The Magazine

Fahrenheit 1971

From the September 6, 2004 issue: The radicalism of the young John Kerry.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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We will not quickly join those who march on Veterans' Day waving small flags, calling to memory those thousands who died for the "greater glory of the United States." We will not accept the rhetoric. We will not readily join the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars--in fact, we will find it hard to join anything at all and when we do, we will demand relevancy such as other organizations have recently been unable to provide. We will not take solace from the creation of monuments or the naming of parks after a select few of the thousands of dead Americans and Vietnamese. We will not uphold the traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim. . . . We are asking America to turn from false glory, hollow victory, fabricated foreign threats, fear which threatens us as a nation, shallow pride which feeds of fear.

John F. Kerry

Epilogue to The New Soldier (1971)

WHEN THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MEMORIAL was unveiled in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, there was a great deal of talk about "healing" the divisions of the Vietnam war. The controversy generated by the anti-Kerry book Unfit for Command and ads run by an organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth criticizing John Kerry's record in Vietnam and his actions after he returned indicates that there is still a lot of "healing" to do. Indeed, the divisions over the Vietnam war may well never heal as long as those who fought it and those who protested it are still alive. This is because the very act of remembering Vietnam places one in the midst of a culture war.

On the one side in this culture war are those who believe that Vietnam wasn't very different from other wars. The cause was just, but it was as affected by ambiguities as any other war, including World War II. In the end, the U.S. defeat was the result of strategic failure, not moral failure. Those who fought it were doing their duty as they saw it, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done theirs when the times demanded it of them.

On the other side are those for whom the Vietnam war represented the very essence of evil. The United States had no business fighting this war and could never have won it. It was not like other wars. All it did was wreck lives, American and Vietnamese. It was one continuous atrocity. War crimes were par for the course. Those who fought it were different from those who fought the "good war." They returned home psychologically if not physically crippled--homeless, drug addicted, and likely to commit suicide.

Some on the anti-Vietnam side have moderated their views in light of what happened in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia. They stipulate that they were wrong about communism. The cost of American defeat was high, especially to the South Vietnamese and Cambodians. The price of South Vietnam's "liberation" was, in addition to Saigon's war dead, a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the Communist liberators, a million and a half "boat people," a like number of individuals sentenced to "reeducation camps," genocide in Cambodia, and a perceived shift in the "correlation of forces" that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s. But as Mickey Kaus admitted in an essay that appeared in Slate in May 2001 amid the furor over whether the killing of certain civilians by men under the command of former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey amounted to a war crime, those who had moderated their antiwar views still wanted to be honored for their "idealism": "The Thanh Phong story," Kaus wrote, "reminds us that avoiding serving in Vietnam had an honorable and realistic ethical basis (in addition to its realistic selfish basis)."

But others on the anti-Vietnam side of the culture war continue to take their bearings, either directly or indirectly, from the hard-core opinion of those who believe that the Vietnam war represented all that is evil about America--capitalistic exploitation, racism, and imperialism. Noam Chomsky and H. Bruce Franklin exemplify this view. As the latter writes in "The Vietnam War and the Culture Wars," Vietnam, far from being "an aberration, some kind of wayward 'mistake' by a nation long leading the world's march to progress," instead "typified the nation's history from colonial settler regime to global empire." Indeed, for Franklin, the Vietnam war was the culmination of the 600-year-old European crusade to oppress people of color throughout the globe--thus the mass murderer Lt. William Calley (My Lai) was only the latest manifestation of the spirit of that earlier mass murderer, Christopher Columbus.