Kerry’s Army

Kerry’s Army

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Manchester, New Hampshire

John Kerry kept a bodyguard beside him at his town meeting in Somersworth, a working-class hamlet near the Maine border, two days before the primary. At least it appeared he had: The granite-jawed, gimlet-eyed face beneath the VFW hat festooned with unit badges looked ready in an instant to swing a mean left hook. But Kerry’s shadow man had only one arm and no legs. It was Max Cleland, former senator from Georgia, triply maimed by combat wounds in Vietnam. From his wheelchair at Kerry’s side throughout the ninety-minute question-and-answer session, Cleland maintained the unblinking gaze of a combat soldier on night watch–a silent dare to any antagonist.

Other Vietnam-era vets have run for President–John McCain in 2000, Wesley Clark this year. And every Democratic candidate shouts out that the Bush Administration has abandoned veterans even in the midst of war, from cutbacks in medical eligibility to loss of overtime pay.

Somehow Kerry’s candidacy and his veterans operation are different. Written off only a few weeks ago as heir to Gore’s Herman Munster stiffness, Kerry has–at least in two states–aroused a hidden constituency of people who see him as a loyal comrade who honors with stubborn memory the horrors they lived, in Southeast Asia and back home. Far more than Clark, Kerry–despite his elite family background–reflects the psychic rip still felt by many vets: the bonds forged by military service combined with a still-unhealed sense of betrayal by bad leadership in a bad cause. He is both the decorated battle veteran and the leader of veterans who threw their decorations back on the steps of the Capitol.

Kerry seems singularly committed to portraying himself not as a solitary hero but as part of a cohort. Everywhere he goes his advance party includes a phalanx of Vietnam vets: sometimes his friend Cleland; sometimes the graying, still passionately loyal crew of his Mekong Delta fast-attack boat; and nearly always since Iowa, the former Green Beret Kerry rescued thirty-five years ago who brought himself to the campaign days before the Iowa caucus.

“In 1971 John Kerry was saying the things I wanted so badly to say,” says Bill Doyle, now retired after a career as a Boston public high school teacher but thirty-three years ago newly returned from two years in the Army. In 1982 Doyle volunteered in Kerry’s first run for lieutenant governor, and this year, as a veterans outreach staffer, he is helping turn other Vietnam vets out for Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Vietnam-era veterans are, in theory, a formidable voting bloc of 8.4 million, not to mention their families. Counting on them, though, is a high-risk strategy. “These are often veterans who felt left out, who haven’t registered to vote, who felt badly used by politicians,” Cleland said after the Somersworth meeting. “They don’t show up in polling.” For some, theircapacity to trust was permanently undermined by combat trauma. Many, points out Doyle, were shunned by VFW and American Legion posts and have never reconnected to national veterans organizations.

The Kerry campaign has responded with an innovative strategy reaching back to the Vietnam veterans movement’s roots in GI coffeehouses and discussion groups: In twenty-six states his field operation has established direct veteran-to-veteran outreach, insulated from conventional phone-banking and the rest of the campaign staff.

Is Kerry bringing Vietnam veterans in from the cold? In Davenport, Iowa, I observed one caucus where the results were startling and suggestive: Vets and their families made up two-thirds of newly registered Democrats, who gave Kerry a lopsided margin over all competitors. Statewide, veterans were credited with aiding his unexpectedly strong first-place finish. In New Hampshire, Clark and Kerry both routinely asked veterans in their audiences to raise their hands; at the Clark events I attended vets were always present but few in number, and often turned out to be from out of state. At Kerry’s they generally numbered in the dozens and were more likely to be local–perhaps an indication that for Vietnam vets, or vets generally, a lieutenant who came to despise the war has more credibility than a career general who never spoke out.

It’s important not to oversimplify the veteran vote–as Kerry’s defiant friend Cleland, defeated in 2002 after attacks on his patriotism, can testify. And all the veteran support will mean nothing if Kerry retreats into the caution and ambivalence of his vote on Iraq. But beyond Kerry’s career prospects–or even the bulletproofing of Democrats against attack from the right–there are reasons to take note of Vietnam vets emerging into national political life. For many, the war in Vietnam remains a source of grief and alienation. And the war in Iraq–initiated amid Tonkin-scale disinformation, celebrated by a President who dodged Vietnam combat service, now requiring thousands of troops to fight an endless counterinsurgency–rouses many of those emotions anew. For or against the Vietnam War, for or against the invasion of Iraq, Vietnam vets still carry that memory of personal and moral betrayal. In movies and television they are still portrayed as Rambos, mercenaries, head cases, even as they approach retirement in the face of declining benefits. Kerry’s candidacy offers the possibility of a national leader who’s a Vietnam veteran bearing all the ambiguities of his generation. Could Vietnam veterans and their families tip a presidential race? Contemplate this: The most frequently visited monument in Washington is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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