American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War
by Douglas Brinkley,William Morrow, 2004, 546 pp, $25.95.
Kerry's Wars: Heroism, Criminality, Protest and Complicity - A Review of Tour of Duty
Michael Uhl led a military intelligence team in Vietnam with the 11th Infantry Brigade in 1968-69. He is active in Veterans For Peace. A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Boston Globe, January 19, 2004.
John Kerry hardly typifies, in either educational or social privilege, the vast majority of his contemporaries who also fought in Southeast Asia. Christian Appy has demonstrated convincingly, in Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and the Vietnam War, the precise blue collar composition of the American fighting forces in Southeast Asia, including the corps of young officers, among whom, even in the military academies, only ten percent came from the professional class or above. Yet, like another Senator - the good republican played by Derek Jacobi in the film The Gladiator - John Kerry might with equal grace proclaim, "I am with not of the people."
Therein lies the tale that Mr. Brinkley tenders in a lengthy, highly readable, and well researched bio-history which draws generously from the diaries that Kerry, a young naval lieutenant, kept to document his wartime experiences, and from his extensive correspondence home with family and friends. We learn that Kerry, a product of St. Paul's prep school and Yale University, chose to fight in Vietnam and did so bravely.
He led with distinction the five-man crew of a small craft that patrolled and provoked his Viet Cong enemy in a web of inland waterways throughout the Mekong Delta. Kerry was wounded lightly three times - he might as easily have been killed - and decorated for valor. And, like many other GIs in Vietnam, Kerry began to be troubled by his conscience in the execution of his duties, especially the incessant, indiscriminate fire directed at apparent non-combatants.
He witnessed the inadvertent killings by fire power under his command of an innocent child in a sampan traveling in violation of a nightly curfew, and of an old farmer who bolted instead of freezing. Kerry personally killed an enemy under circumstances that are not entirely clear, but were probably sanctioned by war's ambiguous rules of engagement.
Coming home, John Kerry, according to his former wife, suffered nightmares and flashbacks. As for his politics, Kerry had already developed, while in-country, both in his gut and through intense and thoughtful observation, cogent arguments for opposing the war. His decision to join Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was a gesture of solidarity with veterans he called "brothers," as well as a risky tactical move for a man who had begun to plot his career in public service while still in high school.
His personal ambitions notwithstanding, Kerry gave clear public voice to the same ideological position taken by VVAW. In his appearance before William Fulbright's Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, Kerry volunteered this straightforward testimony: "I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free fire zones, used harassment and interdiction fire, joined in search and destroy missions, and burned villages. All of these acts were established policies from the top down, and the men who ordered this are war criminals."
Brinkley reports that Kerry parted company with the antiwar vets in the months immediately following his moment of instant celebrity, and over the ensuing years has been scored a betrayer of the cause by some former comrades. However, Kerry had always taken pains to emphasize that he was "never outside the system." The difference is that those Vietnam veterans who have kept faith with Kerry's antiwar arguments before an august body of the US Senate in 1971 continue to advocate for that historical interpretation of their war. Kerry has never been able to bring that piece of his ideals to the table for serious examination within the system. And yet the spectre of Vietnam, and the lessons learned from it, still haunt the corridors of power where war policy is forged.
Tour of Duty is a fresh and welcome retelling of these lessons, and of how acutely John Kerry once wrestled with them. The book's remarkably broad and representative bibliography is manifest in the many details David Brinkley inserts throughout the text to enhance the verisimilitude of his portrait of both the era and the man.
Nonetheless, a number of gaffes and bizarre formulations underscore a suspicion that the Vietnam era is not one in which the author is deeply steeped. The potboiler rhetoric used to describe the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), and its political and armed struggles for reunification with Hanoi, is amateurish.
The Viet Cong (like Native Americans of yore) are dubbed "treacherous" because they opposed both Saigon and the US invasion. Or they are said to "infest" the Delta, where they "extort taxes" from the peasants, even though they functioned widely throughout South Vietnam as the de facto government. At such moments, it's as if the voice of some diehard cold warrior from the LBJ or Nixon administration is being incorporated into the narrative against the nap of its prevailing fibers.
Skipping Kerry's Senate years, Brinkley carries the story forward to Kerry's present drive for his party's presidential nomination. Despite his electoral success in the primaries so far, voters can't seem to decipher Kerry's stance on the current war with Iraq.
Antiwar folks think he's for it (pointing to his vote authorizing the war), and pro-war folks think he's against it (pointing to his anti-Bush rhetoric and his vote against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation).
As a young, disaffected warrior, Kerry once dissolved such ambiguities
in a rush of insightful empathy, asking himself, "What it
would be like to be occupied by foreign troops, to have to bend
to the desires of a people who could not be sensitive to the things
that really count in one's own country?" To what degree John
Kerry sets his politics today by this internationalist benchmark,
no one, not even he, seems to know.