Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Defining Vietnam

So what was Vietnam, anyhow?

I'm not asking for my sake. I know how I see it: a big campaign in the long Cold War -- someday to be known as World War III. A failed campaign, in the end, in what was, in the end, a winning war. Like the Spartans at Sphacteria, like Grant at Cold Harbor, like the Aussies at Gallipoli. As brutal as Korea, but far more damaging at home because of its coincidence with a worldwide youth rebellion, new media mentalities and technologies, general American discontent, and fractures surfacing via the Civil Rights Movement.

Rather, I'd like to ask the Democrats I work alongside, and those I'm related to: what was Vietnam?

A just war now, a good cause, after 40 years of telling us it was the worst example of America's barbaric militarism? If so, why nominate a self-professed war criminal from that era as our next leader? And why let him run his campaign so largely based on his military service?

It all seems odd to me, because when the same people wish to cast the most damning epithets at the war for Iraq's liberation, they use the terminology of Vietnam.

But I've stopped expecting any coherence from the anti-Bush party. Gods know the Republicans are full of contradictions. But generally their view of history jibes with their present policies. In the Democratic brain, the view of Vietnam is irreconcilable with sanity, but it serves a reactionary mentality that will see black as white as black again depending in which does the most damage. Just like Michael Moore's view of modern American soldiers: innocent boys, the underclass dupes of the recruiters in one scene, and merciless murderers in the next.

One of my co-workers is a 50-something, who in the Vietnam era was an out-and-out draft dodger and anti-war activist. He blasts Bush for being "AWOL." One of my relatives is half his age but routinely protests at the School of the Americas in the name of repressed peoples. Yet all she seems to have to say to the people of Iraq is, "the world would be better off if you still wore your chains."

To these other folks, there's only one issue: Bush. "He has such a phony posture at the podium," "he didn't give the U.N. a chance," "did you see 'Farenheit 9/11'?"

I guess I'm foolish to expect some historical coherence here.

As Richard Holbrooke writes in the Washington Post, Kerry was "a man who volunteered for duty in the Navy and then asked for an assignment on the boats that were to ply the dangerous rivers of Vietnam -- when most of his college-educated contemporaries (including George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton) -- found easy ways to avoid Vietnam."

Was Vietnam a just and justified war? Then how could Kerry be justified in leading such a vocal opposition to it. Was it unjust? Then a soldier dragooned into the ranks can be forgiven. But Kerry went in willingly, with a gung-ho mentality, and confessed that his unit slaughtered civilians, including children.

He apparently fought hard there for a time, then got himself home and harshly criticized the war and the soldiers who were fighting it. I've said I have no gripe with his record there, and I still don't. The mentality of his supporters does interest me, though.

The glory-mongering of a young soldier before he sees combat is as old as the world and shouldn't count against him. The fog of war obscures the details of what he did on the Mekong. His subsequent change of heart about the whole enterprise is understandable, too. His very public pronouncements about that, however, are a matter between him and his fellow veterans, men who were in the line of fire or in enemy prisons when he stood up in front of the world and denounced them as a pack of murderers. Plenty of them seem plenty peeved about it.

When Tim Russert asked about your claim that you and others in Vietnam committed "atrocities," instead of standing by your sworn testimony, you confessed that your words "were a bit over the top." Does that mean you lied under oath? Or does it mean you are a war criminal? You can't have this one both ways, John. Either way, you're not fit to be a prison guard at Abu Ghraib, much less commander in chief.

One last thing, John. In 1988, Jane Fonda said: "I would like to say something ... to men who were in Vietnam, who I hurt, or whose pain I caused to deepen because of things that I said or did. I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm ... very sorry that I hurt them. And I want to apologize to them and their families."

Even Jane Fonda apologized. Will you, John?

And so forth. I'm not a veteran. I won't take part in that family quarrel. But ... ouch.