Friday, August 27, 2004
You know, I've pretty resolutely avoided talking about the whole Swift Boat Veterans business, because I just didn't care. I don't care much about Kerry's service (which was clearly honorable and valiant, but was 35 years ago) and I don't care much about Bush's service (which was clearly adequate, and was also decades ago). Neither of these guys is John McCain, nor is either Bill Clinton. I don't care whether Kerry benefitted from medals inflation, and I don't care whether he was in Cambodia or near Cambodia. And I don't think the Swift Boat Veterans care either, frankly. What they hate about Kerry is what he did after the war.
The only reason I've decided to mention the whole business at all is that the ads are clearly having an impact on the election. I hope that Stanley Kurtz is right about why. Both he and - coming from the other end of the spectrum - Peter Beinart quickly dismiss the business about medals and Cambodia and cut to the chase: we're talking about Vietnam as a proxy for talking about the lessons of Vietnam for the current war. As Kurtz sees it, Kerry is being hurt because the lesson he learned from Vietnam is: blame America first. The American military commits atrocities as a matter of policy; interventionism always backfires; politicians who favor war are probably lying to cover up their failures. Peter Beinart, while not denying that Kerry is being hurt by the ads, has an on-point rejoinder: do the Swift Vets and the Bush campaign really want to defend the Vietnam War? Aren't many of the key accusations of that war's opponents - that atrocities were committed, and covered up; that politicians and generals did lie to cover up their failure; that, albeit we went into Vietnam with the noble intention of fighting Communism, our intervention was understood by the Vietnamese as a quasi-imperial adventure, and that we lost the war in large part because our enemies successfully claimed the mantle of nationalism. If, as Beinart sees it, these are the lessons of Vietnam, and that these are the lessons that Kerry has learned, they have obvious relevance for the current campaign and for the current war - and not the lessons that Kurtz thinks they have.
Does Beinart have a point? Yes and no. I think he's right that nobody should want to refight the Vietnam War. It is hard to see how, in retrospect, we could have won that war without invading North Vietnam, and we were not willing to do that because of the risk of escalation to a conflict with the Soviet Union. (That was the lesson of Korea, remember - by taking the war to the North, we turned the tide, but also brought the Chinese into the war, which turned the tide back. Those limited wars of the Cold War era were tough to win if for no other reason than we properly kept them limited for fear of the consequences of all-out war.) And it's true that the people who managed that war deserve a lot of the blame for the damage the war did to our country. They did lie - usually to convince us, and themselves, that all was going well when it wasn't.
But Beinart misses three key things. First, Kerry didn't just protest the war when he returned. He made (or repeated) specific accusations. He didn't just say the war was a mistake; he used the most inflammatory language to indict the war, its planners and the soldiers who fought it as criminal. I do not believe those charges are, in the most part, true. And many of Kerry's critics have similarly denounced the truthfulness of the accusations, and not merely the fact that they gave aid and comfort to the enemy. So Beinart is a bit off base in saying that people are attacking Kerry for making accusations without actually saying those accusations are false.
Second, and, I think, more important, Kerry has not properly explained those accusations. Look, this all happened a long time ago. Lots of people did lots of things in the '60s and '70s that wouldn't play so well today. The current foreign minister of Germany is a former radical leftist who consorted with terrorists and committed assault against the police in his youth. Joschka Fischer's views have changed over time; he's still a man of the left, but he has publicly repudiated the violence of his former comrades in arms, and has rejected the most radical parts of the Green agenda and supported NATO, which would have been absolutely anathema to his younger self.
Has Kerry similarly evolved? Yes, but. No one seriously thinks Kerry holds radical, anti-American views anymore. But has Kerry ever said, in effect, "we who fought against the war in Vietnam were right about the war, but in many ways we were wrong about America"? Because the radical groups that Kerry belonged to and allied with did not just indict the war; they indicted America. If Kerry has said something like the foregoing, the campaign hasn't made that clear at all, and they should. It would be the best response Kerry could make to the Swift Vets: no apology for having protested the war, but a genuine apology not just for using extreme rhetoric but for having professed a loss of faith in America, which I think accurately characterizes how he comes off when you read his testimony now.
Beinart wants to blame Bush and the Swift Vets for refighting the domestic front of the Vietnam War, but Kerry has not - as McCain has - tried to heal the breach that war opened. Rather, he has exacerbated it by arrogating to himself both the nobility of service and the nobility of opposition to an unjust war. No, I'm not saying there's some contradiction between volunteering for Vietnam and then opposing the war upon return; I see no contradiction there at all. Rather, I'm saying that Kerry behaves as if all the virtue in those years was on his side, and this only widens the breach because, correctly, those who remember those years know that he was emphatically on one side, and all the virtue was not there.
Third, and most important of all, is Kurtz's point. We're talking about Vietnam in part as a proxy for talking about Iraq. Kerry has been quite deliberately incoherent on Iraq, refusing to say the war was a mistake and refusing to explain how he'd win it while exploiting both anti-war sentiment on the left (which thinks the war was a criminal enterprise) and on the right (which thinks the war was unnecessary and that we should cut our losses), and holding out false hopes of a "secret plan" to win by bringing in foreign troops that will never come. So we're talking about Vietnam as a way of trying to understand what lessons Kerry drew from that war, and how he'd apply them to the current war. And I have to say, based on Kerry's history and his statements, I think Kurtz has him more right than not.
But I have a different question: what does Peter Beinart think are the lessons of Vietnam for the current war? TNR, after all, supported, and, retrospectively, still supports the war in Iraq. During the primaries, TNR endorsed Joe Lieberman, co-head of the refounded-for-the-third-time Committee for the Present Danger, headquarters of the unrepentant neo-cons. This is an intellectual group whose origin lies in revulsion at the McGovernization of the Democratic Party, and the determination to bury the Vietnam Syndrome and restore a hawkish Cold War liberalism. Those of this group who are still Democrats have basically fought their whole lives to save the party from people like the John Kerry of 1971. Beinart thinks those attacking Kerry are disingenuously re-fighting Vietnam. Grant him that for the sake of argument. What are the lessons that should be seared into John Kerry's brain from his experience? And what does Beinart think is seared there?