Both Sides In Debate About Kerry’s Vietnam Service Ignore The Truth Of The War

It’s pathetic that instead of highlighting that part of his political history, Kerry is downplaying it.

On one side is the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” a group of Vietnam veterans playing the role of Bush campaign surrogate pit-bull to call into question Kerry’s record as a young naval officer in Vietnam. On the other is the Kerry campaign, taking every chance it can to portray the candidate as a Vietnam War hero and ignore his history as an antiwar activist.

These Swift boat commanders who oppose Kerry reject his 1971 claim that those boats fired on civilians; they contend that “our consistent policy was to take every precaution to avoid harming civilians.”

And just as clear is that routine practices in the field sometimes crossed the line into direct attacks on civilians and war crimes, of which the My Lai massacre was only one small example. (For details on one recent investigation into such practices, see the Toledo Blade’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Tiger Force, http://www.toledoblade.com/tigerforce.)

“There is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom ? is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.”

In that massaging of his own history to emphasize his Vietnam service but downplay his critique of the war, Kerry has become precisely the kind of hypocritical politician he once condemned. Never was that clearer than when at the Democratic convention he proudly proclaimed, “I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president.”

A young Kerry likely would critique candidate Kerry’s current manipulative use of his Vietnam service. He also might have something to say about the candidate’s pro-war position on Iraq — not just his 2002 vote to authorize the president’s illegal invasion of Iraq (see http://forum.johnkerry.com/index.php?showtopic=9), but his refusal today to call for an end to the ongoing U.S. occupation.

The standard story in the United States is that in our quest to guarantee peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics and culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought harder. But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that we were well intentioned.

U.S. policy in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for the Vietnamese people or defending the United States. The central goal was to make sure that an independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders invoked Cold War rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith but really feared that a “virus” of independent development might infect the rest of Asia, perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World (see Noam Chomsky’s “American Power and the New Mandarins” or “World Orders Old and New”).

This interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is virtually unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country. In many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United States as empire — a grotesque aggression that was condemned around the world and at home, but pursued even as the body count went into the millions. Lying about that is crucial to our mythology.

When Kerry began his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July with a crisp salute, he was “reporting for duty,” of a certain kind. Instead of the honorable duty of leaders — to tell the truth, no matter how painful, and help people come to terms with the consequences of that truth — he has chosen the more common approach of those who lie, distort and obfuscate to gain power.

More than 30 years later, candidate Kerry has chosen the hypocrisy he once condemned over the courage he once called for.

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