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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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For most veterans it was not that Kerry was against the war, but that he used his military credentials to denigrate the service of a whole generation of veterans. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was a very small, highly radical organization. Their stories of atrocious conduct, repeated in lurid detail by Kerry before the Congress, represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme. That the articulate, urbane Kerry would validate such allegations helped to make life hell for many Vietnam veterans, for a very long time.

There were many individuals who returned from Vietnam troubled about the war. Some were critical of U.S. strategy, operations, and tactics in Vietnam. Others came to believe the war was wrong on moral grounds. But most did not slander their comrades using language that mirrored Soviet or Vietnamese Communist propaganda. Most did not consort with the enemy in a time of war. It was possible to oppose the war without doing what Kerry did.

Look at a contemporary example. On the one hand, there are those whose criticism of Iraq is fueled by a visceral hatred for the American polity. For these critics, the war in Iraq is all about oil and Halliburton, just one more manifestation of American imperialism--Bush is Hitler and the United States is "Amerikkka." This is the perspective of Michael Moore, Ramsey Clark, and MoveOn.org.

On the other hand, there are many thoughtful people who oppose U.S. policy in Iraq. This group includes individuals I greatly admire and whose judgment I would rarely gainsay, such as the aforementioned Jim Webb (a good friend) and retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, former commander of Central Command. Both criticize the policy and strategy decisions of the Bush administration and express concern about the risks associated with these policies. They don't employ the language of the Bush-haters to denounce the United States for conducting an immoral and unjust war.

Kerry's actions after Vietnam are reminiscent of Michael Moore and MoveOn.org today. It was not enough for him merely to criticize U.S. policy in Vietnam. He and his friends in the VVAW were obliged by their radicalism to go after the United States itself.

Kerry could have defused much of the controversy regarding his postwar activities had he simply apologized for his remarks. But he insists on having it both ways: war hero and courageous war protester. The closest he has come was to respond in April 2004 on Meet the Press to Tim Russert's query about the testimony by saying, "I'm not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times."

I will not question Kerry's record in Vietnam. But his actions after the war are a different matter. After all, his radical views regarding Vietnam are not simply of historical interest. As the Wall Street Journal recently observed, Kerry's denunciation of the United States in 1971 "presaged a career in which he has always been quick to attack the moral and military purposes of American policy--in Central America, against the Soviet Union, and of course during the current Iraq war that he initially voted for."

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security at the Naval War College. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.