Kerry's Lost Opportunity
He could have healed the wounds of Vietnam. Instead, he tried to exploit them.
BY HERMAN JACOBS
Thursday, August 26, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
A couple of weeks ago, when she (along with most of the rest of America) learned about the Swift Boat Veterans' campaign against John Kerry, a solidly conservative Internet pal posted the following message to our discussion group:
"I really wish they wouldn't do this. It's not going to be pretty and will probably backfire. And the Dems will counter with the missing months of Bush's [National Guard] duty. It was a freaking 30 years ago, let it alone."
In her desire to "let it alone," my online friend expresses a sentiment shared by a substantial majority of her fellow Americans. The subject of Vietnam is one that most of us--especially those of us who came of age during that era--would very much wish to let alone.
Long ago we had given up almost every hope that the nation would--in our lifetimes--resolve upon anything close to a shared understanding of its Vietnam experience. All the arguments one way or the other had been said and heard so many times that only the most boorish could be foolish enough to think that more talk would change anyone's opinion. Age and experience might change some minds (mine, for instance; I was an antiwar teenager in the early 1970s), but further discussion was futile.
In the decade following our ignominious withdrawal, communists would fertilize Cambodia's rice fields with the bones of millions of human skeletons. Of the millions desperately fleeing the daily terrors of communist rule, countless thousands would perish in the Gulf of Thailand or the South China Sea when their pathetically www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0786407859/ref=pm_dp_ln_b_6/104-7081149-4675141?v=glance&s=books&vi=reviewsrickety boats capsized under their own weight. If those millions of deaths weren't enough to convince you that fighting communism in Southeast Asia was a truly righteous cause, then mere words could never persuade you.
Whenever the question of Vietnam percolated to the surface of the nation's collective political consciousness, as it did briefly during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, the protagonists on either side only became yet more distrustful and disdainful of the other. And so years ago, wearied by their own arguments as much as by the arguments of their antagonists, sensible majorities of both the supporters and the opponents of the Vietnam War yielded to an unwritten domestic truce, composed of two principles:
* Those who participated in the war, with the exception of anyone at or above the rank of general officer, are entitled to public honor for their service.
* Those who actively opposed the war, with the exception of the most extreme Jane Fonda-types, are not to be branded as cowards or traitors to their country.
Depending on one's political bent, one or the other of the two prongs of the domestic truce might be accepted only grudgingly, but it was accepted nonetheless, because most of us had become convinced that the best way to handle any question involving Vietnam was just to "let it alone."
Yes, there would still be occasional flare-ups when the domestic truce would be tested. Until recently, the most notable episodes involved Dan Quayle and Mr. Clinton, who--because they had neither very actively opposed the war nor fought in it--did not seem to be entitled to the truce's honors and amnesties. Those petty skirmishes over Mr. Clinton's ROTC dodge and Mr. Quayle's "alternative" service stirred up some old antagonisms but quickly subsided when the larger public declined to enlist. And so, the truce held.
In perfect accord with that domestic truce, a memorial was constructed--an angled black wound cut into the very earth of the nation's capital--bespeaking loss, but essentially silent on every other question. Even the rules of the design competition for the memorial had commanded that the winning entry must "make no political statement about the war." Thus, the official National Park Service Web site still proclaims, "The purpose of this memorial is to separate the issue of the sacrifices of the veterans from the U.S. policy in the war, thereby creating a venue for reconciliation," as if true reconciliation could ever emerge from a silence that prohibits public contemplation of what "the sacrifices of the veterans" were for.
Of course, each of us individually might still arrive at a personal understanding of what those sacrifices were for, but in the collective consciousness of the nation, for the sake of the domestic truce, the "sacrifice of the veterans" could be attached to nothing beyond itself. Sacrifice unattached to an object is meaningless, and reconciliation cannot emerge from meaninglessness. As a consequence, that self-imposed silence, though necessary perhaps to preserve the domestic truce, has never been a communal experience of national reconciliation. It has always been a divided silence, separating on one side those still too proud to admit their error and on the other side those who know that forgiveness cannot be bestowed upon someone too proud to accept it, much less to seek it. Such silence could never bring reconciliation, but it remained sufficient to permit the continuation of the domestic truce.
The domestic truce has held for decades. But in the passing of those years the nation still found no real peace on the question of Vietnam.
At some brief moments it became possible to imagine, even to hope, that a president who had come of age in the Vietnam era might be exactly the right figure to bind up the nation's psychic wounds from that troubled time. For the president embodies the role most akin to a national priest or national confessor (or, if you prefer a more modern metaphor, national grief counselor), and so one might hope that a president who came of age during Vietnam, by his own example of transcendence, might lead the nation toward a long-delayed reconciliation.
Yet for reasons that seem obvious, Bill Clinton, the first president who had come of age during Vietnam, could not bring about the healing. He could not do it because no man rightly can forgive the sins he has committed against others. Though they are such different men, George W. Bush no better than Mr. Clinton could bind up the wounds of Vietnam because he, too, did not fight in that war. So the best Messrs. Clinton and Bush could do was just to "let it alone." To their credit, that is what they both tried to do.
After Messrs. Clinton and Bush, it was clear that only a man who himself had actually fought in Vietnam would be capable of healing the wounds of that war. If a man like John McCain or Bob Kerrey were to ascend to the presidency, he might possess the moral authority to elucidate a shared communal understanding and to dispense--on behalf of all those who sacrificed--the forgiveness that would be necessary to put Vietnam behind us.
And what about John Kerry? Might he have become the man finally to bind up the wounds of Vietnam? Yes, I believe he could have performed that healing, perhaps more completely even than a John McCain or a Bob Kerrey, precisely because John Kerry was both "sinner" and "sinned against." No one could have better explained to the nation how the world looks different with the passage of time.
He could have explained that although he is remains deeply proud to have served his country in war, he is deeply sorry that in his proudly foolish youth he spoke such vile words about the other men who fought in that war, many of whom were still fighting when he dishonored them. He could have explained that there were good men and women who supported the Vietnam War and good men and women who opposed it. He could have explained that, even though he still believes he was right to oppose many things about the war, he now knows he was wrong--unequivocally wrong--to say and do the fraudulent things he said and did when he returned from Vietnam.
As a sinner against those who fought in the war and against the nation as a whole, John Kerry could have sought forgiveness on behalf of all those who opposed the war. As a man who fought in that same war, Mr. Kerry could have offered forgiveness on behalf of his fellow warriors to all those who sinned against them. At one and the same time, Mr. Kerry could have inspired forgiveness and received forgiveness.
Mr. Kerry could have begun the healing by saying something like this:
"Vietnam has been discussed and written about without an adequate statement of its full meaning.
What is ignored is the way in which our experience during that period reflected in part a positive affirmation of American values and history, not simply the more obvious negatives of loss and confusion. What is missing is a recognition that there exists today a generation that has come into its own with powerful lessons learned, with a voice that has been grounded in experiences both of those who went to Vietnam and those who did not. What is missing and what cries out to be said is that neither one group nor the other from that difficult period of time has cornered the market on virtue or rectitude or love of country. . . .
The race for the White House should be about leadership, and leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them; that one help identify the positive things that we learned about ourselves and about our nation, not play to the divisions and differences of that crucible of our generation
We do not need to divide America over who served and how."
In fact, John Kerry did say something like that. The words quoted above are his words.
He spoke them, in 1992, but he did not mean them.
Yet we do not fault Mr. Kerry for failing to seek the reconciliation that history seemed to have placed uniquely within his power to achieve. In the absence of healing, the nation could have continued to observe the well-established domestic truce. We all would have been content to continue to "let it alone," just as we have done for the past 25 years.
But now we can't "let it alone." The reason we can't "let it alone" is that John Kerry won't let us "let it alone."
We can't let it alone because Mr. Kerry has pursued a strategy that sounds out old angers with a dissonant message that takes the two prongs of the domestic truce and makes them serve his own advantage. The domestic truce had required that those who served in Vietnam should receive honor. So Mr. Kerry now exalts that half of the truce--not humbly as befits a genuine war hero, but constantly and immodestly waving the bloody shirt of his Vietnam service in the faces of his critics whenever any connection, no matter how illogical, can be drawn between their criticism and Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service.
Thus, when Dick Cheney criticized Mr. Kerry's positions on national security (an obvious and fair target given Mr. Kerry's voting record on defense issues), Mr. Kerry responded by "saying it is 'inappropriate' for Cheney to criticize his military service when he 'got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do.' " The man who not long ago high-mindedly observed that it is wrong to "divide America over who served and how," now tells us:
"I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do, criticizing somebody who fought for their country and served."
Never mind that Mr. Cheney has never breathed a word of criticism of Mr. Kerry's military service in Vietnam. Also never mind that Messrs. Bush and Cheney have never even breathed a word of criticism of Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities. For them to criticize Mr. Kerry's antiwar record would violate the second prong of the domestic truce. So in questioning the service, or lack thereof, of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, Mr. Kerry attempts to turn to his advantage the curious fact, mentioned above, that although the domestic truce grants honor to those who fought in the war and grants amnesties to those who actively opposed it, those in the middle (like Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Quayle) receive no protection.
As the above story illustrates, long before the SwiftVets arrived on the scene, Mr. Kerry all by himself had succeeded in demeaning his service by transforming it into a crass non sequitur. As one vet put it, "Nobody who claims to have seen the action he does would so shamelessly flaunt it for political gain." In his run for the presidency, Mr. Kerry's Vietnam references became so ubiquitous that one pundit adopted the practice of never mentioning Mr. Kerry's name without the aside that he had "by the way served in Vietnam." With far less humor, Howard Dean and Mr. Kerry's other Democrat primary rivals made the same point, noting that his Vietnam record had "become the stock answer for almost every issue for Kerry's campaign."
The predominant quality revealed in Mr. Kerry's spinning and unspinning his personal history in the Vietnam era is that, like everything else in his political life (from the SUVs he owns but doesn't own, to the medals he tossed but didn't toss, to the war in Iraq he supports but doesn't support), he's trying to have it both ways. But because of how the Vietnam era tore this country apart and still weighs on the nation's political soul, Mr. Kerry's trying to have it both ways about that war is so much more telling than his SUV moment or even his flip-flops on the current war.
When Mr. Kerry came back from Vietnam, he said:
"We are ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom . . . is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy."
But now he sounds rather proud of what he did in Vietnam. He proclaims:
"We fought for this nation because we loved it . . . I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president."
Please tell me which statement was true. If we believe Mr. Kerry's statement from 30 years ago that the war in Vietnam had nothing to do with the preservation of freedom, much less with the defense of America itself, then how can we possibly take him at his word now when he brags constantly that he "defended this country" by fighting in that war? Isn't that exactly the kind of assertion that young John Kerry called "criminal hypocrisy." But old John Kerry has never retracted young John Kerry's claim that the war in Vietnam had nothing to do with the defense of America's freedom. To the contrary, when given the opportunity to explain what he meant back then, old John Kerry contends that young John Kerry's claims were "honest":
"Needless to say, I'm proud that I stood up. I don't want anybody to think twice about it. I'm proud that I took the position that I took to oppose it. I think we saved lives, and I'm proud that I stood up at a time when it was important to stand up, but I'm not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times."
So you see, for old John Kerry the only thing really blameworthy about young John Kerry was that he didn't always phrase things "artfully" (i.e., in a way that would make it easier for old John to have it both ways). That these statements are coming back around to haunt old John is just a problem with young John's inartful phrasing.
As for his "band of brothers," here's a little of what Mr. Kerry said about them in 1971:
"There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare."
As the SwiftVets have now reminded us, in preening Senate testimony before the eyes of the nation, Mr. Kerry publicized accusations that his comrades had:
"raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan . . . . not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
And specifically with regard to the actions of the Swifties with whom he served," here's what Mr. Kerry said in 1971 about their service:
"We established an American presence in most cases by showing the flag and firing at sampans and villages along the banks. Those were our instructions, but they seemed so out of line that we finally began to go ashore, against our orders, and investigate the villages that were supposed to be our targets. We discovered we were butchering a lot of innocent people."
How can it possibly be that his actions 30 years ago, which Mr. Kerry himself described as shameful war crimes, are now so undeniably honorable that no one is allowed to question Mr. Kerry's account of those actions, not even the very men whom Mr. Kerry accused of committing war crimes?
Why must we treat it as acceptable for John Kerry to have demeaned the honor of thousands of his former comrades in 1971 while those men were at that very moment still in Vietnam's swamps and jungles fighting for their lives, but now, when Mr. Kerry himself is well out of harm's way sleeping comfortably every night on the cushion of billions his wife inherited from her dead Republican husband, it's politically incorrect for the men Mr. Kerry called war criminals to raise a question about his antiwar activities?
Why are we are not permitted to consider the possibility, supported by the testimony of credible witnesses, that a man who said he was ashamed to have been involved in war crimes against innocent civilians would not have taken advantage of a few very minor scrapes to extricate himself from further participation in activities he considered to be shameful war crimes?
Why is that in 1971 it was patriotic dissent for John Kerry to tell young men to avoid going to Vietnam (because it was dishonorable), but now an official web site of Mr. Kerry's Democratic Party suggests it was dishonorable for George W. Bush not to go to Vietnam that same year? Yes, the official DNC web site throws down the gauntlet with the statement: "Kerry vs. Bush: Compare their service." To help us make that comparison, the Democrats have for years questioned every last detail about Mr. Bush's National Guard record. But as soon as anyone points out the contradictions in Mr. Kerry's actions during the Vietnam era, Mr. Kerry hides behind his tiny "band of brothers" and wraps himself in the flag with neopatriotic statements like this:
"We call her Old Glory. The stars and stripes forever. I fought under that flag, as did so many of those people here tonight and all across our country. That flag flew from the gun turret right behind my head. It was shot through and through and tattered, but it never ceased to wave in the wind. It draped the caskets of men I served with and friends I grew up with."
Is that the same Old Glory displayed in so mocking a fashion on the cover of Mr. Kerry's antiwar book, "The New Soldier"?
Yes, 30 years have passed, it was a long time ago, and many people who opposed that war have quietly changed their views without ever publicly apologizing for the things they did back then that were so harmful to the men who were still fighting in that war. The best Mr. Kerry can come up with in the way of an apology for the disgusting things he said about his former comrades is a cravenly vapid statement that his antiwar activities were "a little bit excessive . . . a little bit over the top." Joe Crecca, whose six years in as a POW must entitle him to some respect on the question, does not recall Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities as quite so benign:
"The rigors and hardships of being a POW aside, I remember the so-called "peace movement" and peace marches and rallies that were taking place back home in the United States.
Our captors were more than willing, within their means, to provide us with any and all anti-U.S. and anti-Vietnam War propaganda. Without a choice in the matter, we listened to the "Voice of Vietnam" broadcasts by "Hanoi Hannah" and were shown newspaper and magazine photos and articles about those opposing the war back in the states.
One of the peace marchers' standard slogans was, "Bring our boys home now and alive." The warped thinking of such people was that by demonstrating against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, they'd be shortening the war and reducing the number of American casualties. These demonstrators would also try to make one believe that their efforts would bring POWs like me home sooner. They were utterly wrong on both counts, not to mention the detrimental effect their actions had on the morale of our troops and our POWs.
John F. Kerry was not just one of these demonstrators. He was leading them.
These demonstrations for peace had the exact opposite effect of what they purported to accomplish. Instead of shortening the war the "peace movement" served only to protract the conflict, resulting in a vastly greater number of Americans killed and wounded, greater economic burdens and longer periods of incarceration for Americans held captive in Vietnam. The war would have been over much sooner and with a much more favorable result if those in the "peace movement" would have rallied behind the commander in chief to accomplish our mission and then withdraw.
Many fewer names would be engraved into the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial if these people had supported our efforts instead of trying to derail them. After all, fighting against a political regime that up to that time had murdered more than a hundred million people couldn't have been all bad. But Kerry thought and acted differently. How many more names on the wall can he take credit for?
After the war ended, some of the war protesters hung on to their anti-war postures for a while. Some of them realized the errors of their ways almost immediately, but it took others 20 to 25 years.
Some, like Kerry, have not realized there was anything wrong with what he did. Instead, he hopes we will see him as a courageous Vietnam veteran. I do not. He hopes we will admire his bravery. I do not. I remember him more for his misdeeds upon his return from Vietnam."
Jim Warner, also a POW for five years, personally experienced the direct effects of Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities:
"In late May , two months after our arrival in the punishment camp, I was called out for interrogation. I entered the interrogation room to find a junior officer, a Communist's helper, whom we called "Boris." For some time, Boris rambled on about the anti-war movement and of my "crimes." . . .
We sparred for about an hour. Then Boris reached behind his back and pulled out some clippings from a left wing newspaper in the U.S. He showed me several articles about an event, which had been held in Detroit, called "The Winter Soldier Hearings." He left me to read the articles while he left the room. The articles reported alleged "testimony" from people who claimed to be Vietnam veterans who allegedly claimed that they had done things which, if true, would have lead to courts martial for each of them. That is, they were typical communist propaganda. . . .
When Boris returned he asked me what I thought. I told him that I was from Detroit, but did not recognize any of the names so I assumed that they were Communists brought in from around the country. "Not so," he cried. Look at this. He showed me a picture of an unforgettable face. "This man was an officer in your navy. He says that the war is illegal, immoral and unjust. Read what he says." I read the words of John Kerry.
What John Kerry said, according to the clippings, was that the U.S. should abandon South East Asia, unilaterally and immediately. This, of course, would not only leave the Prisoners of War in the hands of the Communists, but far worse, there was not a sane person in the universe who did not know that the instant the countries of South East Asia were abandoned, the blood bath would begin. I told Boris "this man should be punished. He says that he did criminal things. America is a free country and a free people do not allow such crimes. We are not like Communists." I told Boris that there would be a blood bath if we pulled out unilaterally.
Boris got angry and began threatening me. He said that my own countrymen, Jane Fonda, Sen. Fulbright, and the subject of the article, John Kerry, insisted that the threatened "blood bath" was a myth invented by the reactionary government of the United States. He told me that Kerry had admitted that we were criminals, as the communists never ceased to tell us, and that we should be punished. The interrogation continued for another hour. Finally, Boris, frustrated, put me back in my cell, while still muttering threats at me. It was the longest interrogation I had without torture. . . .
When John Kerry said that Vietnam vets were criminals, did he not know that the Communists would use his words against the POWs? He feels insulted when someone questions his patriotism. What other conclusion would you come to, if you were in my shoes?"
Yes, it's true that under the strict terms of our long-standing domestic truce, John Kerry was not required to apologize for the things he said 30 years ago, even though he himself had more recently tested that truce with his attacks on George W. Bush's National Guard service. But then in January of this year, to burnish his credentials as a war president, Mr. Kerry's authorized biography reported a story implying that his Swift Boat comrades had fled the scene of an enemy attack while he alone returned to rescue the wounded. Honor being such an insignificant thing to John Kerry, he probably had no idea that--with his biography reviving war crimes accusations and, more specifically, implying cowardice on the part of his fellow Swifties--he had broken the domestic truce.
The truce is over. The Swift Vets and all the other vets John Kerry has freshly maligned are determined that this time around he is not going to have it both ways. Men like Michael Benge, Kenneth Cordier, Joseph Crecca and Jim Warner, who have already lost too many years of their lives to the Vietnam War, would have much preferred that Mr. Kerry had not restarted this fight. But now that he has, they are not going to let it alone.
Mr. Jacobs, a Houston lawyer, writes at adeimantus.blogspot.com.
This is a very well written and powerful article. I sent it to everyone I could. Of course I know I'm preaching to the choir, but maybe of all the democrats that see it, one stop and think.
BTT for the night crew.
Great read, it really brings into focus the various articles and clippings I have read into one consolidated well thought out read. Thanks.