John Kerry on Angry Young Men and War Criminals
By Joe Miller
On May 6, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Tim Russert, the moderator, played back an audiotape of Kerry's appearance on the show in 1971, when Kerry was a spokesperson for VVAW. It is interesting to note Kerry's response to the tape, especially in light of his possible presidential bid for 2004.
(Audiotape, April 18, 1971)
MR. CROSBY NOYES (Washington Evening Star): Mr. Kerry, you said at one time or another that you think our policies in Vietnam are tantamount to genocide and that the responsibility lies at all chains of command over there. Do you consider that you personally as a naval officer committed atrocities in Vietnam or crimes punishable by law in this country?
KERRY: There are all kinds of atrocities, and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used .50-caliber machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this is ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals. (End audiotape)
Russert then asked him, "Thirty years later, you stand by that?"
Kerry responded, "I don't stand by the genocide. I think those were the words of an angry young man. We did not try to do that. But I do stand by the description - I don't even believe there is a purpose served in the word "war criminal." I really don't."
He went on to say, "We've got to put this war in its right perspective and time helps us do that. I believe very deeply that it was a noble effort to begin with. I signed up. I volunteered. I wanted to go over there and I wanted to win. It was a noble effort to try to make a country democratic; to try to carry our principles and values to another part of the world."
Later in the interview, Kerry mentions the successes of the veterans' movement. "Everything that the veteran gained in the ensuing years, Agent Orange recognition, post-Vietnam stress syndrome recognition, the extension of the G.I. Bill, you know, improvement of the V.A. hospitals, all came from Vietnam veterans themselves fighting for it. Indeed, even the memorial in Washington came from that."
In response to Russert's question about whether government leaders and policymakers were war criminals, Kerry said, "No, I think we did things that were tantamount that certainly violated the laws of war, but I think it was the natural consequence of the Cold War itself. People made decisions based on their perceptions of the world at that time. They were in error. They were judgments of error. But I think no purpose is served now by going down that road."
How should we in VVAW view this series of comments? Are we all still the "angry young men" (now not so young) whom Kerry so cavalierly pushes into the dustbin of history? Should we just get over it, as he seems to be saying?
Ten years ago, the last time that VVAW members and friends gathered in Washington, DC to commemorate the anniversary of Dewey Canyon III, we invited John Kerry to join us. His office said he could not be there, but promised us a statement from Kerry on the event. It never came. Many of us were angered, though not really surprised, at Kerry's denial of VVAW and his connection with us.
I decided to make a personal statement by sending him my medals and calling him out on his weak response to the Persian Gulf War. Here is the letter I sent out to him:
April 22, 1991
Senator John F. Kerry (ex-VVAW member):
Well, John, we missed you last Saturday at the rededication of the tree VVAW planted on the Mall in 1971. And, you did not show up for the speeches in front of the Capitol. Nor did we ever receive that statement your office promised us. Was this one of those the check is in the mail sort of promises? Of course, after all this, we didn't expect you to show for the reception that evening . . . and, you didn't.
As I stood among my brothers and sisters in VVAW and Veterans for Peace, waiting to give my short speech to the gathering, I wondered what I would do with the medals I brought along to the ceremony. As I was unable to participate in Dewey Canyon III, I have waited a long time for some opportunity to make these bits of metal and colored ribbon count for something. This commemoration of DCIII was to be that opportunity, but I couldn't see just leaving the medals for any tourist to walk off with - what would be the point? So, as I walked to the microphone, I decided to mail them to you. When I announced this intention to the crowd, they cheered and applauded with their support and appreciation. You should have been there, John!
Everyone standing there on that cloudy and chilly Saturday morning clearly understood why these medals should be directed at you. All of us have changed over the past twenty years. Some of us have less hair and/or graying hair; or, we have put on a little weight; our eyes may not be as clear as they were in our twenties. Many have families we didn't have then, or, like me, have sons and daughters in their teens and twenties. My son, by the way, is nineteen and student in a university in Massachusetts, your backyard so to speak.
For that group standing there on the grass in front of the Capitol (and, for the thousands we represented who could not be with us), many things have not changed. We still oppose U.S. interventionist policies overseas, in El Salvador, the Philippines, etc. We still support the right of self-determination for all oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians. From our Vietnam experiences, we remain always skeptical about the motives of successive U.S. governments in situations like the recent war in the Middle East.
Many of us have remained critics and activists for more than twenty years; some were brought back into activism over the last seven months. For example, there were 2,000 of us veterans (from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada) leading the march of 200,000 in Washington, D.C., on January 26. We did this to express our suspicion, our anger, our frustration with people such as yourself who so quickly lined up behind Bush's warmaking. Where were you that day, John?
You should have been on the floor of the Senate every day since August and after January 16, demanding an end to the bloodshed caused by our government. Your voice should have been heard in every newscast as a veteran who was not going to allow this carnage to go on.
More than 300 U.S. troops and probably more than 200,000 Iraqis died in the war to kick the Vietnam syndrome. Was it worth it, John? Did your posture in support of the war improve your chances for a future presidential bid? Not with your former brothers and sisters in VVAW. That's for sure! Once again the politics of expediency rears its ugly head, and so-called liberals such as yourself and our Illinois Senator Paul Simon line up with the warmakers.
Do you recall how we veterans felt about that during the Vietnam War, when our so-called friends in Congress just kept voting for the continuation of that horror? This is exactly how most of us anti-war veterans feel about your actions (or, inaction) this time around. Of course, you probably don't really give a damn. So, with that expectation, you can take these medals and shove them - they don't mean a thing! I don't want them; they don't bring any lost lives back.
Twenty years ago today, you asked members of Congress: how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Now I am asking you: how can you, as a former anti-war veteran, ask men and women to continue to fight and die for profits and U.S. control over the world's resources? My, how some can change! Or, were you always just a fortunate son?
We shall not forget!
Joseph T. Miller
(VVAW member, 1970-present)
Well, I never received any sort of response to this letter. I often wonder what he actually did with the medals and papers I sent to him. It does seem, however, that he would rather put those days up to youthful indiscretion. His comments of May 6, 2001, on "Meet the Press" show that he has lost any connection with what VVAW was and is. While many of us might actually vote for him in 2004, given the potential other choices out there, we must not assume anything about him or his policies. Let's not be fooled by another politician.
Joe Miller is a national coordinator of VVAW.