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On Senator Kerry and Vietnam
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Fifty-Two
by Brian S. Wise
27 January 2004John Kerry

What exactly is it about John Kerry’s career that suggests he’s more qualified than the president to oversee modern warfare, other than the fact he says he’s more qualified?


No matter how entertaining the Democratic race becomes, it pays to remember the Republican convention will be held in New York City, in early September, a short cab ride from Ground Zero.  That’s no happy coincidence, but it is good political placement; it allows President Bush to essentially say, “Look: Having valiantly served your country in Vietnam is virtuous, and if we were still fighting 1973’s war you could be right in voting for John Kerry.  But the fact is, America is fighting a new, modern war against an enemy with new, modern ideas.  If left unchecked, Islamic terrorism could rise to become a threat not unlike Communism at its peak; you don’t want a president who ended up seeing no value in ending Communism’s spread throughout Southeast Asia deciding which parts of the new threat are worth taking seriously.  And not for nothing, but I’ve got three years of on-the-job training here, why take the chance?”

If only the president were so bold. 

The meantime has produced an odd struggle between General Clark and Senator Kerry (perpetrated by Clark) concerning who managed the most valuable service while stationed in Vietnam, odd because Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to care about what happened to non-Communists there (it is campaign season, and politicians really care during campaign seasons).  Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr. made interesting observations, of most interest here: “A problem with presidential candidacies is their pursuit of trendy popularity. Kerry tasted deep of this when he paraded before Congress in 1971, condemning the judgment and integrity of three U.S. presidents who had argued the importance of resisting the Communists in Vietnam.  And now Kerry has his eyes on a sitting president who, with the backing of 77 senators, including John Kerry, set out to disarm Saddam Hussein by force.

One hypothesis has Democrats attempting to re-fight the ideological battle over Vietnam, to make known certain connections (real or imagined) between that conflict and what has happened in Iraq.  The hope is that more and more people will come to see another Vietnam developing in the Middle East, become disenfranchised at the thought and switch their votes to the Democratic candidate in November.  In this logical string no one is more qualified than either Clark or Kerry to not make the mistakes the administration has made.

So New Hampshire Democrats (Democrats everywhere, really, but New Hampshire Democrats today) are supposed to be considering which man is better qualified to be president given their experiences, but things get in the way.  For example, the same John Kerry who served with such valor and distinction in Vietnam came home and decried American savagery, saying in his 1971 congressional testimony that he sought to “destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more,” and so forth.  But in 2001 he defended Bob Kerrey’s involvement in the killing of Vietnamese civilians in 1969, and has yet to fully explain how civilians ended up dying under his Swift boat.

Senator Kerry did make clear there were hardly ever such things as average Vietnamese citizens, that “the civilians were often combatants.  A 12-year-old kid could walk up to a cafe, and did, and lobbed a grenade into that cafe and blew up people.  Women would have a gun, perhaps hidden under … a dress, a skirt … this was where the combatants were completely confused with civilians.”  Fair enough, but this explanation came thirty years after his emotional testimony.  Even taken at its face it still comes nowhere close to explaining why Senator Kerry voted against the eighty-seven billion dollar Iraqi aid package, sixty-seven billion of which went to the upkeep of the American soldiers there, many of whom today face the same uncertainty the senator faced in Vietnam.

Now let’s say this: There is nothing wrong with demanding an end to American barbarism where it exists or has existed.  But there is intellectual inconsistency is striving to end barbarity in the American military without at least explaining what it was about Bob Kerrey's victims that made them exceptions and whether it is ever especially worthwhile to shoot first and ask questions later.  So once again, what exactly is it about John Kerry’s career that suggests he’s more qualified than the president to oversee modern warfare, other than the fact he says he’s more qualified?

An earlier version of this article confused John Kerry's experience in Vietnam with Bob Kerrey's experience.  IC regrets the error.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for IntellectualConservative.com.

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