Well, it seems that Vietnam is not only back in the news, but is back in a visceral way. Since we are all reliving this, and I had no real outlet for addressing any of it at the time, allow me just a few thoughts.
I watched a few minutes of John Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony on C-Span last night, and a number of things became clearer to me. It has been apparent that it was Kerry’s reckless charges against his comrades has been the principle source of the anger directed at him. That being noted, allow just two observations about his testimony. First, it is apparent that Kerry is responsible for the widespread misunderstanding of his testimony. He was not testifying about his experiences in Vietnam, but rather telling stories from a convention of vets in Detroit, men who were apparently part of the original Oprahfication of the Vietnam vet. These were men who confessed to various assorted war crimes, and then in a sob sister kind of way, blamed the country they dishonored (if they in fact had committed them). Secondly, Kerry was testifying in his capacity as a Vietnam vet; his credentials for talking about it were found in the fact that he had been in Vietnam, and not that he had been to Detroit. He spoke with all the authority of a witness, and the fact that his swift boat comrades took it personally was Kerry’s responsibility.
I grew up in Annapolis, and the thought of joining any branch of the service other than the Navy had never occurred to me. I thought Vietnam was an honorable cause, and I wanted to go, but it had to be Navy. But after Nixon pulled the Marines out, there was no way to go there as a Navy hospital corpsman. I actually thought about trying to get to a river boat, but my father, a Naval Academy graduate, informed me that striking for gunners’ mate would not get me to a swift boat in the Mekong, but would rather find me chipping paint somewhere for four years. So I volunteered for the submarine service, and did my stint in the Cold War playing chicken with the Soviets. It would be fun to tell some stories about that sometime. I thought, and still think, that resisting the commies was a noble venture in principle, and have had no qualms of conscience for my part in it.
At the same time, as I learned more about the Vietnam War, I came to the conclusion that the way the war was conducted was one vast war crime. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives there (about half the number that were lost in the First World War), and they lost their lives for the attainment of no apparent objective. Because there was no clearly articulated objective in Vietnam, we were killing and getting killed for no particular reason.
If you have a stated objective, as we did in the Second World War, that objective can be praised or blamed, but at least you have one. When there is no over-arching, clearly defined objective, as there was not in what should honestly be called Lyndon Johnson’s War, this means that morale goes in the tank. Morale goes in the tank because lesser, nonsensical objectives are substituted in for the only objective which makes military sense, which is that of military victory. If you are going to fight, fight to win. If you are not going to fight with victory as the desired objective, then it is immoral to fight at all.
The lesser, nonsensical objectives that got substituted in for victory came in the form of body counts. I remember every evening on the news, the body counts for that day being tallied up, as though war were a basketball game. The same thing is now happening in Iraq. When there is no clearly stated objective, communicated effectively to everyone, bizarre and immoral objectives take their place. Confirmed body counts became a substitute objective. And how do you confirm a kill? Bring back the left ear.
One time, as a boy, I was over at a friend’s house. His father had completed a tour of duty in Vietnam. My friend took me up in the attic and proudly showed me a string of human ears, taken from Viet Cong. It was a twentieth century scalp belt. War is always brutal, and this was an indication of it. It was not an instance of committing outrages on the bodies of the enemy, as Achilleus did with Hektor. It was the outrage of war being conducted according to the dictates of bureaucrats; give us something we can count. And so ears were taken, and the real crime is that the politicians back home required that they be taken — for no apparent reason.
So the war criminals were not the swift boat veterans, who appear to me to be honorable men. The war criminals were probably not the whiners that John Kerry met in Detroit, who were likely just men trying to figure out the fastest way to become a bona fide victim in Therapeutic America. John Kerry was not a war criminal, but just a royal opportunist, who appears to have known for a long time where the cameras were. The war criminals were in Congress assembled, who took us to war for no clearly stated objective, killed a bunch of people, and then brought most of them home again. That was a war crime.