If the Republicans formed a group called Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry, it wouldn’t hurt for members. Kerry’s description of the Vietnam war as a sustained war crime while springboarding to higher office off service in that supposed war crime has grated on many veterans since Kerry entered politics. A group of them made a point of opposing Kerry’s first political run.
Ho Chi Minh said that he won the Vietnam war not in the jungles of Vietnam but on the streets of America where protesters fought the war for him. Vietnam veterans outraged at Kerry’s antiwar hijinks would agree with Ho. Kerry’s wild testimony before Congress in 1971 comparing American soldiers to barbaric Mongols under Genghis Khan endangered them.
“We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service,” Kerry said then. Apparently he wasn’t referring to his own service. Now Kerry campaigns on memories of that service. Kerry’s memories were treated like his medals, worth preserving for later use. Just as he could toss the medals of other Vets while tucking his own away, so he could speak of other Vets’ memories as too wicked to recall while drawing upon his own for political advancement.
If the war was as discreditable as he described, why should he take so much credit for fighting in it? And if it was such a criminal war, how did he come out of it so clean? On the one hand, he wants to cast himself as a soldier with a heavy conscience; on the other, he doesn’t want to say that he did anything to weigh it down. Which is why Vietnam veterans resented his entrance into politics: he was taking credit for his role in the war while in effect saying it had brought discredit on theirs. Why was their service Genghis Khan-like war crimes but his heroism?
Antiwar war heroes in American politics are forced into a juggling act. They at once have to make a show of their “shame” while carefully cordoning off their war conduct from anything shameful. This allows them to get praise for the shame, since it shows an impressive depth of soul, but none of the blame for the shameful moments of the war. Because Kerry performed valorously in the war, he can parade his guilt about the war without anyone asking: So what do you have to be guilty about?
Kerry bristled several years ago when the Boston Globe wondered if his famous nabbing and killing of a rocket-carrying Viet Cong “behind a hootch” might have qualified as a war crime: “What’s the best interpretation? That a breathless young lieutenant, his pulse pounding with the exhilaration of battle, ran some distance from the river bank in pursuit of a soldier, turned the corner behind the hootch and came face to face with an enemy ready to kill him — and that he fired in self-defense. What’s the ugliest possibility? That behind the hootch Kerry administered a coup de grace to the Vietnamese soldier — a practice not uncommon in those days, but a war crime nevertheless, and hardly the basis for a Silver Star.”
The Globe reporter saw significance in Kerry’s cryptic comment to the New Yorker, “I just won’t talk about all of it. I don’t and can’t. The things that really turned me I’ve never told anybody. Nobody would understand…These things are very personal. It was our youth.”
Kerry, reasonably enough, didn’t care for the Globe’s scrutiny, calling the reporter a “desk jockey” with no knowledge of the dangers of battle. But he didn’t see that his own rhetoric about the Vietnam conflict as a series of war crimes might have invited such questions. A Vietnam vet who describes the war as criminal inadvertently draws attention to his own actions.
His outlandish statement before Congress in 1971 about soldiers who had “personally 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 a fashion remininscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam” invites the question: How would Kerry have known about all of this?
Presumably he was relying not on his experience but on antiwar hearsay, in which case the statement was a careless denigration of the “band of brothers” he now touts.
For a politician who considers Vietnam a “barbaric war,” Kerry takes a peculiar pride in it. If service in Vietnam was such a horrid memory, then voters needn’t remember his.
George Neumayr is managing editor of The American Spectator.
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H/T to National Review Online