A war that ended a quarter-century ago and that most Americans prefer to forget is an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign because Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D.) needs national security credentials. Thus Kerry highlights his status as a decorated hero of the Vietnam War, a Navy swift boat commander who volunteered for combat, won a Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor and three Purple Hearts for minor shrapnel wounds in 1968.
But as Kerry is learning, his Vietnam r√?∆? ¬©sum√?∆? ¬© is proving a double-edged sword. And well it should.
The Kerry campaign hopes that America’s several million Vietnam veterans (this writer included) will rally to his “band of brothers” pitch. But what will those same vets think of Kerry’s radical antiwar turn after his Vietnam service? Not much, judging by the campaign’s pointed silence about Kerry’s lurch into New Left protest politics in 1970-71.
While tens of thousands of young Americans were still fighting in Vietnam, ex-Navy Lt. John Kerry publicly denounced not only their cause but those who were still fighting and dying for it.
As perhaps the most prominent member of the politically radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry joined the protest circuit. He appeared with radical chic Jane Fonda (later dubbed Hanoi Jane for her rapturous 1972 visit to Stalinist North Vietnam) at a celebrated war protest at Valley Forge. He participated in the New Left propaganda fest in Detroit dubbed the Winter Soldier Investigation to publicize lurid tales of supposed American atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam.
Betraying the Cause
Kerry’s most notable contribution to the anti-Vietnam protest movement came when he joined other veterans in throwing their medals onto the Capitol steps in 1971 and then testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry’s decorations later turned up prominently displayed in his Senate office, so apparently it was either merely his campaign ribbons or someone else’s medals that were so rudely discarded.
But his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, covering three single-spaced pages, remains a documented record of Kerry’s betrayal of the cause for which 58,000 Americans and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers gave their lives.
Citing the Winter Soldier Investigation project testimony — much of which later proved utterly bogus from witnesses who had not been in combat, not served in Vietnam or in some cases not even been in the military — Kerry charged the American armed forces with “war crimes committed in Southeast Asia … not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.”
Then Kerry’s testimony enumerated his catalog of alleged horrors:
“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 fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam . . . we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions; in the use of free-fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search and destroy missions, the bombings, the torture of prisoners, all accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam.”
Kerry might have had a more informed view had he gotten off his Navy swift boat in the Mekong Delta waterways and spent some time on the ground.
In six months of field operations in a military police unit supporting combat troops of the 101st Airborne Division and the First Cavalry Division during 1966 and 1967, I saw nothing remotely resembling the war crimes Kerry claims. The prisoners of war, both Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese army regulars that my unit handled were treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Enemy wounded were given emergency lifesaving medical care at U.S. Army field hospitals alongside wounded Americans.
The one atrocity whose sickening evidence I did see, in the form of the disemboweled bodies of 17 Vietnamese villagers in Binh Dinh Province, was a deadly mass reprisal committed by the Viet Cong against those they suspected of siding with the South Vietnamese government.
A single soldier in our unit was accused of illegal conduct — attempting, unsuccessfully, to molest a middle-aged Vietnamese woman in a village through which we patrolled. He was promptly pulled out of the field, given an Article 15 (nonjudicial punishment) by our company commander, reduced in rank, fined and put to hard labor for a month.
Our mission included winning Vietnamese “hearts and minds,” which could not be accomplished by committing atrocities against the very civilians we were trying to protect.
This is not to deny that some American war crimes did occur during a long and brutal conflict in which it was sometimes difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The shameful massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai in 1968 was the most notorious. But the abundantly documented history of the Vietnam War shows, then and now, that these were anomalies, not the “crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” as Kerry so recklessly charged in 1971.
Kerry’s slander notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of American soldiers and Marines in Vietnam conducted themselves honorably and served their country with valor and extraordinary dedication. They did not deserve the crude calumny spread by the likes of Jane Fonda and her radical cohorts, John Kerry for a time included. Moreover, it is undeniably true that the more radical elements of that protest movement did, in fact, give aid and comfort to a Communist enemy militarily and politically allied with Mao’s China and the Soviet Union.
On this central moral and geopolitical point, Kerry’s 1971 congressional testimony was stunningly revealing.
“What threatens this country,” Kerry declared, “[is] not the reds, but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it.” They must have been cheering in Hanoi.
Beyond this arguably youthful excess (Kerry was 27, a Yale graduate and a former naval officer), does all this tell us anything about the later John Kerry, the ambitious U.S. senator from Massachusetts and Democratic Party presidential candidate?
Elected to the Senate in 1984, Kerry voted consistently against the Reagan defense buildup. He specifically opposed many of the major weapons systems that rebuilt American military strength in the 1980s and led, soon thereafter, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He railed against Reagan’s “illegal” war waged to resist Cuban-backed armed subversion in Central America.
When Saddam Hussein’s army invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, Kerry voted against the first President Bush’s request for congressional authorization to lead a 30-nation coalition in reversing that flagrant aggression.
Preparing to run for President a decade later, Kerry voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. But then he voted in 2003 against the White House request for $87 billion to support U.S. troops in Iraq and provide for Iraqi reconstruction.
Voters must decide whether John Kerry has reliably recovered from his radical folly of 1970-71 and the mind-set it revealed.
But don’t be surprised if legions of Vietnam veterans decide against enlisting in the Kerry campaign’s slickly publicized “band of brothers.” More than a few will remember the trashing of their honor by the man who now asks for their votes.