On Iraq war, Kerry should keep to his conscience

August 01, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

THOSE OF US who were in high school back then regarded John Kerry as a hero - not so much for the medals he won in Vietnam but for his stand against the war. He had saved his buddies' butts in the Mekong Delta, and now he was going to save ours. That's why my teenage friends and I thought he was cool.

Though withdrawal of troops supposedly had commenced - who believed anything coming out of Washington by then? - there was still a draft; teenagers were still getting their numbers in the spring of 1971. The U.S. death toll in Vietnam passed 45,000 that year (and another 13,000-plus would die there before it was over). This Kerry went to Congress to demand an end to a war that, he said, had been fought for nothing. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" he said. He and other members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War threw medals over a fence in front of the Capitol.

Those of us who had been, until then, too young for military duty (or for the more popular choice of the time, a college deferment) had never seen this before - a decorated veteran speaking against war.

Until then, all the veterans we knew - uncles who had served in World War II, men who gathered in the American Legion hall in my hometown in Massachusetts - thought the Vietnam War was a good idea. They saw it as they had seen their own war, a just cause, a battle of liberation for a threatened people in a distant land. They had accepted all the lies - including Lyndon Johnson's big one, leading to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution 40 years ago this Saturday - and argued in favor of killing Southeast Asian communists, even as the numbers of American dead climbed into the thousands and the point of the war became lost. It was hard, maybe impossible, for them to believe we could make such a huge and costly mistake, or that a pretext for war could be false.

Now, here were veterans of this war, with Kerry as their media face, standing up and saying the war was wrong. Young men who had been there, who had volunteered or been drafted - our big brothers - guys who had actually put their butts on the line were demanding that it all stop.

Those of us taking up the rear, who still feared the possibility of being sucked into the war after we turned 18, have never expressed sufficient thanks to those who struggled with their consciences, and who emerged to protest in public and make the war end sooner than it otherwise would have.

That's the John F. Kerry we admired back in the day - the one who stood on principle against a war he considered immoral. It would have been nice had this John Kerry been acknowledged more at the Democratic National Convention. What got the most attention, instead, was his military record.

Apparently, he and his handlers believe Kerry has to assert the superiority of his military experience over the incumbent president's to prove that he would not wilt in the face of the necessity for war against terrorism. Too bad. It's exactly the kind of thing Kerry complained of 12 years ago, when presidential candidate Bill Clinton took some licks from another Democrat - Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator - for not having jumped into combat boots in the 1960s.

"What is missing," Kerry said in 1992, "is a recognition that there exists today a generation that has come into its own with powerful lessons learned, with a voice that has been grounded in experiences both of those who went to Vietnam and those who did not. ... Neither one group nor the other from that difficult period of time has cornered the market on virtue or rectitude or love of country. ... We do not need to divide America over who served and how."

OK. But that's been done, and it's bound to come up again and again. George Bush's so-called service during the Vietnam years is considered a joke, and yet it's far more indicative of attitudes about the war at that time than Kerry's. Let's face it: More people were trying to get out of going to Vietnam than were volunteering, some honorably like war protesters, some surreptitiously like Bush and most of, say, the National Football League. You can look it up: Some 60 percent of draft-age American men did not serve in the military between 1963 and 1974, and 98 percent never came close to combat. That puts George Bush and Bill Clinton in the same boat, along with millions of other men from the baby boom. Voters in the last three elections have pretty much said that military experience is irrelevant in a president.

Along comes Kerry. He stands out because he actually enlisted in the Navy two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, went to Vietnam and earned medals.

All of that gave him special credibility when he emerged as a leading protester of the war. This man served his country and saved lives in two ways - as commander of a patrol boat and as a voice of conscience.

In 2004, with Americans dying in Iraq, Kerry should not dance around that other part of his past if it were some youthful fling he'd rather people in the red states not know too much about. Mistake.

Thirty-something years ago, Kerry went from young Navy lieutenant in the Delta to leading spokesman against the Vietnam War, and in relatively short order. In 2004, Kerry can move from supporter of Bush's unprovoked war in Iraq to opponent without any problem, and he shouldn't care about being called a flip-flopper. If you're a flip-flopper for accepting this war plan in 2003 and opposing it now, then this nation is crawling with flip-floppers.

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