Political Hay

How Does It Feel?

John Kerry gets a taste of his own medicine over Vietnam.

By 8.6.04

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John Kerry faces a basic problem in rebutting the new ads that question his Vietnam war record: the criticism in the ads sounds exactly like his own criticism from the 1970s, both his criticism of others (he had no problem smearing Vietnam veterans for political purposes in the 1970s) and the criticism he leveled at himself when asked in 1971 on Meet the Press if he had committed war atrocities.

"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 the people," Kerry said. "I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages…"

What do the new ads say that Kerry didn't say or imply in this statement?

"The Kerry campaign has denounced the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, saying none of the men in the ad served on the boat that Kerry commanded," reports the Associated Press. But what about the Kerry mate, Stephen Gardner, who does support their criticism of him? The Kerry campaign is hoping that a pliable press will forget him. Gardner spoiled Douglas Brinkley's "Band of Brothers" thesis by saying that "Kerry was chickens--t" and no war hero. Brinkley was very disappointed when he turned up, writing "Just when it looked like Senator John Kerry's so-called Band of Brothers were unified in vouching for his leadership in Vietnam there is suddenly a lone ripple of dissent in the ranks." Gardner said of Kerry that "whenever a firefight started he always pulled up stakes and got the hell out of Dodge." Brinkley had to dismiss Gardner as a conservative crank in order to sustain his hagiography.

Kerry is being hoist by his own petard. Did he really think that he could launch his political career on discrediting the Vietnam war, including his role in it, and then complete that career by taking credit for fighting in it? Kerry has never persuasively explained why he deserves so much credit for fighting in a war he said was utterly discreditable. A pol who starts his career by saying "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service" and then ends it by campaigning on those memories invites the backlash we've seen this week.

Kerry can't quite pull off his stance as an antiwar war hero. It is far too confusing and contradictory. He can't make a show of his "shame" and then convincingly deny charges that he behaved shamefully. He can't call Vietnam a "barbaric war" and then take pride in fighting for the barbaric side. He can't throw his ribbons to win a seat in the Senate, then retrieve them to win the White House.

He can't posture about his "guilt" and then not expect people to ask: What have you done that would make you feel so guilty? He can't itemize the sins of soldiers who had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads…cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks," without being asked: How did you learn about all of this?

Kerry has wanted praise for feeling the shame -- as this shows that he is a very thoughtful fellow -- but none of the blame for the shameful acts of war. Kerry once said to the New Yorker cryptically, "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."

But now he can't stop speaking about the war he denounced as unspeakable. It is fitting that after years of overheated anti-war posturing he is subject to the charges he once was happy to hurl himself.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.