I have very little ability to speak or write with any type of authority or credibility on the war in Southeast Asia, since I have just read about it, studied it, and talked at length with many who served and fought in it. I was almost one year old in April 1971 when young John Kerry addressed the US Congress and gave his scathing testimony about the war in Vietnam: accusing all who served there of being despicable murderers, rapists, and baby killers.
I thank God I did not have to live through that chapter of US history. I doubt many who did would choose to do so again. Yet the lessons of that era must not elude us, even those too young to speak with any of the wisdom that can come from experiencing those times. As the “Stolen Honor” video reminds us, this 2004 Presidential campaign has resurrected many of the memories and painful experiences of that era for many US citizens– and in many ways, it seems that the war itself is on trial again in this election.
What do you think today, in late October 2004, about the various wars promulgated by the United States in the countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia starting in the late 1950s and ending in the mid 1970s? Were we fighting on the side of democracy, justice, human rights, and freedom? I think it is safe to say the answers to that question will vary widely wherever you would ask the question.
Answers would likely vary much less to the following question: Do we and should we value highly the service and sacrifices of our men and women at arms who have served and do serve in our active and reserve military forces? Of course we should and I think we do today– certainly much better than we did in the Vietnam war era. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a response to that question may have been mixed, but I think today most US citizens are able to separate the idea of the people who serve in our armed forces and the political policies which they were directed to carry out. Some would say you cannot simultaneously oppose the policy and support the troops– either you are for us or against us, there is no in-between. I think the truth here is less black and white.
Should the US have been at war in Indochina? Perceptions of that answer likely changed with time for many of the Veterans who served there. US involvement in the war in mid-1966 when my own father went there on a 100 mission tour with the US Air Force was very different both quantitatively and qualitatively than in the late 1960s when President Johnson and Robert MacNamara had dramatically increased our troop commitment and engagement in SEA. As Americans, we would like to believe that in every case when our armed forces have been placed in harms way by our empowered civilian authorities, they have been acting for the highest purposes. I do not think anyone can or should attempt to make denigrating generalizations about the motives and ideals of the men and women who served our nation in our wars (both overt and covert) in Southeast Asia.
But that is exactly what John Kerry did in April 1971, as pointed out dramatically in this film. He painted a sweeping picture of American soldiers: on land, in the air, and at sea, as despicable baby killers. Who can blame veterans, especially those who were held as POWs in the Hanoi Hilton like Robinson Risner, Bud Day, and others included in this film, for their anger and bitterness over those statements made by John Kerry?
I have the utmost respect for our Veterans. I am a Veteran myself, although I did not serve very long or in wartime. It is difficult to wrestle with these issues in the context of our current Presidential election for me particularly, I think, because I am very familiar (at least as I can be from an academic and non-experiential persepctive) with the course of wartime events in Indochina, especially the events surrounding our POWs, and because I did not live through that era. I wonder what I would have thought and done had I lived at that time. Of course it would have likely depended in part at which time I was told to go fight in SEA. I feel certain I would have gone and done my duty to the best of my ability– but would I have believed at the time that our governmental policy in the war in Vietnam (or Laos or Cambodia) at the time was right? And would I have thought the same later, with the benefit of both experience and hindsight?
I can only conjecture, because I did not live through that time and was not asked to serve in the military at that time. What I can say, however, is this: It is not immoral to disagree with governmental policy, even when the nation is at war, and those who do disagree should not by virtue of their opinion be branded as traitors.
I recognize that John Kerry went far beyond merely “disagreeing” with the war in Vietnam. He insulted every soldier and airman who served there, with his sweeping generalizations and testimony before the US Congress. Clearly, I think, he exaggerated the facts and painted a distorted picture which was seized upon by the US media and become part of our national psyche when it comes to our thoughts on and memories of the war in Vietnam. Whether he would apologize for those statements or not, I agree with the Veterans in this film, the damage was done.
At some point, however, as a Christian particularly– I think we as human beings must move beyond bitterness into a very difficult and challenging condition– a condition of granting grace, which involves forgiveness. It seems abundantly clear that many of our Veterans and other Americans who did live through the US wars in Indochina are going to continue clinging to their bitterness over what happened, and do not appear to have any forgiveness for John Kerry or anyone else who was a war protester.
Logically, should that bitterness, anger, and even hatred be constrained to merely those who protested the war? Shouldn’t those emotions and feelings be extended to the Vietnamese people against whom we fought, to the inept and horribly incapable leadership of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert McNamara, and others, who led and directed the US war effort for most of the 1960s? It seems if we go down this road, we (or at least those who choose this path) are and will continue to be inextricably swallowed up in a pool of anguish, bitterness, hate, and ill will.
Good grief. I certainly don’t want to go there. And thankfully because of my age, I do not have to– at least I did not live through experiences which challenge me to a much greater extent than intellectual exercise does– when it comes to grappling with those issues.
I do not claim to have the answers here, just my own admittedly limited perceptions and ideas.
I know that as Christians, we are all called to grant grace. We are called to forgive. And if we cannot do this by our own will, then we should pray to God for the strength to forgive and grant grace, in whose infinite and unfathomable power all things are possible.
Am I glad John Kerry made those inflammatory and false sweeping generalizations about US servicemen and women who served in the Vietnam war in April 1971? Most certainly not. Did his comments serve to further divide our nation and prolong the war? I can’t say for sure, but it appears from my studies as well as the testimony of others who lived through that era that they did.
Today in October 2004, however, I do not think the US wars in Southeast Asia are or should be on trial. Certainly the integrity of a Presidential candidate is a vital issue. Does the fact that John Kerry made these exaggerated statements before the US Congress in 1971 define him as a dishonest man and a man without integrity? My personal opinion is no.
What they do define him as is a man who is capable of passionate, eloquent, and persuasive speech– and who in his youth, went “over the top” in his efforts to articulate reasons to end the US war in Indochina. Was he wrong in making those statements? Yes, he was certainly wrong in accusing all our servicemen and women of immoral behavior and wrongdoing. Absolutely. But was he wrong in opposing the continued promulgation of the war in 1971? How many other Americans in 1971 believed we should be fighting in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia? I don’t know, I wasn’t speaking yet and don’t have those Gallup poll results handy. But the point is– and I think this is really the bottom line– for me I see in those comments Kerry made before Congress a mistake. A mistake in condemning the military servicemen for the war they were ordered to fight and win, rather than condemn the civilian leadership who through their own ineptitude and egregious failures of leadership tied one hand behind the back of every American soldier and guaranteed we could not win the war or secure a peace in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.
Discussions about the justness of our wars in Southeast Asia may be engaging, but they are not nearly as relevant as discussions about our present military activities in Iraq. As I have written previously in my blog, I see disturbing parallels to our Vietnam deployments in the current military campaign in Iraq. We are not fighting for defined and limited objectives. We appear to be engaged in a perpetual conflict with no end in sight– we have declared “war” on terrorism, yet like weeds in the garden (as I wrote about on September 14, 2001) we will never completely get rid of all the weeds. Does this mean we should not fight? No. Does this mean we can afford to not be vigilant? Certainly not. But should we (or I should more accurately say, should our empowered civilian leader, President George W Bush) have committed our nation and its military forces to an open ended fight without a defined endgame and objective in Iraq?
I can grant grace and forgiveness to John Kerry for his high-profile exaggerations and misrepresentations during the Vietnam war era. And I pray others can as well, if not by their own will, then by the will of He who has power to forgive all and heal all.
But in voting in this Presidential election, I cannot vote in a way which gives President Bush my personal stamp of approval for the way he has conducted the foreign affairs of our mighty nation in the past 4 years. I cannot give him a green light to continue to order our honorable men and women in uniform to put their lives on the line in Iraq– when I disagree with the way he took our nation to war and has led our nation in war. Now that we are “in Iraq,” thanks to President Bush, there is not going to be any easy way to get out. Whether John Kerry or George Bush is elected in a few short days, the realities of our involvement there will be difficult to deal with.
These issues are tough. But as conscientious and responsible citizens, we must each make up our mind regarding the course of action we will support and condone for the future. Many of my Republican friends and family members fear a change in Presidential leadership, and believe only GW Bush has the integrity and ability (given our 2 candidate choices) to lead our nation effectively. President Bush’s record speaks loudly to me on many fronts, not just in the war on terror, and it is a record that I cannot and will not support on November 2nd.
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