War and Dissent, Part II
Now that the Swift Boat lies about John Kerry’s military service have given anti-Kerry veterans visibility and money, they are targeting his anti-war activities and statements he made to Congress in 1971. They want him to apologize for what he said and did. The anti-Kerry veterans believe that Kerry harmed American forces when he spoke out against the war. This veteran says that John Kerry should take credit for what he did as yet another service to his nation. In speaking against the war, John Kerry brought the truth home to America. Along with thousands of other veterans, he demonstrated that the war was harming American soldiers, not just the Vietnamese people and countryside. He came to his beliefs through the experience of war, a war that he found troubling and disturbing but nonetheless, a war in which he served with distinction. By his service he established his right to speak out.
No American needs to go to war in order to speak about it. That’s our right under the First Amendment. But going to war provides an entirely new perspective. Serving in combat made me realize just how horrible war is. The violence is bad enough (although I was fortunate to see far less violence than I had a right to expect). Even worse, is the loss of humanity, the callousness and indifference to life that is so necessary in order for one human to be willing to kill and destroy another. It’s a terrible price to pay. Under the circumstances some combatants lose control. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse is only the most recent in a litany of shameful acts by Americans in war: My Lai, No Gun Ri. Wounded Knee. These things happen in war. They are war’s brutal consequence.
Recognizing and understanding that Americans committed war crimes in combat does not accuse all soldiers of those crimes. Rather, it recognizes war for what it is and should be a wake up call to the country as to why war is never a simple, nor should it ever be a first, solution in a conflict. That’s why dissent is so important. Spirited, conscientious dissent is important in determining whether a conflict warrants war. Even as the war is underway, dissent is needed to ensure that the nation understands what it is doing and why. War is an evil that is only justified under extreme circumstances. A democratic society needs dissenters to remind the nation of what war will do to our soul.
That’s why I think Kerry’s anti-war statements were warranted and appropriate. I can read what he said and know that he wasn’t talking about me. I didn’t burn villages, torture prisoners or rape women but I know that these things happen. And I know that these things happened because of callous indifference that breeds so well in the extreme violence of war. John Kerry was right when he spoke of this cost which had been previously documented by fellow veterans’ accounts. The men who admitted to these acts were cleansing their own and the nation’s souls. They recognized what they had become and were now telling the nation about a consequence of the war.
John McCain has criticized the attacks on John Kerry’s military service but says he finds Kerry’s anti-war activities troubling, that Kerry is open to criticism for those actions. I agree. That’s part of his public record. But I believe that Kerry has nothing to apologize for. He spoke the truth and, in doing so, he served his country. He did not condemn all Vietnam veterans as war criminals but rather demonstrated his concern for them. “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” he asked. In 1971 John Kerry believed that the Vietnam War was a mistake, a conviction shared by most Americans and even the Nixon Administration which was trying to find a way to reduce American involvement. By 1971, Vietnam was a holding action and the country had no real justification for sending Americans (including this writer) to kill and destroy in Vietnam. We were just a holding action, saving face for a nation that was blindsided by its ideology.
Vietnam offers many lessons for America in the first decade of the new millennium. One is that we should understand the true nature of the our “enemies”, what motivates them and why. In doing so, we can be more effective in dealing with the threats they pose to our democratic society and can seek alternatives to war wherever possible. A second lesson is that war must have real meaning in order to justify its violence. I can fight for my country and deal with war’s brutality when I know and believe in the cause, when I know that war is the only way out. Vietnam had lost any meaning when I was called to serve and I have resented my nation for putting me in that situation ever since. I see the same lack of meaning in the Iraq war, a war that has shifting antecedents and has turned American GI’s from liberators to occupiers.
That’s why John Kerry’s anti-war activism was important in 1971. That’s why it does not disqualify him from serving as president. Just the opposite, I believe that John Kerry’s service to his nation as an anti-war activist demonstrates that he has the humanity necessary to be president in the post 9-11 world.