Friday, July 30, 2004

The Speech

In accepting the Democratic nomination for president John Kerry made an effective case last night for his election in November. He was focused, determined, direct in his criticism of the Bush Administration and forthright in his proposals for strengthening American at home and abroad. Kerry, as always, highlighted his service in Vietnam, standing with his former shipmates and triple amputee Max Cleland. But last night, Vietnam was only the beginning of his public service over a 30 year career that also included criticism of the war he fought. Those experiences were the base on which he presented his vision and hopes for America in 2004 and beyond.
Kerry defended criticism of Bush’s foreign policy as a patriotic duty, rejecting the defeatist label that Republicans use to stifle dissent and questions. He claimed that critical, reasoned dissent is the essence of patriotism, an honorable role that seeks to make America "stronger at home, respected abroad." In doing so, Kerry walks a tightrope. Americans may be uncomfortable with Bush’s actions around the world but we are also wary of criticism that may put our troops or the nation in further jeopardy. Kerry positioned himself as both a soldier who understands war and a commander-in-chief who respects the men and women who fight our wars.
As a combat veteran, Kerry puts himself in a position to be an effective critic of the Bush Administration’s war on terror. And he used his opportunity to challenge Bush’ses effectiveness. Commending Bush for his efforts immediately after 9-11, he lamented how he wished those efforts had continued, implying that the administration had squandered a unique opportunity to protect America through effective international action. He did not offer specific alternatives to Bush’s policies but he did offer the possibility that America can do better.
Kerry also directly rebutted Republican criticisms. He stated clearly that as president, he would decide America’s foreign policies, not waiting for permission from other nations to protect our vital interests. He defended his willingness to examine complex issues that are just "not that simple". And he challenged Bush’s credibility in launching the war in Iraq when he said that he would only go to war when he could look a parent in the eye and tell them that their child’s sacrifice was necessary to protect America.
Compared to his forceful critique on national security, Kerry’s domestic policies were less strong, sounding a bit like a traditional laundry list of Democratic initiatives and programs. He made lots of promises–jobs, education, tax relief, health care and fiscal responsibility–with only a vague description of how he will pay for it all. But he made his promises to a society where fewer and fewer Americans can make ends meet, even working full time. Despite the implicit criticism, Kerry positioned himself as an optimist who believes that "America can do better."
It was a good speech, long but not long winded or mind numbing. Kerry ‘s 45 minutes alone in the national spotlight gave him the opportunity to used the words of Lincoln and Jefferson to rise above partisan rhetoric and to talk of hope and promise. Kerry did not electrify his audience. Applause and cheers were muted throughout his speech. The convention delegates did not come alive until the very end. He delivered a thoughtful speech aimed at the many Americans who do not yet know him or know only the caricature painted by the Republicans. He came across as a candidate who has ideas worthy of consideration.
Kerry’s speech was political. Rightly so. Conventions and campaigns are inherently political actions that seek to define the nation and its policies. Kerry was sincere, thoughtful, patriotic even as he questioned the current administration. Like so many candidates (including George W. Bush) before him, Kerry used his moment in the spotlight to define himself in the best possible terms. The upcoming campaign will test the durability of that definition and Kerry’s ability to sustain the hopes he raised last night.


Partisan. A strong, often uncritical supporter of a party, cause or person. Usually associated with partisan politics. As a result, partisan imparts a negative image, one which is not entirely undeserved. I often find myself becoming partisan in my judgements opinion of George Bush, wanting to deny him success, even if that success is good for America (or the people his policies put at risk), in order to deny him a second term. Partisan passions are insidious and unruly. They do not contribute to meaningful political dialogue. With a little thought, I can temper my partisanship and remember that (as much as I do not want to admit or even say it) George W. Bush is president of the United States, however questionable his accession to office. For better or worse, this nation is in his hands and those of his advisors. For America’s and the world’s sake I wish them success.
Partisan. A member of an armed group fighting secretly against an occupying power. A Resistance fighter. This partisan is a more positive image, replete with scenes of plucky civilians confronting and confounding superior forces. Our own Revolution began with partisan thinkers and fighters. These partisans produced the Declaration of Independence, one of Western Civilization’s great documents. It clearly and unequivocally states that "all men are created equal." That is an idea worthy of this nation, worthy of uncritical support. I am a partisan for an America that has not forgotten the lofty ideals of its founders.
By that criterion, I am right to criticize Bush and his administration. He has done little to improve the nation in three and a half years. His foreign policies have shattered America’s credibility, wasting lives and dollars. Irresponsible tax cuts have ballooned the deficit, putting America’s economy further at risk to foreign investors. This administration has no plan to lessen America’s dependence on foreign energy other than to tap the limited supplies (about six year’s worth) in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The environment is increasingly at risk from a variety of Bush policies, from higher pollutant levels to allowing damaging extractive practices on public lands. The administration supports anti-consumer, pro-corporate initiatives such as media consolidation, blanket liability protections for pharmaceutical companies and other businesses. Bush refuses to acknowledge ideas that are not consistent with his own; economic and scientific expertise is welcome only if when it supports his beliefs. His social policies preclude entire groups of Americans from ever achieving the equality stated in the Declaration. If my criticism of the Bush Administration makes me a partisan, it does so because I believe in an ideal that does not fit into the Bush Cartel’s world view. They may use the same language but their meaning and application are far more limited.
My criticism notwithstanding, I recognize that George Bush performed well in the days and weeks following the 9-11 attacks. He rallied the nation. He forcefully asserted America’s right to defend itself against attack. And he assembled an international coalition to attack al-Quaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan. I credit his success to a combination of cynical ambition and good acting. Nevertheless, he did what the job required at the time. And he and his collaborators have cynically played the 9-11 card ever since. My own interpretation of administration policy since 9-11 is that the Bush Cartel decided that they could use the terrorism scare the American people into re-electing Bush, cementing the victory they only secured by court order in 2000. It would be so simple. A knockout punch to the Taliban and al-Quaeda in Afghanistan, a quick invasion to create a fledgling democracy in Iraq and a never ending Global War on Terror that would make Bush a "war president" who of necessity of should not, cannot be questioned. Bing. Bam. Boom.
These grand ideas ran aground on reality. The US only pushed al-Quaeda out of Kabul; it continues to operate along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is still divided into militia fiefdoms without the strong central government necessary to maintain the nation’s security. Us action against terrorist groups as been limited. The US knows little after almost three years about al-Quaeda’s command and control systems that would help in disrupting it terrorist cells around the world. Iraq is now shooting war that actually introduced foreign fighters into that country and compromised US ability to improve Iraqi living conditions after years of dictatorship, war and sanctions. The war has seriously strained the US military, limiting its ability to protect American interests in the rest of the world. Much of the world no longer believes what America says. Our ability to serve as an honest broker among nations is severely lessened. If we weren’t so rich and powerful, many nations would have little to do with us.
But none of this matters to the Bush Cartel. They continue on, firm in their faith, ignoring the terrible reality of their policies, unable to recognize the fundamental policy errors that have placed so many Americans and Iraqis in peril. If this judgement makes me a partisan, I accept the designation with honor.

Remembering War

After 60 years, Germans are revisiting their World War II history. For most of the post war era, Germans turned away from World War II, focusing on the future to show the world that the new Germany was far different from the nation that plunged Europe into a devastating war. Not surprisingly, Germans looking forward to freedom and prosperity preferred not to dwell on past defeats. A recent article in The Washington Post suggests that attitude is changing. New memoirs and reminisces by WWII veterans are being received with interest by a new generation that wants to know about their nation’s past, not to celebrate or glorify that past but rather to understand it.
German soldiers’ experiences are particularly interesting to me. They were 18 and 19 year old conscripts, thrown into a hellish world where the only real goal was survival. They fought and killed, often with determination and valor, for an unholy cause. Their reward was defeat and shame and for years they remained silent, fearing that they would be seen as Nazi killers. They had to ignore the traumatic events of their youth and the horrific emotions their war experiences generated. And they had to live with the guilt of serving the evil ambitions of the Nazis.
All this introspection leads me back to my questions about my own military service in Vietnam. I did not kill nor did I suffer the extreme trauma of WWII combat. But I was a grunt–an infantry rifleman–and was fully prepared to kill. And I experienced the fear and uncertainty of a combat environment. All for a war that I opposed. Yet there I was, doing exactly what I believed I should not do. How could I have done that?
Fear and patriotism. I was afraid to say "no" to my country. Part of it was fear of the consequences–prosecution, prison, ostracism–but it was also an unwillingness to refuse my country’s call to service. Family and tradition reinforced that call: my father and uncles served in WWII. I know that some of my contemporaries did refuse. Most, however, simply ducked the question either through luck (high draft numbers) or a variety of strategies (medical deferments) and never faced the issue head on. I faced that issue and I served my country, regardless of what I personally believed about policies it pursued in Vietnam. The German veterans now telling their stories probably went to war under similar societal and patriotic circumstances.
Like the Germans, I am reluctant to take any pride or satisfaction in my military service, even though I want to. It’s been difficult for me to claim any achievement because I will always question the cause I served, just as the German veterans have done for six decades. But just surviving combat was an achievement, especially for some one as ill-suited to the task as I was. I did not excel as a soldier but neither did I do anything to harm my unit or its operations. I was there, able to patrol, operate a radiotelephone and ready to shoot and kill. I had both the mental and physical stamina to survive one of life’s greatest dangers. Not bad for a book smart, inexperienced, inept college boy.
I want to take pride in that accomplishment just as my father and uncles did about their military service. I’m not saying I want glory and recognition for my military service. I want to lay to rest the questions that have haunted me for more than three decades.
Knowing that the Vietnam war was bad policy even as I served, will always cloud my understanding of my service. Like the German veterans, I have recently come to the realization that I can separate my service from the cause I served. This doesn’t exorcize my ghosts but it does put them at bay. I can see now that the choices I made and the actions I took were the best I could do at the time. I dealt with the circumstances as I found and understood them. And I survived the challenge, largely due to luck, but also in part because I summoned the strength and will to survive. Damn right. I should be proud of that.
Note that my accomplishment has little to do with my country’s objectives in Vietnam. Those were entirely irrelevant to me. What I did mattered little in the long run. The forces of Vietnamese history and nationalism were destined to outlast the American war there, just as they had outlasted invaders and would-be colonizers for centuries before Americans even knew Vietnam existed. My accomplishment meant simply staying alive and supporting my fellow grunts in their effort to do the same, one day at a time.
In the jungle, on the battlefield, foreign policy and the affairs of nations are a remote abstraction, far removed from the daily struggle for life that is reality in combat.