IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A 'filthy, obscene memory' or a heroic one?

John Kerry built much of his campaign persona on the image of being a Vietnam veteran, but said far less about his anti-war crusade. His foes have now made his war crimes allegations a centerpiece of the campaign.
The new television ad being aired by John Kerry's foes, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
The new television ad being aired by John Kerry's foes, the Swift Boat Veterans for TruthSwift Boat Veterans For Truth
/ Source:

The new Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ad assailing Democrat John Kerry features only a few, but powerful, excerpts from his April 22, 1971, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

President Bush, who has called Kerry's Vietnam service "noble" said Monday "that (Swift Boat Veterans) ad, every other ad" being aired by outside anti-Kerry or anti-Bush groups should be prohibited.

In his 1971 testimony, Kerry was repeating to the Senate committee what witnesses had said in the January 1971 "Winter Soldier" event, an informal set of hearings conducted in Detroit by Kerry's group Vietnam Veterans against the War and funded by actress Jane Fonda.

"They told the stories at times they 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 fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks…"

Later in his testimony, Kerry told senators that he and other anti-war veterans were "ashamed of and hated" what they had done in Vietnam.

And Kerry's testimony portrayed soldiers serving in Vietnam as either helpless victims, conscientious foes of the war, or potential psychopaths.

“The country doesn't know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped,” he said.

He predicted in that testimony that the American role in the war would be seen in 30 years as "a filthy, obscene memory" unless he and other vets could “search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbarous war” and help Americans “conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country these last 10 years.”

He said, "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service."

But “memories of that service” are precisely what is at stake in the furor over the Swift Boat Veterans book and ads.

Kerry built much of his campaign persona on the image of being a Vietnam combat veteran. The Democratic convention in Boston last month was a celebration of Kerry’s four months in Vietnam.

"We fought for this nation because we loved it,” he declared in accepting the nomination. “I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president."

But Kerry never gave equal time — or any time at all in his ads — to his other identity as an anti-war crusader who said Americans had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads..."

'Not isolated incidents'
He did not remind voters in Iowa that he told senators in his testimony that those alleged war crimes were “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”

Is it correct, as the Kerry camp says, that the new Swift Boat ad takes Kerry's 1971 testimony out of context, "editing what he said to distort the facts" or is this ad a fair presentation of what he told the committee?

The ad does leave out the words, “They told the stories…” and in his testimony Kerry did not say he was an eyewitness to atrocities.

He attributed the allegations to soldiers who testified at the Winter Soldier event. But by repeating the charges to the Senate committee, he was endorsing them.

Read in its entirety, the 1971 testimony does raise questions:

  • Why did none of the senators at the hearing ask Kerry if he could provide any credible evidence of alleged war crimes? The answer: All the senators who showed up for the hearing were opponents of the war, and some praised his testimony.

Only Republican Sen. George Aiken of Vermont expressed any skepticism. Kerry said that if the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam, it might have to offer sanctuary to “perhaps 2,000, 3,000 people” who might face retribution from the new Communist government. But Aiken pointed out that “we had to help 800,000 find sanctuary from North Vietnam after the French lost at Dienbienphu” in 1954.

  • Who exactly committed war crimes?

One of Kerry's defenses in his April 18 appearance on Meet the Press was that he’d spoken too harshly when he alleged atrocities in 1971.

"It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don't like it when I hear it today,” he said. “I don't like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn't talking about the soldiers and the soldiers' blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier — I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top." 

But even though Kerry can say that he "wasn't talking about the soldiers and the soldiers' blame," weren't some specific soldiers responsible, if in fact atrocities were committed?

“Look, he was reporting what he had heard at a meeting in Detroit that had happened several months earlier,” explained Kerry spokesman John Podesta on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” program Sunday. “If you read the full context of the testimony, what he was fighting for was a change in policy: 44,000 American had been killed by then. … He was fighting for those men and women who were serving in Vietnam.”

C-SPAN broadcast the 1971 testimony on March 21 and may re-broadcast it this week. A transcript of the testimony can be found on the C-SPAN web site.

  • Will voters decide that none of this — neither Kerry's service nor his anti-war crusading — really matters very much today?

Voters ultimately decided Bill Clinton's draft-avoiding activities as a college and grad student were not a disability that would keep him from becoming president.

If voters don't judge Kerry harshly for alleging war crimes as a 27-year old veteran, then perhaps they wouldn't harshly judge President Bush as a 26-year-old, if he missed part of his National Guard service. The National Guard allegations were already in the press during the 2000 campaign and Bush won the election despite it.

Key voter: middle-aged white male
The people who were marching in anti-war protests in 1971 and who voted for the anti-war candidate, Democrat George McGovern, in 1972 are, in all likelihood, already supporting Kerry.

The worrisome voter for Kerry is the undecided 55-year-old white male — because exit polls from 2000 indicate that Al Gore lost white male voters by 24 percentage points.

Old enough to have his own memories of the Vietnam conflict, such a voter may not have served in combat, but might be troubled by a candidate who endorsed the allegation that American soldiers "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads."

It is too soon to tell what effect the new Swift Boat ad will have on voters in key states such as Colorado and Florida, which have large numbers of veterans.

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said Monday that although he won’t do his next Colorado poll until after the Republican convention, which begins next week, he does plan to include a new sub-category: veterans.

Due to the Army’s Fort Carson, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) facility and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and the Fitzsimmons hospital, veterans are a significant segment of Colorado’s electorate.

Ciruli said that since the new Swift Boat ad uses Kerry’s own voice, it is more powerful than the first one and undermines his determined efforts to woo voters who are military veterans. "I see this as a big problem for him," he said.

He draws an intriguing parallel: “To the extent the Michael Moore documentary has power, it has less to do with hearsay and more to do with Bush’s own presence on the screen.” So too, he said, with the new Swift Boat ad.