John Kerry has been twice a hero. First, as a soldier in Vietnam, he displayed extraordinary physical courage, winning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Once, injured and under heavy fire, he turned back his river boat to rescue a wounded comrade, who now credits Kerry with saving his life. Second, displaying civil courage at home equal to his physical courage in battle, he embarked on a campaign of protest against the war in which he had fought, becoming a spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, the VVAW camped out on the Mall in Washington. President Nixon’s Justice Department then sought and obtained a court injunction forbidding the groups from using the Mall. Immediately and spontaneously, the veterans, as if re-enacting the American Revolution, assembled in caucuses by state to deliberate and vote–and so created, at the symbolic center of the Republic, a kind of instant, ideal mini-republic of their own. They decided to defy the injunction and appeal their case to the Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decision and permitted the protest to continue.
Kerry’s subsequent words in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971, still have the power to startle, in our time of general disorientation and muted speech, with their brave candor. He described the wrong done to the Vietnam veterans but did not fail also to discuss the wrongs they had committed. “I would like,” he said, “to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command…. They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, 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 and 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.” He added, “We call this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation”–invoking Thomas Paine’s description of the soldiers at Valley Forge. And he said, referring to the policy that had led to these crimes, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
More than two decades later, Kerry made a decision that in the view of many observers failed to demonstrate the heroism of these earlier actions: On October 11, 2002, he voted, as did every other Democratic legislator with presidential ambitions but one–Representative Dennis Kucinich–to license George W. Bush to go to war against Iraq if he saw fit. Yet soon after the vote it turned out that the temper of the Democratic primary voters was antiwar, even angrily so, and Governor Howard Dean, who had opposed the war from the beginning, began his climb in the polls and became the generally acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Kerry, previously considered the front-runner by many in the press, appeared to watch his longstanding presidential ambitions go down the drain. But then, in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, came the remarkable reversal of fortune in which Democratic voters, inspired by an almost palpable resolve to defeat Bush in the fall, switched their allegiance from the fiery Dean to the more phlegmatic and “electable” war hero Kerry, who soon won his long string of primary victories. In a peculiar act of political transplantation, the voters, energized by Dean, seemed by this switch to want to infuse the spirit of Dean into the body of Kerry, who then, Lazarus-like, came to life both as a person and as a candidate.