As the presidential race hurtles toward its conclusion, the war in Iraq rightly remains a central issue. But the campaign continues to be haunted by the specter of another war 30 years ago that won't go away: Vietnam. The questions about John Kerry's valor during his tour of duty in Vietnam have faded away, but the anti-Kerry veteran groups have continued to hammer away at the Democratic candidate with new ads that get to the real cause of the veterans' anger against him: his antiwar activism and, in particular, his 1971 statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee claiming widespread atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam.
One might legitimately ask why the political debates of 2004 should be mired in Vietnam. Maybe it's no coincidence that this issue has become so contentious now, when many claim the war in Iraq has become a Vietnam-style "quagmire" and when we are facing some of the same questions that divided the country then: Are we fighting an unjust war? How do we pick our battles in a greater fight with a global adversary? Can we and should we export democracy through military might?
The cultural divide is stark. For one side, Vietnam (like Iraq) is a symbol of United States imperialism against the people of the third world, of untrammeled American arrogance and barbarity. For the other side, Vietnam (like Iraq) is a noble cause, a war waged for freedom and against barbarism and tyranny, no matter what mistakes may have been made in the conduct of that war. There are also those who take a more nuanced view, but their voices tend to be drowned out in all the shouting.
Kerry's candidacy and the revisiting of his 1971 testimony have revived the debate about US atrocities in Vietnam. Few would claim that no atrocities ever happened. The question is whether such acts by American soldiers were relatively atypical instances of misconduct or systematic policies condoned by the chain of command.
That is a matter for historians to settle. It is likely, from what is known today, that some of the more lurid tales of slaughter and wanton sadism were exaggerated or made up, in some cases by fabricators who were never in Vietnam. But there is enough evidence that the true American record in Vietnam was indeed troubling.
The truth is that war (to fall back on a cliché) is hell. In the US Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops committed atrocities against fellow Americans. Countless German civilians died in Allied bombings in World War II. Generally, we do not dwell on these acts because we accept that both wars were fought for a good cause. The war in Vietnam, which involved American military intervention far away from home and was not directly related to our national security interests, was a vastly different matter.
Yet there is no question that many antiwar protesters viewed the Viet Cong through rose-colored glasses and were ready to believe the worst about Americans, seeing US power as the root of all evil. As Vietnam veteran and Naval College professor Mackubin Thomas Owens noted in a May article in National Review, many liberal pundits refused to believe that the massacre of 3,000 civilians in Hue City was the work of the Viet Cong. Novelist Mary McCarthy openly said, "I prefer to believe the Americans did it."
Kerry, in his 1971 testimony, spoke contemptuously of the "mystical war against communism" and asserted that the Americans were "more guilty than any other body of violations of [the] Geneva Conventions." In fact, there is little doubt that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were guilty of far greater systematic atrocities.
Some—not just conservatives but anticommunist liberals such as journalist-historian Michael Lind, no friend of the right—have argued recently that Vietnam was, in fact, a just and noble war against communist dictatorship. Others, such as the always insightful New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum, do not go quite that far but nonetheless offer a reevaluation of their former antiwar views. Writes Rosenbaum, "It was a just cause (in the sense that those who said that Hanoi was trying to impose a Soviet-style police state, complete with gulags for dissidents, on all of Vietnam turned out to be right)… But, on the other hand, the abstract justness of the cause did not mean it was a justly (or wisely) waged war."
These are some of the questions that need to be addressed when we revisit Vietnam. The debate, it seems, isn't so irrelevant after all.