Benedict Arnold was a war hero, wounded in battle---before he turned against his country. Hitler was likewise a decorated and wounded veteran of the First World War. Being a war hero is not a lifetime . . . exempt[ion] . . . from responsibility for what you do thereafter. -- Thomas Sowell.
Not that long ago you wrote a letter to President Bush in which you accused him of reopening the wounds of the Vietnam war for “personal political gain.” Putting aside the stunning hypocrisy of your claim in view of your own nonstop references to your service in that conflict, culminating in your most recent campaign advertisement, please allow me to respond.
As a former naval officer who also served in Vietnam, I had thought that tragic war was behind us. I assumed you, too, had put Vietnam behind us. But it has been you---not the President---who has made Vietnam an issue. Speaking personally, I feel you have every right to do so.
Let me begin by saying that during my entire twelve month tour supporting the swift boat division in which you served in An Thoi, as well as the Seawolves (Navy attack helicopters), Strike Attack Boats (STABs) and SEALs in My Tho and Dong Tam, I never once heard reports about, much less witnessed, the sorts of atrocities you have accused American servicemen of committing. What I witnessed were young men, often frightened at the prospect of operating in areas largely controlled by the enemy, who did their jobs as skillfully and honorably as they knew how. While I do not presume to speak for them, and obviously I cannot speak for you, I did not know a single person in Vietnam who did any of the things you described.
With that in mind, let’s talk about what you described, beginning with your testimony before Congress on April 22, 1971, two years after you returned from Vietnam. You said many interesting things including the following:
[S]everal months ago in Detroit [referring to what you later describe as the “Winter Soldier Investigation”], we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
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 [a] fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam . . . .
These are very serious allegations. I assume you did not make them lightly. So here are a few straightforward questions to which all Americans (but most particularly all living Vietnam veterans) deserve your thoughtful response:
1. Did you or any of the men who served under your command commit any of the “war crimes” you described in your testimony? (page 180) If so, what did you do when you were there to stop these crimes from occurring?
2. You testified that the men who participated with you in the “Winter Soldier Investigation” in Detroit “relived the absolute horror of what this country . . . made them do.” (page 180) Having described these actions in great detail, did you come away feeling a certain sympathy with, say, Nazi storm troopers or concentration camp guards, who also claimed that they were doing only what their country made them do?
3. Would you agree that there were American servicemen who, unlike you and your “Winter Soldier” colleagues, found the strength to refuse to engage in the sorts of atrocities you described? And would you agree that these men (in vastly greater numbers than those who appeared with you in Detroit) displayed more courage and character than did you?
4. Do you believe any former United States military officer who so much as tolerated the sort of behavior you described in your testimony should be elected President of the United States?
5. Despite the blatant and outrageous violations of the Geneva Conventions by the Viet Cong and the NVA, you testified that America was “more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions.” (page 185) Were you serious when you said that?
Putting aside your testimony about how you and your “Winter Soldier” friends behaved during your tours of duty, of equal interest were your general observations about America and its institutions. For example, you offered the following observation (which reportedly elicited laughter from the “Winter Soldiers” who filled the chamber during your testimony):
The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands. . . I think that politically, historically, the one thing that people try to do, [is] . . . to satisfy their felt needs, and you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name [sic] it is democratic; in others it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship. As long as those needs are satisfied, that structure will exist. (p. 195)
6. Is this still your world view? If so, should not most Americans be rightly concerned over the prospect of a Kerry presidency? And do your words, above, perhaps best explain why some Europeans, like the newly-elected Socialist Party leader of Spain, Mr. Zapatero (who clearly wants to see America fail in her effort to bring democracy to Iraq), wish for a Kerry victory in November 2004?
7. What effect do you suppose your Congressional testimony had on the subsequent North Vietnamese treatment of our POW’s? Do you believe your virulent anti-American comments provided “aid and comfort” to those like NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap who were continuing to try to maim and kill U.S. servicemen still engaged in the fighting?
8. Did you in 1971 (and do you today) share the view expressed by Senator George McGovern who, in 1995, reportedly stated to another highly decorated Vietnam veteran, “What you don’t understand is that I didn’t want us to win [the Vietnam] war”? Surely you can answer that.
An Honorable Alternative?
Mr. Kerry, have you ever considered what both America and Vietnam might look like today had men like you and Senator McGovern chosen a different path? Without asking you to abandon a principled opposition to the war, what if you had decided not to falsely slander the actions of the vast majority of American servicemen who honorably served in Vietnam but instead had returned and testified in favor of a policy akin to the modern-day Powell Doctrine? Stated simply: Do not send American troops anywhere unless you (a) are certain the cause is morally justified, (b) mean to win, and (c) intend to use every military tactic and weapon system reasonably necessary to protect our servicemen while they are in harm’s way. Hypothetically, had that been the argument of a well-educated, brave and highly decorated young naval officer in 1971, and had Congress listened, how many millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian men, women and children might have been saved from horrifying deaths which occurred after your speech? How many fewer American POW’s might have been subjected to continued torture and death? How many sons and daughters, American and Vietnamese, would have their fathers and mothers safely home with them today and be living (particularly in the case of South Vietnam) in a much freer world? How many fewer names might today appear on the Wall?
I don’t blame you for criticizing the manner in which U.S. policy in Vietnam was pursued. It was insane. I, like you, returned from Vietnam believing that the war was a mistake. It was a mistake, not because of what America originally set out to accomplish, but because our leaders (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and those who surrounded them) never mustered the political will to give those who honorably served there the means (nor, eventually any reason) to win. Clearly our leaders lacked belief in the moral certainty of the cause. But I did not; at least not initially. I went to Vietnam because, like most of us, I believed that our country was intent on defending the freedom of an ally against the documented tyranny of a brutal foe. If you did not share that belief, for what possible reason did you volunteer to return?
After realizing that our government had no real intention of winning the war, I, too, returned with the view that no American should have been sent to die in Vietnam under those circumstances. But that conclusion was not weighted down with the vicious anti-American, anti-military, anti-war, pro-Viet Cong, pro-Ho Chi Minh, pro-Communist rhetoric which you not only adopted, but worked tirelessly to promote. More fundamentally, mine was not a conclusion which required a corollary that the Americans who served in Vietnam were, on balance, no better than barbarians. The vast, vast majority of American servicemen didn’t rape, pillage or plunder. They didn’t cut off ears, heads or limbs of enemy combatants. They knew (as you, too, should have known) that such activities were not only wrong but were flatly proscribed and rightly punishable.
For what it’s worth, there wasn’t a day during my entire tour when I didn’t try to leave Vietnam a better, more secure place because of our presence. At the same time, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t hope that any VC who wished me dead would be killed by the swift boat crews, or by the Seawolves, STABs or SEALs, before he had the chance to act on that wish.
I would feel the same were I serving in Iraq today. The difference is this. There is a moral clarity surrounding our mission in Iraq---notwithstanding the difficulties our servicemen and women continue to face---which our nation’s leaders failed to muster when we were serving in Vietnam. It is a clarity which seems to elude you. You seem frozen, as if it were still 1971. You seem incapable of distinguishing the success of America and her allies in removing a brutal dictator in Iraq from our failure to accomplish a similar goal in Vietnam. Or maybe it’s simply the case that, as with Vietnam, you are desiring a similar outcome in Iraq purely for “personal political gain.”
The nation deserves to know.
[Note: Mr. Purdy is a 1968 graduate of the United States Naval Academy who served in Vietnam from December 1969 until December 1970. He was assigned as one of the support personnel with NSA Det An Thoi, the main base for the swift boat group in which John Kerry served in the early part of 1969.]