By Jorge Mariscal
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
The controversy over Sen. John Kerry’s service in Vietnam raises a number of tough issues for peace activists and voters. But one thing is clear: Kerry is trapped by the hawkish image he has so carefully cultivated.
The actual “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” television ads claiming Kerry lied about his activities in Vietnam seem tame compared with the vitriol spouted by right-wing pundits.
Rush Limbaugh mocked Kerry’s military service, amusing his listeners with riffs about Kerry hallucinating that he was “General [sic] Kurtz,” the insane Green Beret colonel in the film “Apocalypse Now.” On “Hardball” in mid-August, talking-head Michelle Malkin insinuated that Kerry’s wounds that earned him three purple hearts might have been self-inflicted.
Malkin was following in the slimy footsteps of shock columnist Ann Coulter who once claimed that triple amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland “lost three limbs in an accident during a routine non-combat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up.” In fact, Cleland accidentally picked up a live grenade on his way to relieve U.S. troops during the siege of Khe Sahn.
As a Vietnam veteran who came home and opposed the war, I find this level of discourse despicable. Ironically, a few intellectuals on the left, including Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch magazine, have depicted Kerry as a gung-ho killer and war criminal, dismissing his antiwar activities as calculations designed to further his political career.
How speaking out about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam furthered one’s aspirations to elected office, even in 1971, escapes me. Such arguments from the left begin to sound suspiciously like the “baby-killer” chants hurled at returning veterans by some in the antiwar movement.
What everyone seems to be avoiding is the fact that the antiwar Kerry is missing in action. Republicans despise the activist Kerry of 30 years ago, and for their part Democratic strategists have decided to deep-six the “antiwar John Kerry” to have any chance of winning battleground states.
They believe they must package and market the “brave warrior Kerry,” who in his acceptance speech, dramatically stated, “I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as President.”
The young antiwar Kerry knew better than that. So did many of us who went to Vietnam and served when called (in some cases, much to our regret). Many were courageous in combat and many paid the ultimate price. But the notion that the U.S. war in Southeast Asia was a war “in defense of this country” is a tall tale that has been debunked by historians and clear-minded veterans alike.
Only the most desperate revisionist could claim that the National Liberation Front or the North Vietnamese posed a threat to the United States. Only the most myopic Cold Warrior could believe that the purpose of the Vietnam War was to keep “the communists” from landing in California.
In our desire to see Bush & Co. removed from power we must not allow the Kerry campaign to rewrite the history of U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia as a “noble cause.” More important, Kerry’s decision to promote such revisionism makes it easier for those who make the equally bogus argument today that U.S. troops in Iraq are “defending our freedom.” International terrorism is a real threat, but the terrorists’ wrath is not directed at the United States because “they hate our freedom.”
What Kerry should be saying on the campaign trail is what he told Senator Fulbright’s committee in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Or he would do well to repeat what he said about returning Vietnam vets: “The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.”
The statement is as true now as it was then. But with an election to win, this is much too honest for an electorate who still can’t handle the truth.
Apparently, the antiwar Kerry has been deleted and cannot be retrieved. Today’s Kerry sounds more like Lyndon B. Johnson than Eugene McCarthy. Is the Democrats’ militarized electoral campaign simply a tactical maneuver or a symptom of liberalism’s complicity with U.S. imperial fantasies?
The bottom-line question is, what troubles us more? Is it John Kerry’s military past and current emphasis on warrior themes and trappings or George W. Bush’s proven record of preemptive aggression and propensity for lying to the American people?
Whatever the answers, there is no doubt that the work of peace and antimilitarism activists will not end any time soon, regardless of who is elected president in November.
Jorge Mariscal, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969. He is director of the Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.