In the 1970s, John Kerry complained of Nixonian pols intimidating Vietnam veterans into silence. Now Kerry has become one of those intimidating pols himself. Kerry seeks to confiscate Unfit for Command with a zeal rarely seen since Richard Nixon went after the Pentagon Papers. When an old rebel like Kerry becomes the authority, woe to the new rebels who challenge it.
Kerry’s nostalgia for the unruly free speech of his youth has evaporated. He almost sounds ready to ask George Bush to send the National Guard into Barnes & Noble. Max Cleland, Kerry’s emissary to Crawford, Texas, demands that the president of the United States muzzle Vietnam veterans and stop their “slanderous attacks” against Kerry because “if one veteran’s record is called into question, the service of all American veterans is questioned.”
On those grounds, Nixon could have prevented the publication of The New Soldier, Kerry’s slanderous attacks on the American military. What are Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry saying that he didn’t say himself? Remember the first person to say that Kerry’s Vietnam experience was dishonorable was not John O’Neill but John Kerry. He didn’t just say that others had behaved dishonorably; he indicted himself. Since Vietnam veterans who oppose Kerry aren’t supposed to speak before an election, perhaps an advertisement consisting wholly of Kerry’s own self-indictment could appear. Or do his words constitute actionable slander too?
“I took part in search and destroy missions, the burning of villages,” Kerry said in 1971. “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…”
In The New Soldier Kerry drapes himself in dishonor, writing that “we were killing women and children…we created a nation of refugees, bomb craters, amputees, orphans, widows, and prostitutes…” How did this become the centerpiece of honor in Kerry’s campaign? How did he go from speaking of Vietnam as a curse before Congress to using it as punchline on The Daily Show?
The New Soldier could just as well have been titled Unfit for Command. The message of the book is that new soldiers like Kerry know that Americans weren’t fit to command and shouldn’t try to exercise that power ever again. Like Unfit for Command, The New Soldier views Vietnam medals as ill-begotten. The new soldier knows that he didn’t deserve his medals. That’s why he is happy to fling them at the White House.
Though Kerry would later retrieve the medals he pretended to throw at the White House, he emphasized in The New Soldier that the Vietnam veteran should not be honored. Purple hearts and bronze stars mean nothing to the new soldier, for he knows they are just a sham: “We will not quickly join those who march on Veterans’ Day waving small flags, calling to memory those thousands who died for the ‘greater glory of the United States.’ We will not accept the rhetoric. We will not readily join the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars…We will not take solace from the creation of monuments or the naming of parks after a select few of the thousands of dead Americans and Vietnamese. We will not uphold traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim.”
Long before John Edwards was speaking of two Americas, Kerry used the phrase to say that the “New Soldier is trying to point out how there are two Americas — the one the speeches are about and the one we really are. Rhetoric has blinded us so much that we are unable to see the realities which exist in this country…We extended an indifference which has too often been part of this country’s history and made it easy for men to deal in abstractions.”
As a slanderous attack on Vietnam veterans, Unfit for Command can’t compete with Kerry’s book, with its trove of testimonials attempting to establish the dishonorable character of the war. By publishing it, Kerry discredited his war record far more effectively than his critics ever could. The new soldier in him hasn’t died and won’t fade away no matter how hard he tries to reinvent himself.
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