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From Draft NOtices, September - October, 2004

The Kerry Conundrum

— Jorge Mariscal

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, 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 (


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