Kerry's 1971 Words: How Sadly They Apply to Iraq
Kerry, then one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gave riveting and erudite testimony that left even critics astounded at the intellectual weight brought to bear by such a young man. And, of course, some of Kerry's honest descriptions of combat in Vietnam were dug up again by the Republican party to use against him in the presidential campaign and to smear his patriotism with words three decades old.
What is both amazing and profoundly sad is to read back through Kerry's entire narrative, as I did over the weekend, and see the startling parallels between what Kerry said almost 35 years ago and what is happening today with the Iraq war.
"I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. 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.
"As a veteran and one who feels this anger, I would like to talk about it. We are angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration of this country."
As a Veteran myself, I think a lot about our focus on the 2,100 military dead and the many more who will come home badly wounded and understand fully the hidden price that our society will see in the future – and it is exactly as Kerry described in 1971. This may be a different generation and a different war, but the circumstances under which our soldiers are fighting today is very much the same and we will see the same degree of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, dysfunctional families and suicides among Iraq Vets as we saw among their Vietnam predecessors.
In addition, many Iraq Vets, already struggling with what they experienced in combat, will be forced into an even greater sense of despair and anger as the true nature of the deception leading to this war becomes even more apparent.
"But the problem of veterans goes beyond this personal problem, because you think about a poster in this country with a picture of Uncle Sam and the picture says "I want you." And a young man comes out of high school and says, 'That is fine. I am going to serve my country.' And he goes to Vietnam and he shoots and he kills and he does his job or maybe he doesn't kill, maybe he just goes and he comes back, and when he gets back to this country he finds that he isn't really wanted, because the largest unemployment figure in the country- it varies depending on who you get it from, the VA Administration 15 percent, various other sources 22 percent.
"But the largest corps of unemployed in this country are veterans of this war, and of those veterans 33 percent of the unemployed are black. That means 1 out of every 10 of the Nation's unemployed is a veteran of Vietnam. The hospitals across the country won't, or can't meet their demands. It is not a question of not trying. They don't have the appropriations."That should sound familiar. As we well know, this administration's true loyalty to Veterans is so paper-thin that, as Kerry describes above, Veterans medical facilities "..don't have the appropriations," any more in 2005 than in 1971 to deal with the medical conditions being brought home from Iraq.
"In 1970 at West Point, Vice President Agnew said 'some glamorize the criminal misfits of society while our best men die in Asian rice paddies to preserve the freedom which most of those misfits abuse' and this was used as a rallying point for our effort in Vietnam.'Does the name Cindy Sheehan come to mind as the modern-day embodiment of the "criminal misfits" decried by Agnew? And give some thought to the ongoing attempts by Team Bush and the Right Wing to vilify those of us who hate seeing lives wasted and our country's reputation trashed and who, as Kerry said of Vietnam-war protesters of his era, "...were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to."
"But for us, as boys in Asia, whom the country was supposed to support, his statement is a terrible distortion from which we can only draw a very deep sense of revulsion. Hence the anger of some of the men who are here in Washington today. It is a distortion because we in no way consider ourselves the best men of this country, because those he calls misfits were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to, because so many who have died would have returned to this country to join the misfits in their efforts to ask for an immediate withdrawal from South Vietnam, because so many of those best men have returned as quadriplegics and amputees, and they lie forgotten in Veterans' Administration hospitals in this country which fly the flag which so many have chosen as their own personal symbol."
"In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to use the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.Wow. How much can you add to that? Kerry's generation endured a war started on a lie – the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution – and, as we well know, Americans have had a sick sense of deja vu as the Bush administration has misled us into the Iraq quagmire. In Kerry's words, you even get the current sense of how "preservation of freedom" is being used as the bogus justification for almost ever move made by George W. Bush and to smear those in the opposition.
"At any time that an actual threat is posed to this country or to the security and freedom I will be one of the first people to pick up a gun and defend it, but right now we are reacting with paranoia to this question of peace and the people taking over the world."
"We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons against 'oriental human beings,' with quotation marks around that. We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater or let us say a non-third-world people theater."And what do we have today? Caskets and body bags coming home that the media are forbidden to see and Vice President Cheney telling our own people that "...the back of the enemy was about to break" by describing the insurgency as being in its "last throes" -- only to see it come on even stronger the very next day. And Kerry is clearly talking about using weapons like napalm in Southeast Asia, which makes for poignant reading at a time when it has been confirmed that the U.S. has used white phosphorous during combat operations in Iraq, including in civilian areas.
"Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake.But we clearly have not learned that lesson even now.
"We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? But we are trying to do that, and we are doing it with thousands of rationalizations, and if you read carefully the President's last speech to the people of this country, you can see that he says, and says clearly: But the issue, gentlemen, the issue is communism, and the question is whether or not we will leave that country to the communists or whether or not we will try to give it hope to be a free people.
"But the point is they are not a free people now under us. They are not a free people, and we cannot fight communism all over the world, and I think we should have learned that lesson by now."
And, as we read Kerry's words again in a new era and with a different war, the similarities are compelling. It jumps out at you even more when you look at Kerry's testimony here and in its entirety and substitute "Iraq" for "Vietnam" and "terrorism" for "communism."
We need to remember this going forward and recall another lesson from that time: Vietnam war protesters like John Kerry, his fellow Veterans and millions of people all over America helped end that war and their opinions and beliefs have been vindicated by history.
And ours will be as well.