Three million southeast Asians dead. Fifty-six thousand U.S. soldiers killed. Cities flattened by bombs. A countryside devastated to this day by chemical warfare. That’s the reality of the U.S. war on Vietnam. But to judge from the media, the only thing that matters about the Vietnam War today is the record of one U.S. naval officer for a brief period in 1968 and 1969.
John Kerry enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. The first six-month stint was uneventful, on board a frigate that supported U.S. warships off the Vietnamese coast. The controversy is over Kerry’s second tour–four months as the captain of a small “swift boat” that carried U.S. troops on raids into the Mekong Delta. Regularly involved in firefights, Kerry suffered three wounds that earned him Purple Hearts–though all were minor enough that he didn’t miss a day of duty.
He also won two medals for “personal bravery” and for “gallantry”–for rescuing a Green Beret who had been swept off his boat, and for going ashore and killing a Vietnamese fighter allegedly threatening Kerry’s crew with a grenade launcher. After the third injury, Kerry requested to be reassigned out of combat, and ended up serving as an aide to an admiral back in the U.S.
The anti-Kerry veterans have many complaints about Kerry’s record–from its brief length, to whether his war wounds were serious enough to warrant Purple Hearts, to his actions during the battles that won him medals. But what neither side will talk about is the bigger picture–the U.S. war on the people of Vietnam, and the role that Kerry and the other swift boat captains played in it.
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THE SWIFT boats that Kerry captained ferried Navy SEALSs, Green Beret soldiers and other special forces on missions in the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is at the southern end of Vietnam, hundreds of miles from the border that, during the war, separated North Vietnam, with its USSR-aligned communist government, and South Vietnam, controlled by a regime of U.S.-backed puppets.
The delta was economically important as the main center of rice production in Vietnam. It was also a main base of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, the armed insurgents fighting for liberation in alliance with the north against the southern regime and its U.S. protectors.
This was Kerry’s enemy–the insurgent fighters of the NLF, which the Americans insisted on calling the “Viet Cong.” Since taking over from the French colonialists, the U.S. goal was to eliminate the NLF threat by any means.
Kerry was part of a dirty war to kill as many NLF fighters as possible–and to terrorize the rural population into turning against the rebels. Central to the U.S. strategy was the Phoenix program of assassinating suspected NLF leaders.
U.S. and South Vietnamese government assassins killed at least 20,000 people between 1966 and 1973 as part of the Phoenix program. As a swift boat captain, Kerry transported these murder squads along the canals and rivers of the Mekong region to the villages where supposed NLF fighters had been identified.
More generally, the boats were part of a reign of terror in the southern countryside. “The entire area, except for certain designated ‘friendly villages,’ was a free-fire zone, meaning the Americans could shoot at will and count anyone they killed as VC,” wrote Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in CounterPunch magazine. Washington also targeted the Mekong Delta with chemical weapons–using napalm and the highly toxic Agent Orange to destroy vegetation as part of the war on the guerrillas.
By all accounts, Kerry never hesitated to use his superior firepower. His diaries, as described even by his official biographer Douglas Brinkley, contain numerous accounts of Kerry ordering his crew to open fire on unseen targets–as well as attacks on “friendly villages,” and on fishing boats that were suspected of transporting supplies to the rebels, but turned out to be carrying innocent families.
“Kerry was an extremely aggressive officer, and so was I,” a fellow lieutenant, James Wasser, told Brinkley. “I liked that he took the fight to the enemy, that he was tough and gutsy–not afraid to spill blood for his country.”
Washington’s “total war” made life unbearable for rural peasants. “[T]here is hardly a family in South Vietnam,” a Senate subcommittee concluded in 1971, “that has not suffered a death, injury or the anguish of abandoning an ancient homestead.”
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THE OTHER part of Kerry’s history that Republicans are sure to turn to in the coming weeks is his record as an opponent of war after he left Vietnam. Some time after being discharged from the Navy, Kerry began speaking out as an antiwar activist, working with the newly formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).
Kerry was never the most radical VVAW member–many of the group’s core activists came to consider themselves revolutionaries–and his opposition to the U.S. war contrasts with his statements while serving in the Mekong Delta, which were, at most, critical of the Pentagon’s strategy. Nevertheless, Kerry took part in some of the antiwar movement’s most dramatic protests–including a weeklong VVAW demonstration where hundreds of veterans tossed their medals and other symbols of their time in the military over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
Representing the VVAW at congressional hearings in 1971, Kerry became a nationally known figure when he famously asked: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry’s testimony described what he had heard at the so-called “Winter Soldier Investigation”–public hearings organized by the VVAW at which more than 150 Vietnam veterans told their stories.
“They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do,” Kerry said. “They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
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COMPARED TO this brutality–inflicted on the Vietnamese by a U.S. government bent on imposing its will halfway around the world–the current obsession with Kerry’s war wounds is grotesque. Even as they report every charge and counter charge in the swift boat controversy, the media complain that the presidential campaign is stuck in a “time warp” over Vietnam, as the New York Times put it.
Actually, with the parallels between the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the crisis of Washington’s occupation of Iraq becoming ever clearer, a serious discussion of what happened in Vietnam would explain a lot. Then, as now, the U.S. government unleashed all the savagery it could bring to bear on a poor country–and justified its barbarism in the name of promoting “democracy” and “freedom.”
Then, as now, Washington blamed continued resistance on a minority of fanatics–the “communist menace” in Vietnam, Islamist terrorists in Iraq–and promised that the end was just around the corner. In Vietnam, the world’s mightiest military machine was beaten by a poorly armed fighting force because the Vietnamese were fighting for their freedom.
In the process, a significant portion of U.S. soldiers rebelled against the war when they came to understand that they were being used as cannon fodder in a war that served the interests of the wealthy and powerful–and, for some, that the cause of the Vietnamese was just.
That’s the truth about Vietnam. And it’s precisely what John Kerry is desperate to avoid any discussion of today. He wants to bury his service to the antiwar movement–and instead, celebrate his service to the U.S. government in Vietnam, claiming his war stories as a patriotic badge of honor, just as pro-war veterans did in denouncing Kerry and the VVAW in the 1970s.
“I learned a lot about these values on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta,” Kerry droned during his convention speech. But the values he learned were about empire, might makes right, and win at any cost.
Kerry’s attackers may be Bush-loving cranks, but Kerry is committing an even more disgusting crime by turning history on its head and portraying his service in Vietnam as “noble.” There was nothing “noble” about what U.S. troops did in Vietnam.
Washington built its war strategy around the indiscriminate use of the world’s most deadly arsenal to crush the Vietnamese people’s desire for freedom. The only “noble” alternative for U.S. soldiers was to turn against the war–and rebel against military hierarchy and political system that was ready to destroy an entire country and use U.S. troops as cannon fodder.
Yet that opposition to war–which a growing number of U.S. soldiers chose, and which Kerry himself briefly represented–is precisely what the Democrats and their presidential candidate want to ignore.
ALAN MAASS is the editor of Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org