The controversy surrounding presidential candidate John Kerry's
service in Viet Nam raises a number of difficult issues for peace
and antimilitarism activists.
Fueled by television attack ads featuring U.S. Navy Swift boat
veterans who claimed Kerry lied about what he did in Southeast
Asia as a Navy officer, the controversy exploded in the media
in mid-August. On August 20, the Washington Post exposed
links between the anti-Kerry vets, the Republican Party, and long-time
Bush operatives. On August 21 William Rood, a former officer who
served with Kerry, corroborated Kerry's account of how he won
a silver star and disputed the claims made by the anti-Kerry group.
The militarizing of the presidential campaign was a logical development
given that within the general frame of the "war on terror"
both political parties have to promote a hawkish foreign policy
agenda. On this issue at least, the Democrats seemed to have a
candidate who had arrived directly from central casting. Kerry
was a war hero who despite his privileged class background had
chosen to serve in Viet Nam. Bush had been in the Texas Air National
Guard, but the details of his service were murky and complicated
by family connections and special treatment.
At the Democratic convention, Kerry surrounded himself with Viet
Nam veterans and accepted his party's nomination with a military
salute and a robust, "Reporting for duty!" Former President
Bill Clinton reiterated the phrase "Send me" to distinguish
what Kerry had done during the 1960s from those who had not served
(among them George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Clinton himself).
All of this, in addition to Kerry's less than coherent stance
on the Iraq debacle, made peace activists nervous. For antimilitarism
and counter-recruitment workers, many of them veterans of the
anti-Viet Nam war era, the angst was even greater. Kerry and the
Democrats, it seemed, were participating in the same militarization
of society against which these activists struggle on a daily basis.
Again, the tactical choice made by the Kerry people made sense,
but Kerry seemed a bit too sincere in his hawkishness. The antiwar
John Kerry, who had returned from Viet Nam to protest against
the war and testify before Congress about the atrocities committed
by U.S. troops that had been revealed at the Winter Soldier hearings
in 1971, was nowhere to be found.
Clearly it was against this John Kerry, the antiwar John Kerry,
that the Swift boat veterans financed by Republican money
harbored so much resentment. What "really happened"
during the war was less an issue for most of these vets than what
happened when Kerry became a visible antiwar veteran who was one
among many who began to tell the truth about U.S. actions in Southeast
Asia. The anti-Kerry vets shifted their attack towards the source
of their real anger in an August 21 TV ad, in which former POWs
explained how Kerry's 1971 testimony had caused them pain when
they were being held prisoner. The target became the John Kerry
who had represented Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and
had attended demonstrations with Jane Fonda.
As New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd puts it, we might
think of the contest between Bush and Kerry as a battle between
the 1950s and the 1960s. Given the right's deep hatred of the
1960s antiwar movement and Kerry's participation in it, some groups
have leveled charges of traitor and collaborator against him (See,
for example, http://ice.he.net/~freepnet/kerry/index.php).
The so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" seem tame
by comparison. For several weeks Rush Limbaugh mocked Kerry's
service in Viet Nam, amusing his listeners with riffs about Kerry
hallucinating that he was "General [sic] Kurtz," the
insane Green Beret colonel from Apocalypse Now.
Right-wing token Michelle Malkin insinuated to MSNBC's Chris
Matthews that Kerry's wounds that earned him three purple hearts
might have been self-inflicted (Hardball, August 18, 2004).
Malkin was following in the slimy footsteps of shock columnist
Ann Coulter who once claimed that triple amputee Viet Nam veteran
Max Cleland "lost three limbs in an accident during a routine
noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends.
He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up" (syndicated
column, February 12, 2004). In fact, Cleland accidentally picked
up a live grenade during the siege of Khe Sahn.
(As a Viet Nam veteran who came home and opposed the war, I find
this level of discourse despicable. Ironically, a few intellectuals
on the left have expended energy in a slightly different direction
by depicting Kerry as a gung-ho killer and war criminal and dismissing
his antiwar activities as premeditated calculations designed to
further his political career [Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St.
Clair, "What Kerry Really Did in Vietnam," Counterpunch,
July 29, 2004]. How speaking out about U.S. atrocities in Viet
Nam furthered one's aspirations to elected office even in 1971
escapes me. Such arguments begin to sound suspiciously like the
"baby-killer" chants hurled at returning veterans by
some sectors of the antiwar movement. Right-wing chicken hawks,
like Sean Hannity of Fox News, have picked up the war criminal
charge against Kerry thus raising the troubling question of why
some leftists make assertions that fuel the right-wing machinery
and increase Bush's chances for reelection.)
The Republicans despise the antiwar John Kerry of 30 years ago,
and Democratic strategists (and the candidate himself?) decided
that John Kerry would have to be disappeared if they were to have
any chance of winning the battleground states. In their view,
they would need to package and market the brave warrior Kerry.
In his acceptance speech, Kerry dramatically stated: "I defended
this country as a young man and I will defend it as President."
But the young antiwar John Kerry knew better. Those of us who
went to Viet Nam served when called (in some cases, much to our
regret). Many were courageous in combat and many paid the ultimate
price. But the notion that the U.S. war in Southeast Asia was
a war "in defense of this country" is a tall-tale that
has been debunked by historians and clear-minded veterans alike.
Only the most desperate revisionist could claim that the National
Liberation Front or the North Vietnamese posed a threat to the
United States. Only the most myopic cold warrior could believe
that the purpose of the Viet Nam war was to keep "the communists"
from landing in California.
In our desire to see Bush & Co. removed from power we ought
not allow the Kerry campaign to rewrite the history of U.S. aggression
in Southeast Asia as a "noble cause." More important,
Kerry's decision to promote such revisionism makes it easier for
those who today make the equally bogus argument that U.S. troops
in Iraq are "defending our freedom." International terrorism
is a real threat but the terrorists' wrath is not directed at
the United States because "they hate our freedom."
What John Kerry should be saying on the campaign trail is what
he told Senator Fulbright's committee in 1971: "How do you
ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Or he
would do well to repeat what he said about returning Viet Nam
vets if the words were not so terribly resonant with what many
Iraq veterans are feeling today: "The country doesn't know
it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of
millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence,
and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in
history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense
of betrayal which no one has yet grasped." A statement as
true then as it is now. But with an election to win, this is way
too honest for an electorate who still can't handle the truth.
What does all this mean today for peace and antimilitarism activists?
Apparently, the antiwar Kerry has been deleted and cannot be retrieved.
Today's John Kerry sounds more like Lyndon Johnson than Eugene
McCarthy. Was Kerry a gung-ho Rambo or an articulate spokesman
for the antiwar movement -- or both? Is the Democrats' militarized
electoral campaign simply a tactical maneuver or a symptom of
liberalism's complicity with U.S. imperial fantasies?
More important, is John Kerry's military past and his current
emphasis on military themes and trappings more troubling to us
than George Bush's proven record of preemptive aggression and
propensity for lying to the American people? Whatever the answers
to these questions, there can be no doubt that whoever is elected
president in November, the work of peace and antimilitarism activists
will not end any time soon.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org)