The Republicans have tried to turn John Kerry's military service against him with repeated derogatory references to his 1971 testimony on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But this negative tactic could backfire. If voters were actually to read what the young war hero said thirty-three years ago, most would come away with increased respect for Kerry's prescience, his patriotism and his willingness to speak truth to power.
After all, the young veteran was daring to state the obvious to leaders who had been in denial for nearly a decade, pointing out that tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese were dying because "we can't say we have made a mistake" in taking sides in a civil war.
"Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be--and these are his [Nixon's] words--'the first President to lose a war,' " continued Kerry. What Kerry did not know, because the White House tapes were then still secret, is that Lyndon B. Johnson had uttered sentiments similar to Nixon's to justify the major escalation of the US intervention in 1964.
"I stayed awake last night thinking about this thing," LBJ told national security advisor McGeorge Bundy on May 27, 1964. "And the more I think of it...I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out, and it's just the biggest mess." But stay he did, launching another decade of carpet-bombing of Vietnamese peasants, subjecting farmers and soldiers alike to the lifetime suffering of Agent Orange exposure, and even generating war crimes by the US side, such as the infamous My Lai massacre.
Why would Johnson expand a war he didn't believe in? Because, as another advisor cynically warned: "The Republicans are going to make a big political issue out of it" in that year's election. Johnson agreed. "It's the only issue they've got." So off to war went hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them still suffering today--mentally, emotionally and physically.
Consider, for one, Max Cleland, who gave three limbs to that misguided war, only to lose his Georgia Senate seat in 2002 to a Republican demagogue. His opponent, Saxby Chambliss, who avoided service in Vietnam with a knee problem, ran campaign ads morphing Cleland's image into Osama bin Laden's, implying the veteran was a soft-on-terror traitor. This is a prime example of how false patriotism can trump the real thing.
Unfortunately, the measured cadence of Cleland's and Kerry's calls for strength tempered by wisdom during their party's convention were muffled by almost obsessive flag-waving, which is fine so far as it represents a genuine love of country but too often is a cover for mindless us-against-the-world militarism. It is one thing to criticize the war in Iraq--President Bush's version of Vietnam--but it helps little if your solutions center on even heavier applications of military force, as some Democrats advocate. Kerry, to his credit, on Sunday vowed to bring a significant number of troops home.
If Kerry can adhere to the integrity he displayed at key moments in his life, he could be the man to end US isolation on Iraq and rally the world toward cooperative solutions. This would undermine the recruitment of terrorists, rather than inadvertently increasing it, as Bush has clearly done. But to do that, he must be Kerry the hero and patriot who came back from Vietnam and risked his future to expose the folly of a stupid and doomed war--not merely an echo for Bush's militarism.
"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," testified Kerry at 27 years old. "But right now we are reacting with paranoia.... We may have to fight...somewhere based on legitimate threats, but we must learn, in this country, how to define those threats."
How timely to reread that testimony now, after the current US Administration so underappreciated the threat Al Qaeda posed before 9/11 and so overplayed the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States afterward. Unfortunately, the paranoia that young Kerry warned against is now a staple of the Bush re-election campaign, and Kerry must meet it head-on.