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The Nation

Kerry and War

John Kerry has been twice a hero. First, as a soldier in Vietnam, he displayed extraordinary physical courage, winning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Once, injured and under heavy fire, he turned back his river boat to rescue a wounded comrade, who now credits Kerry with saving his life. Second, displaying civil courage at home equal to his physical courage in battle, he embarked on a campaign of protest against the war in which he had fought, becoming a spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, the VVAW camped out on the Mall in Washington. President Nixon's Justice Department then sought and obtained a court injunction forbidding the groups from using the Mall. Immediately and spontaneously, the veterans, as if re-enacting the American Revolution, assembled in caucuses by state to deliberate and vote--and so created, at the symbolic center of the Republic, a kind of instant, ideal mini-republic of their own. They decided to defy the injunction and appeal their case to the Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decision and permitted the protest to continue.

Kerry's subsequent words in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971, still have the power to startle, in our time of general disorientation and muted speech, with their brave candor. He described the wrong done to the Vietnam veterans but did not fail also to discuss the wrongs they had committed. "I would like," he said, "to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.... They told stories that 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 a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country." He added, "We call this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation"--invoking Thomas Paine's description of the soldiers at Valley Forge. And he said, referring to the policy that had led to these crimes, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

More than two decades later, Kerry made a decision that in the view of many observers failed to demonstrate the heroism of these earlier actions: On October 11, 2002, he voted, as did every other Democratic legislator with presidential ambitions but one--Representative Dennis Kucinich--to license George W. Bush to go to war against Iraq if he saw fit. Yet soon after the vote it turned out that the temper of the Democratic primary voters was antiwar, even angrily so, and Governor Howard Dean, who had opposed the war from the beginning, began his climb in the polls and became the generally acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Kerry, previously considered the front-runner by many in the press, appeared to watch his longstanding presidential ambitions go down the drain. But then, in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, came the remarkable reversal of fortune in which Democratic voters, inspired by an almost palpable resolve to defeat Bush in the fall, switched their allegiance from the fiery Dean to the more phlegmatic and "electable" war hero Kerry, who soon won his long string of primary victories. In a peculiar act of political transplantation, the voters, energized by Dean, seemed by this switch to want to infuse the spirit of Dean into the body of Kerry, who then, Lazarus-like, came to life both as a person and as a candidate.

Left pending in all this maneuvering by ordinary citizens, however, was the question of Kerry's position on the war. Had our warrior-protester, now in pursuit of the presidency, sacrificed principle for ambition by voting for the Iraq war? Had the winter soldier abandoned his post? Had he by his vote asked American soldiers to die for a mistake? Only the Searcher of Hearts can know for sure. Kerry himself asserts that his vote to enable the war was a vote of conscience. What the rest of us can see, however, is that ever since his vote he has trapped himself in a morass--a little quagmire in its own right--of self-contradictory, equivocating, evasive, incomplete, unconvincing explanations of his stand.

Kerry has often said his position has been consistent, and this is true in the sense that he has said the same thing over and over. But it is in part precisely in this rigidity that the problem lies. Kerry voted for the war, he said at the time, because he believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and must be disarmed. He favored "regime change" but did not regard it as a justification for war. He rejected the allegation of Iraqi ties with Al Qaeda as unproven. "Let me be clear," he said in his Senate speech announcing his vote for the war resolution. "The vote I will give the President is for one reason and one reason only: to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies." He lengthily detailed the intelligence findings he had seen, concluding, "These weapons represent an unacceptable threat." Disturbingly, he did not address the constitutional problem raised by the fact that, as his Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy said, "The most solemn responsibility any Congress has is the responsibility given the Congress by the Constitution to declare war." Therefore, "we would violate that responsibility if we delegate that responsibility to the President in advance before the President himself has decided the time has come for war."

The measure was the only substantive one that Kerry or any senator would pass before the war, yet Kerry claimed to believe that his vote was conditioned on fulfillment of "promises" that the Administration had made. The promises were to exhaust all diplomatic possibilities before going to war and thereby to assemble a large international coalition to fight the war and help run Iraq when the war was over. Indeed, so great was his faith in these promises that he would later claim of himself and his fellow Democrats, "Nobody on our side voted for the war." What did they vote for, then? "We needed the legitimate threat of [war] to get our inspectors into Iraq." Kerry voted, it seems, for inspectors, not war. He and all of us got war.

Kerry's entire argument against the Administration therefore is not that it waged a mistaken war but that it waged a necessary war in the wrong way. Several interviewers have pushed him hard to explain his position. In August Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, noted that he was accusing the President of having "misled" the country and commented that this did not sound like someone who supported the war. Kerry disagreed. "Wrong," he said. "I supported the notion that we must as a country hold Saddam Hussein accountable for what he was doing." Only the conduct of the war bothered him. "And so I'm running because I'm angry at the mismanagement of how we worked with our colleagues in the world and how we, in fact, have conducted the war."

Russert proceeded to the key question: "No regret over your vote?" To which Kerry, dodging the question, answered, "My regret is that the President of the United States didn't do what he had said he would do"--namely go to war only when diplomacy was exhausted and allies were on board.


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"Were you misled by the intelligence agencies?" Russert asked shortly.

Kerry wavered: "No, we weren't--I don't know whether we were lied to. I don't know whether they had the most colossal intelligence failure in history."

Chris Matthews of Hardball tried again in October. "Were we right to go to Iraq?" he asked.

"Not the way the President did it," answered Kerry.

Matthews pushed: Some other way, then? Would Kerry have gone to war if France--the symbol of the recalcitrant international community--had agreed? Kerry retreated as usual into generalities: "I would do whatever is necessary to protect the security of the United States."

Missing in all these responses and others Kerry has given is the answer to a simple, fair, necessary question--the one Kerry answered so memorably in regard to the Vietnam War: Was the war in Iraq a mistake? Disarming Saddam had been Kerry's only reason for going to war. If Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, then wasn't the war a mistake, and wasn't a vote to authorize it a mistake, and hadn't he made that mistake? And wouldn't American soldiers (now totaling more than 500) as well as Iraqis (in their uncounted thousands) be once again dying for a mistake?

But--I can hear some readers asking--why talk about the past? Why jeopardize the famous "electability" that Kerry (whether intending to or not) acquired by voting for the war and turn the likely Democratic candidate (now ahead of George Bush in certain polls) into an antiwar man, "another McGovern"? Those risks are real, but so is the gain. For one thing, the issue of the war will not disappear even if, as seems likely, Dean fails to win the nomination. On the contrary, it is likely to grow in importance as the absence of weapons of mass destruction sinks in with the public and disorder in Iraq mounts. The essence of democracy is accountability. Kerry knows it. Of the President, he has rightly said, "George Bush needs to take responsibility for his actions and set the record straight. That's the very least that Americans should be able to expect from the President of the United States. Either he believed Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons--or he didn't. Americans need to be able to trust their President--and they deserve the truth."

They deserve accountability and truth from opposition candidates as well. Someone who is ducking responsibility for his own actions is hardly in a strong position to call someone else to account. The Kay report can even be seen as an opportunity for Kerry. Kerry made a terrible error when, credulously trusting the dubious intelligence proffered by an Administration even then obviously hellbent on war, he voted to authorize that war, but his responsibility is nowhere near as great as that of the President. He might even discover a political dividend. If he were to state that had he known in October 2002 what he knows now about Iraq's weapons program he would not have voted for the resolution, he would immediately win the enthusiasm of the antiwar Democrats, whose passion and resolve, thanks in great measure to Howard Dean, has brought a fighting spirit to the Democratic Party. Nor should he entirely shift blame to the Administration for lying to him. He should hold himself accountable for his own mistake. We need the winter soldier, now more than ever, back at his post.

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, The Fate of the Earth, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  He died on March 25, 2014.


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