John Kerry has by now more than fulfilled the fears of most opponents of the ongoing war in Iraq. Not an antiwar candidate when he entered the Democratic primaries, he has resolutely passed up every opportunity to become one since. Although saying he was lied to about the reasons for war, he's now seemingly taking the attitude that what's done is done, and maybe even needs to be done some more -- with more troops.
If Kerry recognizes that this war and occupation, now generally acknowledged to have been started under false pretenses, is creating a generation of suicide bombers in the name of fighting terrorism, he's not saying it. So, with most of Bush's war opposition coming from those who would vote him out of office for many other reasons as well, some have taken to tuning out the war entirely in relation to the November election, reasoning that if they don't have something good to say on the subject about Kerry, they shouldn't say anything at all. This can't be a good idea.
So long as the body bags keep returning home, whether we're allowed to see them or not, this war will be an issue in this election -- whether the candidates want it or not. Some voters will primarily decide their presidential vote on the basis of the war and a certain number of them will surely be otherwise positively predisposed toward Bush. So the antiwar movement better make a case for beating Bush, and therefore for electing Kerry, even if what we're hearing now is as good as we're going to get from John Kerry. Not an easy task, to be sure, but still necessary.
John Kerry actually owns the best antiwar line currently going around -- his 1971 question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" So do we say then that he exhibits a steely resolve not to engage in the issue during the campaign or just a tin ear for historical irony when he urges Spain's new Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to renege on his campaign promise of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq? Kerry thought "the new prime minister should not have decided that he was going to pull out of Iraq. He should have said this increases our determination to get the job done," but Zapatero has already answered Kerry's Vietnam War question.
The antiwar movement did ultimately stop the Vietnam War, but painfully more slowly than it hoped to, as Americans continued to die in the tens of thousands and Vietnamese in the hundreds of thousands. Some of its effect, however, was enduring. "We were humbled in Vietnam, purged, for a while, of a dangerous hubris, offered in our understanding and reflection about the war, a moment of grace. We became a better country. But the message is slipping away from us," as New York Times reporter Chris Hedges put it in his recent book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.
"Vietnam Syndrome," as those who wish it would go away often call it, this reluctance to engage in foreign wars based upon official lies, has maintained its nagging existence in the halls of power because when the shooting and bombing is over, one thing that the nation's policy-makers do understand is getting turned out of office. And such was the depth of sentiment against the Vietnam War that it ultimately brought down two presidents: Lyndon Johnson, driven from office by one good showing from antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, and Richard Nixon, forced to resign after discovery of the extralegal efforts to destroy the antiwar movement he feared.
If the White House is again occupied by people who think they can decide to send American troops to war and make up a reason as they go along, they need to be removed. Others in Washington will draw certain conclusions from that.
So can the antiwar movement love a candidate who doesn't love it back? Probably not, but then no love really need be lost in this relationship. At this time this is a marriage of convenience. George Bush should be defeated for starting this war. And if John Kerry should decide to continue it, he could be a one-term president as well.
Tom Gallagher served as a Massachusetts Democratic State Representative when John Kerry was Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor. E-mail: TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com