Thursday, August 26, 2004

Why Vietnam Still Matters

The debate about John Kerry’s service in Vietnam and his anti-war activism as a veteran is a reminder that Vietnam is more than just a war the United States lost three decades ago. Vietnam is, in fact, a cautionary tale for the war the United States is fighting now in Iraq. Just as Vietnam was a campaign in the Cold War against Communism, Iraq is claimed to be part of the War on Terrorism. And just as Vietnam was a disaster for both America and Vietnam, the current war has all the makings of a similar disaster for America and Iraq. The difference is that this time, the consequences are likely to be far more significant.

The United States got into Vietnam with little real understanding of that nation or its history. All we could see was evil Communists about to take control of another country. So we ignored Vietnam’s long history of nationalist resistance to outside intervention and we ignored the lessons of the French defeat at the hands of their colonial subjects. We waded right in, first with advisors and military aid and, when that was insufficient, we brought in combat troops. In the end, however, America could not sustain the effort needed to support a weak, corrupt government against a far more determined foe. Our withdrawal in 1975 was a national embarrassment but did little to diminish America’s standing in the world.

Iraq is different in some respects–we dove right in with our troops rather than wading in–but the similarities are all too haunting. Now that the US has destabilized a brutal dictatorship, there is no indigenous leadership that can hold a fractious, tribal society together. Whatever good will Iraqis had toward us as liberators has long since been replaced by disappointment at our inability to restore basic services or order. This, in turn, fuels nationalist, tribal and religious conflicts that have now pinned the United States down in a far more hostile situation than the Bush Administration ever imagined.
Our invasion promised a flowering of democracy. What we have produced is mayhem and civil war that has taken American lives and resources beyond what Americans were led to expect.

Like Vietnam, we are now fighting to salvage some semblance of credibility. Bush cannot admit that his grand plan and vision were little more than wishful thinking, so American and Iraqi lives are now sacrificed so that the administration can maintain the fiction that it knows what it is doing. In fact, what America is doing is simply trying to stave off defeat.. Richard Nixon prolonged the agony of Vietnam so that he would not be the first president to lose a war. George Bush is doing the same in the hope that he can somehow validate his decision to invade Iraq.

Unlike Vietnam, however, Iraq is likely to have far more serious consequences for this nation. The fall of Saigon was clearly a defeat for America but it had little practical consequence for this nation. In contrast, our actions in Iraq have wholly dissipated the good will toward America shown by the rest of the world after the 9-11 attacks. America’s failure to find the much ballyhooed weapons of mass destruction has eroded our credibility at a time when we are more than ever dependent on the rest of the world to work with us in fighting terrorism.

The pernicious effects of America’s unilateral war are further amplified by the prisoner abuse scandal and our destruction of Iraqi neighborhoods as we fight the insurgency. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners borders on war crimes. The “collateral damage” caused by our military operations may not be war crimes but for those in the line of fire, it cannot be anything less than harrowing. Either way, these actions are taken by US forces in the name of America. And in that regard, we are all responsible.

Which brings me back to the issue of John Kerry’s anti-war statements in 1971 and the hostility of veterans those statements engendered. When Kerry spoke in 1971 he was stating an obvious fact, i.e, that American forces at times committed war crimes. Veterans claim that this statement falsely accused them of war crimes. What he did was speak the truth for which all Americans, veterans and civilians alike, share at least some responsibility. The same is true of Iraq. Specific actions may be perpetrated by a small number of “rogues” and ignored by responsible commanders but in the end, those actions are taken in our name. And they harm this nation. It was true in 1971. It is true in 2004.

So I guess there is some value in debating that long ago war. It has some very important lessons for our current war.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Purple Haze

I wrote this back in April when the Republicans first started their campaign to smear John Kerry. Bob Dole's asinine statements about Kerry's Purple Hearts brought it back to mind, so I thought it would be worth posting.

Only a Flesh Wound

Let’s see if I understand this correctly. Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespe claims that John Kerry is a fraud because one of his Purple Hearts is for a minor wound. He said Kerry’s commanding officer questioned whether the wound merited a Purple Heart and only submitted the recommendation after Kerry badgered him to do so. Therefore, Kerry is a phony who has falsely embellished his resume. His heroism is a sham. George Bush, in contrast, is honest and true. At least, I think that’s what he is saying.

What an insult! John Kerry may have faults but he has every right to claim his three Purple Hearts and Silver Star. He meets my definition of military hero. So do his crewmen. He fought aggressively and acted decisively. He took risks to accomplish his mission. If his first wound was minor, so what? The Navy recognized it. More important, Kerry continued to fight. Hard. He earned his medals and the respect of the men whose lives he risked. As a veteran, that tells me a lot.

Now come the Republican operatives saying it’s not that much, it’s only a flesh wound. This kind of sliming is Bush’s hypocritical low point. (So far. Republican tactics never fail to amaze me.) Four years ago, Bush simply shut off any questions or discussion about his own behavior and actions before 1986 when he quit drinking and was born again. This year’s Bush campaign would prefer to do the same but can’t ignore the fact of John Kerry’s service. Instead, the Republicans are doing everything they can to marginalize it. They imply that he sought medals he did not deserve.

What these critics don’t understand, since so few of them were in Vietnam is that medals were a fact of life in there. This was especially so for officers but even I, a lowly enlisted man, sought any medals I was entitled to. Most came automatically. I earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge for being in the field 30 days, an Air Medal for making 25 helicopter assaults (more like shuttle flights, actually) and a Bronze Star for service. I can’t say that I distinguished myself in any particular way but I was there. I risked my life, however reluctantly. The medals were, at least, some recognition.

Even Purple Hearts were automatic in my unit. Unlike all other awards, our company commanders didn’t even sign them. Purple Heart citations were generated by higher headquarters based on casualty reports. Any but the most minor wound merited a Purple Heart in my battalion. So it doesn’t surprise me that John Kerry sought a Purple Heart after his first wound. And, even if one commander had questions, three more commanders recognized Kerry’s subsequent actions. And no doubt, Kerry knew their future value in politics. That doesn’t change what John Kerry did in Vietnam or his claim to those actions in his personal history.

But the Republicans would have us believe that Kerry is a fake because his first wound was “slight”. After portraying candidate Kerry as a slick, calculating politician for weeks, they tell us now that Lieutenant Kerry was only out to claim personal glory to build a political career. Their message: Kerry is a fake now. He was then, too. He put in for the slightest wound so he could obtain the three Purple Hearts that were his ticket out of Vietnam. Then he came home to protest against his country. You see, he’s always been a flip-flopper.

These claims and innuendos insult not just John Kerry but the American people as well. Does the Republican Party really expect us to believe Kerry is a fake when Bush has been the Ultimate Fake his entire adult life? From his National Guard “service” to his business career, his selection as president, to “Mission Accomplished” and the fake turkey, nothing about George W. Bush has been real. And that’s what angers me. Here is George Bush who never accomplished a thing on his own in life, trashing Kerry’s military record. Neither Bush, Cheney or any of their many minions know what combat is like. John Kerry does. So do many others who served. I do. Bush, Cheney and the rest of that crew have absolutely no credibility to question Kerry’s service. None whatsoever.

All of this is minimally relevant to the presidential campaign. Neither Kerry’s medals nor Bush’s missing National Guard days offer solutions to the problems facing America in 2004 and beyond. But those episodes do offer some insight into the character of the two men who seek the presidency this year. John Kerry comes across as a man of conflicting emotions and beliefs, a man willing to use his record to his best advantage. In that, he is like many office seekers but I believe he his genuine. He made the best of a difficult decision in a difficult time and conducted himself with courage and honor. George Bush suffers dearly in comparison. Bush has no conflicts and has never changed his mind because he does not think. He poses as a war leader but has little understanding of what war means. He and his campaign managers are cynically hypocritical and manipulative, more than willing to attack the patriotism and motives of anyone when it serves their purposes. Last time, it was John McCain.

It’s a cheap shot that insults this veteran.

Monday, August 23, 2004

More Swift Lies

So let me get this straight. John Kerry’s swift boat critics claim he has lied about his service in Vietnam. Yet these same individuals not only received awards for the same action but also praised Kerry at the time as a courageous and resourceful commander. Kerry’s crew and others who served in the same unit support his version of events. But the US media accords Kerry’s critics the same credibility as John Kerry. It just doesn’t make sense.

It makes even less sense when you compare Kerry’s record to Bush’s. Whether or not John Kerry’s wounds were or were not superficial, he was in a combat situation where his life was at risk. George Bush was living the life of a spoiled rich kid in Texas where his only risk was drinking himself into a stupor or driving while intoxicated. Kerry may have served a shortened tour in Vietnam but Bush wasn’t even able to complete the minimal service required of a National Guardsman.

The swift boat veterans who now accuse Kerry of lying and exaggeration are, at best, dupes of the Republican disinformation machine which so far has managed to distract the American public from the Bush’s foreign policy disaster in Iraq. The media and public are spending valuable time reviewing documents and listening to veterans recall long past events, trying to decide whether or not John Kerry really was a “hero”.

The term hero is one that is used quite liberally these days to describe any service man or woman who goes into harm’s way. While I think that the current usage devalues the term, I have no doubt that John Kerry qualifies under this standard. He went into harm’s way and conducted himself in a manner that earned the respect and support of the men whose lives he risked in combat. What in George Bush’s life comes even remotely close to John Kerry’s achievements as a wartime commander.

And for that matter, what in George Bush’s life compares to Kerry’s record of service as a public official. Kerry has spent most of the last three decades in public service as a prosecutor, lieutenant governor and US senator. George Bush spent most of that same time as a failed businessman and alcoholic before he “found Jesus” and stopped drinking. Since that time he has served as the frontman for a dubious collection of corporate interests whose policies favor the rich over the interests of most Americans.

I don’t mean to be objective here. I’m very angry at the way a group of wealthy Republicans can fund a deceptive advertisement against a man who has a credible record of service to his country as a naval officer, opponent of a misguided war and senator and totally hijack the political discourse.

I’m also damned angry at the swift boat vets making the charges against Kerry. I think most of their hostility comes from Kerry’s anti-war testimony where they claim he accused all Americans of committing war crimes. Their anger has led them to make the same kind of blanket statements that they believe Kerry made in his 1971 testimony before Congress. The swift boat vets say that Kerry slandered all veterans even as they disparage and denigrate the service of their own men.