TCS Daily

Kerry's Impossible Task

By Paul J. Cella - September 1, 2004 12:00 AM

The position taken by John Kerry vis-à-vis the Vietnam War is simply untenable; and he is not likely to find any satisfactory way to resolve it, because to do so would be to make himself comprehensively unpalatable to the American electorate.

As I see it, he can only really resolve it one of two ways. (1) He could boldly stand by his position of some thirty years ago, when he went before Congress as an eloquent antiwar voice; he could reassert the view he propounded then, which was the view of the antiwar movement in general: namely, that the United States military, during the war it conducted in Vietnam, became in essence a criminal organization, from top to bottom countenancing and even encouraging cruelty, plunder, atrocity and mayhem. Now I want to say, in all sincerity, that if it is true what the John Kerry and antiwar movement alleged; if it is true that the whole institution of the military was implicated in the most awful of crimes, that events such as the My Lai massacre were not evil anomalies, but quotidian features of the war effort -- policy, even, promulgated implicitly or surreptitiously by its commanders; if the war was waged not by mostly honorable officers, mostly honorable soldiers, and a few cowards, madmen and psychopaths, but rather by a throng of fiends; if, in short, the American military conducted itself in Vietnam not as the armed force of a civilized nation, but as the savage and sanguinary instrument of a barbarian tribe, then Senator Kerry should stand by his condemnation. Indeed, he should thunder it from the rooftops. Patriotism that gives succor to such wickedness is no virtue; it is vicious madness.

Alternatively, (2) Kerry could repudiate his previous statements root and branch as reckless, inflammatory, malicious imprudence; attribute it to a terrible fever that overtook him and parts of the country; and beg forgiveness from his fellow veterans and the American people whom he slandered so venomously. I, for one, would forgive him.

Clearly neither option is agreeable to Kerry the politician: The first profoundly alienates about seventy-five percent of the electorate, and the second profoundly alienates an integral part of his political base. So Kerry will opt for position three, which amounts to a very watered-down version of both positions at the same time. Yes, I stand by what I said, but no, the military did not really act dishonorably. Wrong war and the wrong time, etc, etc.

Of course it is true that politicians engage in such antics all the time: the studied ambiguity, the calculated contradiction, the muted incoherence -- all this is a regular feature of politics. Without it, politics would just be that much more boring.

But this is not minor issue. In fact it is a highly-charged issue that has never been put to rest. It is a wound inflicted on the body politic by the division between us as a people that erupted (or perhaps was merely revealed) in the 1960s and has never been treated by anything more than sophisticated band-aids since. Every once in a while the fragile scabbing (if you'll excuse the graphic medical imagery) cracks, and the wound bleeds again. It did several years ago, when another Senator Kerrey was the focus of media scrutiny. It does when major films about Vietnam are released. This is because, to be blunt, the Vietnam War divided this country unlike anything since the Civil War, or, as the Southerners say with more precision, the War Between the States. As with that bloody war of brother against brother, during the height of the Vietnam division, America was nearly rent into two people, and two countries*.

As I say, this wound has not yet been healed. It is difficult to see how it could be healed. Its resultant damage is considerable: It has enervated our nation profoundly, vitiated our constitutional consensus, filled many of us with bitterness and suspicion; it has cursed us with the special burden of rigidly ideological political parties, thus threatening to make power a prize to be captured and wielded without scruple; and it has permeated our politics with rancor.

I am of course not neutral on this whole huge question. I stand with those who think the antiwar movement of the 1960s was conceived in error and mischief, perpetrated in pretentious truculence, allied in its political tendency with injustice on a massive scale (namely International Communism), and finally recorded for history by men under the spell of fantasy. One need not defend Vietnam as a wise or noble war to recoil in horror from what the antiwar movement augured. In this judgment I believe I stand with the solid majority of American citizens, and against a faction not only of ineffaceable folly, but also of deep antipathy to the popular consensus. In short, the antiwar movement was hostile toward the deliberate sense of the community; it abhorred the settled judgment of American democracy.

As such, it puts a left-wing candidate for national office like John Kerry in a real bind: his base constituency cherishes, and will not allow him to repudiate, its roots in an unpopular faction. To get elected he must bridge this unbridgeable gap, a feat which, on so large an issue, may prove impossible.

The author is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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