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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I graduated from high school in 1971, and from college in 1975. During my high school and college years, American involvement in the Vietnam War reached its peak, and slowly wound down. By the time I was eligible for the draft (Spring, 1972 was "my" lottery), America was was all but out of Vietnam.

I didn't want to go to Vietnam. I was thankful that I drew an extremely high number in the draft lottery and therefore wouldn't have to go. I was even more pleased that the draft was ended shortly after the lottery drawing (but nowhere near as pleased as the guy in my dorm who had drawn number 5 in the lottery).

The arguments about Vietnam were interminable. Some said that Vietnam was no threat to the US, whether under communism or some sort of right wing dictatorship. But even if a communist government in Vietnam was no threat to the US, surely the communists would not stop until someone stopped them. Since communists did not believe in real elections, or freedom of speech, or freedom of religion, or whole bunches of other things that I thought were important, they needed to be stopped somewhere, sometime, and we were the only ones who could stop them. Others said we shouldn't ever have been in Vietnam to begin with, so we had to leave. But we were there, and leaving could (and later did) have disastrous consequences, both for us and for the Vietnamese who had placed their trust in us. Still others said we couldn't win. But it was clear that we could in fact win the conventional war, if not war for "hearts and minds". God knows, I'm no military expert, but surely there was at least one way for a superpower to prevail militarily over a backwards third world country. I think all we had to do was stop trying not to lose and use those tools available to us. No, not nuclear weapons, but Special Forces, more conventional troops, more air power, more actions designed to interdict the North's logistics train, etc. But I think the decisive thing for me is that I felt I could no longer trust what my government was telling me about what was happening on the other side of the world. General Westmoreland or the President (Johnson or Nixon) would say one thing, and another thing entirely would appear on my television screen during the nightly news.

So I opposed the war in Vietnam. Was that a result of the fact that I really really didn't want to go there? Perhaps in part. Anyone who actually wants to be sent halfway around the globe to be shot at by people who want to kill him is not, in my opinion, functioning on all cylinders. With the convenience of hindsight, however, it is obvious that both the Johnson and Nixon administrations were not prosecuting the war to win, they were attempting to avoid losing. Nixon even said so. He just wanted to get out while avoiding as much of the negative consequences of defeat as he could. That meant that the war never would be won. And that, in turn, meant that my contemporaries (not to mention the poor bastards unlucky enough to actually live in Vietnam) were killing and being killed in what seemed at the time to be a hopeless and ultimately pointless exercise without end.

Obviously, the anti-war forces eventually won the domestic political battle and the US withdrew from Vietnam. And then an odd thing happened. The peace accords so arduously and solemnly negotiated and signed by the US and the leaders of North Vietnam in Paris were utterly ignored by the North. It was obvious that the government of North Vietnam had never intended to abide by any agreement with us pertaining to the independence of the South. Shortly after Congress prohibited any further monetary support for South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese sent a conventional army south and took Saigon. And we did nothing. We didn't even send money or supplies to our erstwhile allies in the South. We abandoned our allies and enabled the North to impose their particularly vicious brand of government there. The fall of Saigon was followed rapidly by "re-education camps" and a flood of boat people.

Did we realize in advance that these things would happen? Absolutely. And the fact that it happened, and that we knew it would happen and that we knew about it while it was happening made me ashamed.

Now I'm fifty years old (ugh!), and, at least partly as a reaction to the shameful behavior of our government in abandoning the South Vietnamese to the tender mercies of the descendants of Ho Chi Minh to achieve a wholly fake "peace", my political views have changed. My skepticism concerning government pronouncements remains fairly high, but I have also become much more distrustful of the people who supported the years long farce that was the negotiation and "implimentation" of the treaty ending the Vietnam war, and my trust in governments other than my own, especially non-democratic governments, is pretty close to absolute zero.

Which is why I would understand if John Kerry's views about the Vietnam war, and war in general, have changed since he testified before Congress in 1971. Kerry testified that "we found that most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart." Well, yes, I am sure that being free of strafing helicopters and napalm attacks were things that people in Vietnam desired. But I think they wanted more. I think they wanted to be free. I think they wanted so badly to be free that some of them left everything they had ever known, everything they had ever worked for, and went to sea in old, leaky, overcrowded fishing boats in an attempt to reach Hong Kong and the haven of the closest democracy.

Because I would understand if Kerry's views on the Vietnam War and war in general had changed over the last 30 odd years, I need to hear from him whether they have and if so, in what way. I need to hear from him because he wants me to vote for him for President. He wants me to help place him in charge of our armed forces. Does he still believe that communism was no threat to the United States? Does he believe that North Vietnam honored the Paris peace treaty? If not, does he believe they should have, and what, if anything, would he have done to make them honor it?

On a more contemporary note, what, if any, military threats does Kerry believe the nation faces today. Does militant Islam pose a threat to the US? How would he deal with an attack of the scope of 9/11? Does he believe that, over and above any failure of intelligence which may have resulted in a failure to prevent it, the US bears any responsibility whatever for the attack of 9/11? I won't be satisfied with platitudes about "internationalizing" our response or "increasing law enforcement and intelligence efforts". I want specifics. He would not have gone to war in Iraq? OK. He needs to tell me what precisely he would have done. Then I can compare the likely results of his actions to those of George Bush, and I can make up my mind.

I have to say, though, that Kerry's explanation of how his opinions had evolved over the years will need to be pretty convincing in order to earn my vote. He'll have to explain to me why he voted against the first Gulf War, then in favor of the second, then against funding the war he was supposedly in favor of. And he won't get my vote simply by saying George Bush misled him. He has to tell me what he wanted to do and why that would have been a good thing to do. And given that Kerry is saying that the War on Terror is more of a police and intelligence matter than a military campaign, I'd also like to hear whether and why he voted to freeze defense spending, and wanted to cut the intelligence budget (these last items are from Smash, no links available). Oh, and while Kerry's explaining things, perhaps he can tell me why he voted against military pay raises, cost of living adjustments, and family housing almost every time they came up (Smash again).

Until then, I am left to compare Kerry's voting record, for which, in my opinion, the kindest characterization is an attempt to be all things to all people, with Bush's record of disposing of two despotic regimes with minimal loss of life and attempting to establish something approaching democracy in each place.

The comparison, in the absence of a cogent and particularized explanation from Kerry, is not flattering.
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