Fathoming Kerry

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Jan 25, 2004 12:00 AM
The voters in Massachusetts honor, and should, the heroism of John Kerry in Vietnam. The voters four years ago honored, correctly, the heroism of John McCain in Vietnam, though they went on to nominate another candidate. What some voters will want to dwell upon is not Kerry the acknowledged hero of Vietnam, but Kerry the analyst of the Vietnam chapter in U.S. history.

When he returned from Vietnam and formed his committee to oppose the war, he went further than to renounce a military and geostrategic operation. In his famous testimony to a congressional committee, he used the kind of language about the architects of that war that he uses now about President Bush. He told Congress, in 1971, that he felt the call to one more mission, which was to "destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more, so that when, 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say, 'Vietnam!' -- the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning."

The voters are entitled to ask, "In what way did America 'turn'?" And to ask further, "If the U.S. role in Vietnam was barbaric, our motivations hate and fear, why, 31 years later, did John Kerry vote for war in Iraq?" There are American soldiers there who have lost a leg, an arm, a face. Howard Dean is absolutely plainspoken on the question of U.S. guilt. He declares that we had no justifiable reason to go to war in Iraq, and yet Kerry voted to authorize President Bush to go to war. What will he say to veterans of the Iraq war? What he said to veterans of the Vietnam war was, "We cannot consider ourselves America's 'best men' when we are ashamed of and hated for what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia."

President Bush, in his State of the Union address, did not say that our concern for freedom was the single reason we went to Iraq, but he did say that the deposition of Saddam Hussein was a huge humanitarian blessing. Speaking of Vietnam, Lieutenant Kerry testified, "To attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom is ... the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart."

The differences between Iraq and Vietnam are considerable, but what they have in common is insufficiently remarked. Our goal in Vietnam was to continue to press the doctrine of "containment" -- the George Kennan postwar strategy of forbidding further conquests to the enemy, to which end we had fought in Korea. We didn't hesitate to emphasize the difference to human beings between life under communism and life elsewhere. In Iraq, we entered the war to press for a strategic goal, the disarmament of Saddam Hussein lest he export his tyranny. And we have not hesitated to emphasize the difference to human beings between life under Saddam and life elsewhere. What threatens in Iraq is an immobilization brought on by terrorist insurgents, and the possibility even of civil war if the insurgency is not contained.

Is Candidate Kerry declaring that the veteran of the Iraq war is the representative of U.S. dishonor and hypocrisy? When will he say that the Iraq war "turned" America, as he pronounced the Vietnam War to have turned America?

Gen. Wesley Clark put his foot in it by drawing attention to his experience as a general, contrasted with John Kerry's as a mere lieutenant. But the two candidates are roughly the same age, both distinguished in their service in Vietnam. What the voters should insist on hearing is their respective views on our commitment in Iraq. Already, Candidate Kerry has voted in the direction of retreat, when he refused to approve the supplementary appropriations requested by Bush. If, when summer comes, the Iraqi engagement is still equivocal, will he treat it as he did Vietnam, as the embodiment of U.S. hate and fear and hypocrisy? Isn't the voter entitled to wonder about the reliability of a President Kerry who deemed past U.S. commitments transitory, en route to becoming dishonorable?

A problem with presidential candidacies is their pursuit of trendy popularity. Kerry tasted deep of this when he paraded before Congress in 1971, condemning the judgment and integrity of three U.S. presidents who had argued the importance of resisting the communists in Vietnam. And now Kerry has his eyes on a sitting president who, with the backing of 77 senators, including John Kerry, set out to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. Does anyone doubt that if the Iraqi insurgency had been quelled six months ago, Candidate Kerry would have applauded the leadership of the president he is so consumed to replace?