Who's to blame for nation's Vietnam wounds? Kerry
August 29, 2004
BY MARK STEYN SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Every serious nation, in the course of history, loses a war here and there. You hope it's there rather than here -- somewhere far away, a small conflict in a distant land, not central to your country's sense of itself. During America's ''Vietnam era,'' Britain grappled with a number of nasty colonial struggles. Some they won -- Malaya -- and others they lost -- Aden -- or, at any rate, concluded that the cost of achieving whatever it was they wanted to achieve was no longer worth it.
No parallels are exact, but the symbolism of the transfer of power in Aden (on the Arabian coast) is not dissimilar to the fall of Saigon. On Nov. 29, 1967, the Union Jack was lowered over the city, and the high commissioner, his staff and all her majesty's forces left. On Nov. 30, the People's Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed -- the only avowedly Marxist state in Arabia. A couple of years earlier, the penultimate high commissioner, Sir Richard Turnbull, had remarked bleakly to Denis Healey, the British Defense secretary, that the British empire would be remembered for only two things: ''the popularization of Association Football [soccer] and the term 'f-- off.' "
Sir Richard was being a little hard on his fellow imperialists, but those two legacies of empire are useful ways of looking at the situation when the natives are restless and you're a long way from home: Faraway disputes you're stuck in the middle of aren't played by the rules of Association Football, and it's important to know when to "f-- off.'' Aden had been British since 1839: that's 130 years, or 10 times as long as America was mixed up in Vietnam. And yet in the end the British shrugged it off. Just one of those things, old boy. Can't be helped. As the last high commissioner inspected his troops at Khormaksar Airport on that final day, the band of the Royal Marines played not ''Land Of Home And Glory'' or ''Rule, Britannia'' but a Cockney novelty pop song, ''Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be,'' as a jaunty reflection on the vicissitudes of fate.
So when John McCain sternly warns the swift boat veterans of ''reopening the wounds of Vietnam,'' it's worth asking: Why is Vietnam a ''wound'' and why won't it heal? The answer: not because it was a military or strategic defeat but because it was a national trauma. And whose fault is that?
Well, you can't pin it all on one person, but, if you had to, Lt. John F. Kerry would stand a better shot at taking the solo trophy than almost anyone. The ''wounds'' McCain complains of aren't from losing Vietnam, but from the manner in which it was lost. Today Sen. Kerry says he's proud of his anti-war activism, but that's not what it was. Every war has pacifists and conscientious objectors and even disenchanted veterans, but there's simply no precedent for what John Kerry did: a man who put his combat credentials to the service of smearing his country's entire armed forces as rapists, decapitators and baby killers. That's the ''wound,'' Sen. McCain. That's why a crummy little war on the other side of the world still festers. That's why the band didn't play ''Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be'' and move on to the next item of business. Because Kerry didn't just call for U.S. withdrawal, he impugned the honor of every man he served with.
In his testimony to Congress in 1971, Kerry asserted a scale of routine war crimes unparalleled in American history -- his ''band of brothers'' (as he now calls them) ''personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads . . . razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.'' Almost all these claims were unsupported. Indeed, the only specific example of a U.S. war criminal that Kerry gave was himself. As he said on ''Meet The Press'' in April 1971, ''Yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones. I used 50-caliber machineguns, which we were granted and ordered to use.''
Really? And when was that? On your top-secret Christmas Eve mission in Cambodia? If they'd taken him at his word, when the senator said ''I'm John Kerry reporting for duty,'' the delegates at the Democratic Convention should have dived for cover.
But they didn't. So Kerry is now the first self-confessed war criminal in the history of the Republic to be nominated for president. Normally this would be considered an electoral plus only in the more cynical banana republics. But the Democrats seemed to think they could run an anti-war anti-hero as a war hero and nobody would mind. As we now know, a lot of people -- a lot of veterans -- do mind, very much. They understand that, whether or not he ever mowed down civilians with his 50-caliber machinegun, Kerry is responsible for a lot of wounds closer to home.
In the usual course of events, Kerry's terrible judgment in the '70s would render him unelectable. Instead, over two decades he morphed into a respectably dull run-of-the-mill pompous senatorial windbag. Had he run for president in the '90s or 2000, he might even have pulled it off. But the Democrats turned to him this time because the tortured contradictions of his resume suited an anti-war party that didn't dare run as such. Ever since the first cries of ''Quagmire!'' back in the early days of the Afghan liberation in 2001, the left have been trying to Vietnamize the war on terror. They failed in that, but they succeeded in the Vietnamization of the election campaign, and that's turned out just swell, hasn't it? Remember that formulation a lot of Democrats were using last year? They oppose the war but ''of course'' they support our troops. Kerry's campaign is a walking illustration of the deficiencies of that straddle: When you divorce the heroism of soldiering from the justice of the cause, what's left but a hollow braggart?
The Vietnamese government used Kerry's 1971 testimony as evidence of American war crimes as recently as two months ago. In Aden, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, but in Hanoi Kerry's psychodrama-queen performance is a gift that keeps on giving. It would be a shame if they understood him more clearly than the American people do.