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Kerry's Band of Brothers

From the August 30, 2004 issue: More than any presidential candidate since George McGovern, John Kerry is a creature of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother."

Henry V

"And in this journey, I am accompanied by an extraordinary band of brothers. . . . Our band of brothers doesn't march because of who we are as veterans, but because of what we learned as soldiers."

John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, July 29, 2004.

JOHN KERRY is entitled to appropriate a phrase from Shakespeare. He is entitled to ask us to place weight on the testimony of the band of brothers with whom he served in Vietnam. But he has a problem. A substantial number of Kerry's band of brothers--those who served in close quarters with him in Coastal Division 11 and Coastal Division 14 from late November 1968 to March 1969--oppose his candidacy for the presidency. What they "learned as soldiers" has led them to distrust--in many cases, deeply to distrust--John Kerry.

This is not a trivial matter. It is as if Henry the Fifth, three decades later, in a (needless to say, anachronistically) democratic England, cited his experiences at Agincourt as a large part of his claim to lead. And then Exeter, Westmoreland and Bedford showed up to challenge his bona fides. The Agincourt Vets for Truth might, for example, have accused Henry of ordering a war crime when he told Exeter to have "every soldier kill his prisoners! Give the words through." They might have cited the contemporaneous reaction of Fluellen: "Kill the poys and the luggage? 'Tis expressly against the law or arms." And like Shakespeare's readers to this day, voters would have had to weigh Fluellen's charge against Henry's possible defense of himself.

No serious person thinks John Kerry was in any way a war criminal. Many believe that his service in Vietnam remains the most admirable chapter in his life. But upon returning from Vietnam, Kerry did say that he and his fellow soldiers had routinely committed war crimes. And it is this that chiefly explains his fellow veterans' disdain for Kerry. Their contempt does not rest primarily on what Kerry did or did not do in 1968 or 1969.

On April 22, 1971, John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He claimed to speak not simply for himself. He claimed to speak for "a very much larger group of veterans in this country"--for his extended band of brothers, as it were. And he proceeded to describe in some detail the "crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command," crimes that "this country, in a sense, made them do"--this country, the United States, that had "los[t] her sense of morality."

John Kerry has never retracted the charge of war crimes. It is fair to hold him accountable for his testimony--but it is also up to each American to decide how much weight to give this, or any other, three-decade-old event. What was said or done during the Vietnam era may end up being relatively unimportant in determining how people vote in 2004. But the Vietnam war, and the antiwar movement, is relevant to understanding a possible Kerry presidency at least in this sense: It is clear from Kerry's subsequent career that his real band of brothers--his political band of brothers, his ideological band of brothers--are the antiwar activists with whom he marched in 1971.

John Kerry was hostile, to say the least, to the exercise of American power in 1971. He remained so for the next three decades. John Kerry was critical--to say the least--of America's claims to moral leadership as a nation in 1971. He has remained so ever since. More than any presidential candidate since George McGovern, John Kerry is a creature of the anti-Vietnam war movement. His entire public career makes clear that he was and is--and I use this term descriptively, not pejoratively--a McGovernite. The difference is that George McGovern acknowledged this. John Kerry doesn't.

Another difference is that McGovern had the decency not to tout his war medals. Nor did McGovern claim to be "reporting to duty" when he made his case for the presidency. By indulging in that gesture, Kerry turned a spotlight on his Vietnam-era actions and invited scrutiny he may come to regret. Kerry's attempt now to suppress this debate will not work. In effect, and without intending it, Kerry invited his fellow veterans to "bring it on." So they have.

--William Kristol