-focused war in which two sides skirmish for the attention of ill-informed voters. Bush won big back when he got Iraq off the front pages and evening news with his phony hand-off of sovereignty and his chest-thumping convention. But then his opponents–the hostile insurgents in Iraq–struck back brilliantly and managed to put the war story back in the lead on the news (might we expect from them an “October surprise” of deadlier proportions?). In this fight, Kerry is like a bystander who might benefit from bad news but can’t wish for it. Most combat correspondents, with brave exceptions, hesitate to step back from daily facts and tell the larger truth. Maybe they are afraid to sound partial.

The timing of events in Iraq does not fit propitiously with the election calendar. A majority has already concluded that it was a mistake to fight this war, but public credulity is not yet destroyed. A majority still wants to believe the strategy may yet succeed, that Iraq won’t become another dark stain in our history books. During Vietnam, the process of giving up on such wishful thinking took many years. The breaking point came in 1968, when a majority turned against the war. LBJ withdrew from running for re-election. Nixon won that year with his “secret plan” to win the peace. The war continued for another five years. US casualties doubled.

This time, public opinion has moved much faster against the war, but perhaps not fast enough. People naturally are reluctant to conclude that their country did the wrong thing, that young people died for a pointless cause. If the war story does stay hot and high on front pages, a collapse of faith might occur in time for this election, but more likely it will come later. Nixon won a landslide re-election in 1972 with his election-eve announcement that peace was at hand, the troops were coming home. In the hands of skilled manipulators, horrendous defeat can be turned into honorable victory. Temporarily at least. When the enemy eventually triumphed in Indochina, Nixon was already gone, driven out for other crimes.