Saturday, August 28, 2004

# Posted 6:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN VIETNAM: Small questions about where John Kerry was on Christmas Eve 1968 or whether there was enemy fire the day he won his Bronze Star have gotten in the way of a far more important debate about the war in Vietnam and its role in campaign 2004.

Does the heroism of a junior officer prepare him to become the leader of the free world? Is a campaign built around a candidate's war record just a diversion from substantive issues or does it emphasize important aspects of the candidate's character and personal values?

One place to start looking for answers to these questions is the op-ed page of yesterday's NYT, which had no fewer than four columns about Vietnam and campaign 2004. In one of them, prize-winning author Neil Sheehan asserts that the Swift Vets' attacks are not just getting in the way of serious discussions about Vietnam, but that they are symptomatic of inability to comprehend the lessons of that war:
The nation has yet to come to grips with what really happened in Vietnam, and Mr. Kerry's accusers are among those who simply cannot and never will.
The question, then, is what "really happened" in Vietnam? Sheehan writes that
The truth is that atrocities were committed in Vietnam. The worst and most horrendous atrocity was officially sanctioned...The wholesale killing cheapened the value of Vietnamese life in American eyes...

In Vietnam, America the exceptional joined the rest of the human race and demonstrated that it could do evil as easily as it could do good.
I agree with Sheehan to the extent that the United States lost the war in Vietnam by betraying its own ideals. But if Vietnam was the consummate evil that destroyed American virtue, how can Sheehan celebrate Kerry's service there? Sheehan writes that
It always galls me when I hear the generation of World War II referred to as the "greatest generation.'' They were a great generation, but so were the men who served in Vietnam. The soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen who fought there did so with just as much courage as anyone who fought in World War II. The generation of Vietnam had the ill luck to draw a bad war, an unnecessary and unwinnable war, a tragic, terrible mistake. But valor has a worth of its own, and theirs deserves to be honored and remembered.
Yet just a few paragraphs earlier, Sheehan argues that the the American strategy in Vietnam was a strategy of murder, intentionally resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent peasants year after year after year. Who implemented this strategy of murder if not the "great generation" whose valor Sheehan wants to memorialize?

If Sheehan wants to defend John Kerry from the Swift Vets, why not just say that Kerry was a good man in a bad war? Why is it necessary to try and praise an entire generation of soldiers while at the same time insisting that their generation was responsible for murder?

Obviously, Sheehan doesn't believe that all American soldiers in Vietnam were criminals. But if you agree with him that the United States waged its war in an inherently immoral manner, then, at minimum, tens of thousands of American soldiers implemented and facilitated that immorality. Sheehan even suggests that the moral sensibilities of an entire generation were perverted by the war, since "the wholesale killing cheapened the value of Vietnamese life in American eyes."

The reason, I think, that Sheehan -- and more importantly, John Kerry -- can't just say that there were some (or even many) good soldiers in a bad war is that that such a distinction forces us to ask who was good and who was bad. If that question were foremost in our minds, Kerry's constant references to his war record would become dangerously divisive.

If the Kerry campaign didn't constantly provide a sanitized and uncritical account of the war, reporters would begin to ask what exactly about the war Kerry thought was wrong. Instead of a footnote that everyone (except the Swift Vets) ignores, Kerry's 1971 testimony before Congress would be back in the headlines. The whole debate about Vietnam would begin again and Kerry would suffer.

I have to admit that if I were John Kerry, I'd also run a campaign that focused on my personal heroism while side-stepping broader debates about the war in Vietnam. Democratic candidates always face an uphill battle to show that they are just as tough and patriotic as the other guy. This year, winning that battle matters even more.

It would be nice if John Kerry could offer thoughtful criticism of the war in Vietnam without reinforcing the stereotype that Democrats are soft and dovish and unpatriotic. It is ironic that Kerry's gung-ho account of his war record will only make it harder for America to confront the legacy of Vietnam. But this is politics, not a college seminar. For the moment, I'm willing to forgive Kerry for leaving history to the historians.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

Isn't life strange. I grew up around greenwich village. In fact I was living at 65 Downing st. when my son was born. He is 29 yrs. old now. What I find strange is that back in the 60's and70's most ex GI's were against the war. Now however most of them almost brag about being in the service. They even make up stories about all the combat they have been in. Rven those who were not there!!! The world really has changed. The Village has really changed. People really have changed. Sir Mick!!!!Come on....Just that says it all....Gary
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