There he was, the 27-year-old John Kerry, hair spilling down over his eyes, Kennedyesque a's (as in "cahn't imagine") rolling off his tongue, and lanky legs seeking room on the cramped talk show set. C-SPAN was rebroadcasting an episode of "The Dick Cavett Show" from 1971. Opposing Kerry was a hard-charging, highly intelligent Vietnam veteran named John O'Neill, who gave the future senator no quarter.
It was just two months after Kerry's pyrotechnic performance before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, in which he had famously declared that American soldiers in Vietnam had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."
I will admit to being a sorehead about Vietnam. I'm one of those people who resents the fact that Kerry's side is so often portrayed as having been right in that terrible argument, when as we know, the fundamental struggle against communism was moral and honorable, whatever may be said about the advisability of putting American troops on the ground in that place (a decision taken not by Nixon, Kerry's nemesis, but by John F. Kennedy, Kerry's hero).
But the producers at C-SPAN doubtless had other reasons for rebroadcasting that 33-year-old program. If offers a rare insight -- 90 minutes worth -- into the thinking of a man who now asks to sit in the Oval Office and who vaulted himself into the national spotlight by slandering 2.5 million of his fellow veterans.
On this subject, O'Neill, who had served in the same unit as Kerry, though not at the same time, was loaded for bear. He noted that he had served in Vietnam for 18 months, in contrast to Kerry's four, and had seen nothing to "shock the conscience." He demanded to know if Kerry had personally committed war crimes. Kerry squirmed. O'Neill persisted.
Kerry elected to say that, well, he had participated in burning the huts of noncombatants, which qualifies as a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
O'Neill replied that when he had been in the region, their unit had received heavy fire from all directions. What O'Neill did not say, but might have, is that it was often difficult in that frustrating and murky war to tell the soldiers from the civilians. That was in large part because the Vietcong dressed as civilians and used civilians as human shields.
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