The attempt by John Kerry and his allies in Big Media to assign responsibility for the Swift Boat vets’ ads to President Bush and Karl Rove ignores a crucial and obvious fact: If George Bush was not the candidate – if Kerry had won the Democratic nomination in 2008 and was facing off against, say Mitt Romney – these ads would have run then in substantially the same form.
The ads are anti-Kerry, motivated by an intense anger at Kerry rooted in the events of the Vietnam protest era. They are devastatingly effective because they are so undeniably authentic. Much of the anger on the left is also rooted in the reopening of the debates of that era. The attack on Kerry is also felt by many on the left as an attack on every marcher from that era. Those of us too young to have been participants in the debates of that era, and not to have been worried about the draft, may be incapable of understanding the defensiveness of those who hit the age of 18 between the years 1966 and 1972, even as we are unable to understand the depth of anger among Vietnam vets against Kerry for his actions upon his return home.
I had thought that Bill Clinton’s election had officially ended the era in which Vietnam would impact American politics, but the Democrats have nominated the one figure who could and has re-ignited the passions of that time.
Those passions may be a tremendous diversion from the critical issue of our time – how to win the war against the Islamofascists. The threat of diversion may have motivated one of the most complex and interesting pieces ever written by Victor Davis Hanson, one which is surprisingly sympathetic to John Kerry.
Professor Hanson strikes a tone I have heard in my brother-in-law’s few comments on Vietnam over the 25 years I have known him. George served two tours in Vietnam as a Marine Corps lieutenant and captain, the first shortly after his graduation from Annapolis. George is from a very long line of warriors, stretching back to his great grandfather, also an Annapolis grad, as were his grandfather and father – a father that George doesn’t remember because he died commanding a ship that was sunk in the battle of Okinawa.
Whatever opinions George holds on the Vietnam protesters, he is entitled to hold, but he has said very little over the years and, like most of the military professionals I know, is very slow to discuss those years or to attack the choices anyone made during them. This attitude is wise and widespread among the military, and I think an example that most civilian commentators prudently adopted over the past 15 years.
John Kerry’s candidacy could have tried to avoid rekindling the old debate (it might not have worked, because of the anger now on display) but the only way to have managed such a campaign successfully would have required both an apology for the things he said and a disciplined refusal to trade on his time in Vietnam – time marked both by bravery, but also by very unusual circumstances and stories.
Kerry obviously chose a different course, one that has slowly but inevitably required everyone to re-fight not the Vietnam War, but the domestic political battles of those years.
This erupted on my radio program when I debated Peter Beinart about the Swift Boat ads. I hadn’t graduated from high school when the Paris accords were signed, and it may be that Peter hadn’t even been born then. But when Peter proclaimed that John Kerry had nothing to apologize for and that the famed “Winter Soldier” investigations hadn’t been discredited, the fact that neither of us had anything to do with the politics of that time became irrelevant.
I immediately challenged the absurdity of those hearings and of any generalized indictment of the actions of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Vietnam, but Peter wouldn’t budge, citing the research he had done and written up for his most recent column in the New Republic. Here are the key excerpts from that column:
Some of the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation have been discredited, but most of the testimonies themselves have not. Miami University Professor Jeffrey Kimball, one of the most respected Vietnam historians, says, “On the whole, the Winter Soldier Investigations established that some Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam. Claims that their testimony has been discredited are unwarranted.” Another prominent historian of the war, Wayne State University’s Mel Small, says, “Most of the evidence of atrocities presented by the [Winter Soldier] vets remains unchallenged to this day.”
On the question of atrocities more broadly, Kerry’s claims also find widespread academic support. The University of Kentucky’s George Herring, author of America’s Longest War, says, “The atrocities that took place are pretty much those described by Kerry in 1971.” In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, Stanley Karnow, author of “Vietnam: A History,” also said Kerry got it right. Even Robert McNamara himself has stated that “there were atrocities, without any question … I don’t think enough attention was paid to it by the chain of command.”
So Peter is buying into the generalized indictment of American troops as modern-day hordes of Genghis Khan-like murderers, rapists and looters who “generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.” It is the word “generally” that destroys Kerry these days, because by using it he extends his damning words from particular atrocity committers to every serviceman who went to Vietnam. To be sure, Peter uses an old trick of throwing in one more graph that tries to limit what Kerry said to the – in the eyes of Peter – most defensible thing that Peter said:
Conservatives have taken special umbrage at Kerry’s statement, in a 1971 “Meet the Press” interview, that he “committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers.” What they generally ignore is that Kerry was referring to the fact that he “took part in shootings in free-fire zones” – zones where the U.S. military designated any Vietnamese who did not evacuate as combatants. And Kerry was right: The free-fire zones violated the fourth Geneva Convention, which outlaws indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.
That’s deception or ignorance. Kerry wasn’t warning America that a few dozen of its soldiers were out of control, or that the policy of free-fire zones needed to be ended. He was damning the war and all of its features and all of the men who fought it. He branded them all as barbarians, and he meant it to be believed even if he did not himself believe it.
I think Peter’s credentials as an international lawyer would need burnishing before we bought into his interpretation of the fourth Geneva Convention, but the intellectual dishonesty in this column and in all defenses of Kerry that use such tactics is not the parsing of treaties or the very selective reading of Kerry’s many anti-war activities or the quoting of academics with unknown ideological bents. The intellectual dishonesty is both in failing to credit Kerry for what Kerry said he believed in those days, and for trying to ignore what happened after the left succeeded in forcing America out of Vietnam. Peter warns about hacks in his column, but “hackery” surely includes ignoring what Kerry said and believed in 1971.
Kerry slandered all soldiers, and he still refuses to apologize, and his new allies are resurrecting these slanders.
And Kerry ignored the huge moral difference between America’s mission and the mission of the communists, another blindness now replicating among the Peters of the partisan left.
In one part of Kerry’s testimony, he told the Senate committee that we would have to get about 3,000 South Vietnamese out of the country because they would be targeted by the communists. Of course, the terrible scale of the atrocities of the North upon the South and the genocide in neighboring Cambodia was neither discussed nor predicted by Kerry and his allies, and never since accounted for in the math they do when settling accounts on the Vietnam War.
Kerry, and his allies – then and now – are still peddling the Genghis Khan myth, and still haven’t figured out what happened in Hue during Tet, the tactics of the Viet Cong that led to free-fire zones, or anything else that would cloud their arrogant moral certainty about who was right and who was wrong about then and now.
Read the Winter Soldier testimony. Read the critics’ of the testimony. Read John Kerry’s testimony, and allow yourself to linger on his blindness:
At any time that an actual threat is posed to this country or to the security and freedom I will be one of the first people to pick up a gun and defend it, but right now we are reacting with paranoia to this question of peace and the people taking over the world. I think if were are ever going to get down to the question of dropping those bombs most of us in my generation simply don’t want to be alive afterwards because of the kind of world that it would be with mutations and the genetic probabilities of freaks and everything else.
Therefore, I think it is ridiculous to assume we have to play this power game based on total warfare. I think there will be guerrilla wars and I think we must have a capability to fight those. And we may have to fight them somewhere based on legitimate threats, but we must learn, in this country, how to define those threats and that is what I would say to the question of world peace. I think it is bogus, totally artificial. There is no threat. The communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands.
It wasn’t about hamburger stands. It was about stopping the Pol Pots and the “more civilized” variant of communism in the North. It was a noble effort. It failed for many reasons, but especially because of the domestic left in the United States, which slandered the front-line soldiers as a tactic in the effort to withdraw America from Vietnam, and to settle the issue of moral superiority vs. moral equivalence in the global contest then under way between freedom and totalitarianism.
America then – and America now – was and is undeniably the greatest force for good in the world. Its troops, then and now, fought and still fight to protect and defend the United States and to stop evil men, regimes and ideologies from murdering millions of innocents. In those fights, there will be terrible tolls, and many innocents will die or be injured, but American armies fight wars – then and now – with more concern for the innocent and with more discipline and accountability than any armies in history.
At one point in his life, John Kerry rejected the core principles of the preceding paragraph. He has never confessed that error and asked for forgiveness of the people he slandered at that time. That’s why he won’t be the president. That’s why Peter is wrong. And it is why the restraint that Professor Hanson wishes were still in place is not there and won’t return to Campaign 2004. The men John Kerry slandered are now fighting for their honor – again. Karl Rove didn’t tell them to do so, and they aren’t going to stop because Peter Beinart thinks they deserved to be branded barbarians.
It was a branding. It is still a brand – a dishonest, slanderous one. Men fight for their honor, and the ads aren’t going away as a result.