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What Hagel and Kerry Really Learned in Vietnam

A piece from Bryan Bender in the Boston Globe sets the beltway narrative of Obama’s recent cabinet picks up nicely, “President Obama’s nomination on Monday of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, coupled with his pick of Senator John F. Kerry for secretary of state, would put two Vietnam veterans known for their cautious approach to the use of military force at the helm of American defense and foreign policy.”

This sentiment was echoed in the New York Times, where they ran a piece, by Elisabeth Bumiller which declared, “Between them, Senator John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Vietnam, shared a harrowing combat experience in the Mekong Delta and responded in different ways to the conflict that tore their generation apart. But in nominating one as secretary of State and the other as Defense secretary, President Obama hopes to bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war.”

Meanwhile, over at that noted liberal rag The Nation, the Eric Alterman commended Obama’s selection of Hagel (in a column titled, “Hooray for Hagel”) and explained, “In almost every respect relevant to the position for which he was nominated, Hagel is remarkably well qualified. A highly decorated Vietnam veteran, he told an interviewer that he could recall promising himself during his time in Vietnam: ‘If I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it—people just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it.’”

The lesson of the American involvement in Vietnam is, generally, presented as a crisis of cynical decisions. A certain image is formed in the public consciousness: fuzzy math being pondered in crepuscular rooms while men with death in their eyes rail cigarettes; The Masters of War, as Dylan sang. This narrative is, essentially, the driving force behind the obsession with how and why JFK was killed. As Oliver Stone has Donald Sutherland tell Kevin Costner in, the unbearably farcical, JFK, “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers. Kennedy wanted to end the Cold War in his second term. He wanted to call off the moon race and cooperate with the Soviets. He signed a treaty to ban nuclear testing. He refused to invade Cuba in 1962. He set out to withdraw from Vietnam. But all that ended on the 22nd of November, 1963.”

Every sentence in this dialogue is historically inaccurate, yet the idea of a young, idealistic leader cut down by a cabal of detached suits allows the myth of the Vietnam War to endure. Many who visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC are surprised to notice the timeline begins on November 1, 1955, when President Eisenhower deployed the Military Assistance Advisory Group to train South Vietnam’s secret police, but the real invasion began, under Kennedy, in 1962 and the violence was directed against the rural population of the South. The destruction of the country, for the crime of working toward their independence, was dished out with unparalleled levels of aggressions to virtually no criticism in the United States. Protests didn’t start gripping America until thousands were dead, thousands of troops were occupying Southeast Asia, and conscription decimated the public’s ability to overlook the horror being carried out in their name. Over 50,000 American soldiers were killed and, although we will never know exactly how many Vietnamese were killed, but most speculate that the number hovers around 3 million. In 1967, in a letter to President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote, “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

The public relations fallout that McNamara feared was short-lived: the fall of Nixon, the fate that the crooked President deserved, was interpreted When Jimmy Carter, the Human Rights President, was asked if the US planned on paying the Vietnamese reparations, for destroying their country, he responded, “Well, the destruction was mutual.”

Our refusal to come to grips with the war (the legacy of imperialism it strengthened, its racism, the generation of veterans it left addicted to drugs and forever plagued by the horrors they witnessed…) has allowed our leaders to tweak the catastrophe in the most historically confounding ways. The insistence on modification reached unparalleled heights during the election season of 2004 when, frightened by batshit rightwing attacks reimagining John Kerry as a Yippee, liberals played the war up as a noble cause, attacking Bush for avoiding the bloody debacle. Marching behind the Anybody But Bush ticket, progressives flocked behind the insipid, Massachusetts Senator, holding their tongues while Kerry hacked his antiwar credentials away like cancerous limbs and concocted an “exit strategy” for Iraq that somehow involved adding thousands of additional troops. That year, the DNC was an orgy of militarism, kicked off by the nominee’s imperial declaration, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty!”

As Alexander Cockburn wrote at the time, “The Left used to laud war shirkers and deprecate ‘heroism.’ Now, most of them snigger at George Bush’s positively Quaker-like refusal even to turn out for an Air Force physical in Alabama back in the early ’70s. Instead the Left proudly lauds the patriotism of the medal-flaunting Kerry, who insisted to Tim Russert three years ago on the “Meet the Press” that yes, he had committed war crimes in Vietnam.”

History was revised further next election, when John McCain’s perception of Vietnam was hardly challenged by the mainstream. One of the only columnists to even bring it up was the Boston Globe’s James Carroll, a liberal former priest, who wrote, “His years in prison coincided exactly with the period in which Americans across the political spectrum reckoned with the failure of the Vietnam War. To McCain, the war was never a failure. To regard it as such was akin to the false confession he had given in his moment of weakness. War, rather, is a source of meaning and nobility. Wars are to be won, period. That resolve of McCain’s is what enabled his survival. He comes by such belligerence of spirit far more honorably than the chicken hawks who have shaped policy in Washington, but it leaves McCain in the grip of a dangerous militancy.”

One again, in the reaction to the Obama picks, we see Vietnam as a useful symbol rather than a national moral implosion. The reduction of the war to a talking point results in thorny conclusions. For instance, what’s all this chatter about the two men being skeptical about wars? As FAIR’s Peter Hart wrote, “Both of them voted to authorize the Iraq War, and supported the invasion of Afghanistan. Kerry supported the Panama invasion and NATO’s war in Serbia…If anything, their records suggest they are willing to criticize U.S. wars after they’ve voted to support them. This might be in line with the White House’s thinking, but it shouldn’t be confused with an overall skepticism towards U.S. wars…”

Beyond their commitment to battle, neither man seems especially concerned about the saga of Bradley Manning, despite the parallels between his case and that of Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the savage extent of the war by leaking The Pentagon Papers. In fact, when asked about Bradley Manning at a town hall meeting in 2011, Kerry didn’t seem to know much about the situation and, later that spring, he made this evasive statement, “There are concerns about what is happening, but a strong argument is being made that they’re trying to preserve his safety, they don’t want him harming himself, and using his own clothing to hang himself, or do something like that,” said Kerry. “That’s happened in prison before. I think it is possible to protect him, I think, and there are some legitimate reasons to believe that that may be true also. But I think that a lot of people are now reviewing this very, very closely, people have weighed in, myself included, I think that analyses are being made. There was a big article in the newspapers today examining it. And I’m convinced that there will be real scrutiny with respect to that issue.”

Why is the man who, notably, turned on the Vietnam War content with thinking some analyses are being made, in regards to a young private who allegedly leaked information regarding a war crime?

If politicians, like Hagel and Kerry, and the press that protects them, actually gleaned enduring political lessons from the tragedy of Vietnam, they might have some issues with the administration continuing the very policies, which defined it. As it stands, both men seem content with certain wars and certain violations of The Constitution. When I interviewed Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, last year, he told me, “Our national security state continues to gobble money and avoid any accountability, with the complicity of most of Congress, Dems and Repubs. It’s like an enormous Rottweiler, on steroids. Anyone who would tame this beast would need a) excellent political skills at manipulating and taming bureaucracies and b) some measure of experience within the military or national security state and c) the political will to do so. The Obama administration has none of these qualities.”

And, when these men are confirmed, it still won’t.

 Michael Arria writes for Vice’s Motherboard.tv.

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Michael Arria is the author of the new CounterPunch book, Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.

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