“They told the stories at times they had 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 country side of South Vietnam…not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
That was a 27-year-old John Kerry in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With an investigation by an antiwar veterans group as his source, Kerry accused American soldiers in Vietnam of these widespread atrocities as part of his effort to stop the war. Kerry’s accusations represent the larger division among his generation’s view of Vietnam.
We now know that a substantial portion of Kerry’s testimony that day was not true, but we also know that Kerry is still haunted by the larger Vietnam experience. Now that he is campaigning for president in another time of war, it is important to consider the links between the Vietnam era and the situation today.
For one thing, an entire generation of Democratic leaders – Kerry included – has been reluctant to use American force since Vietnam. The fear is always of getting bogged down in “another Vietnam.” In fact, those were the exact words that Kerry used on the Senate floor to explain his vote against the 1991 Gulf War. The Vietnam generation of Democrats lives in fear of repeating perceived mistakes in Vietnam, and every possibility of using force today always brings reminders about that era.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on Democrats alone. Vietnam scarred the baby-boomer generation of Americans like nothing else could. The bitterness, squabbling, and harking back continues today. It will likely follow people from that generation to their graves, and there’s not much that can be done about that.
What my generation can prevent is the entire episode repeating itself. Just as Vietnam was the event that defined one generation’s worldview, September 11 should be the event that defines my generation’s view of the world.
There are some encouraging signs. Membership in the College Republicans has tripled in the past three years, and a Harvard study showed that two-thirds of college students supported the war in Iraq. While that may be pushing it, there is no doubt that a substantial number of young people are embracing President Bush’s worldview in the War on Terror.
For Bush and then the next generation of leaders, the lessons of September 11 are clear. Number one, our traditional alliances aren’t going to work to deal with this threat. We need to stop pretending that France and Germany are as committed to this fight as we are. If they want to join us at some point, fine. But the United States should be able to act alone where it sees fit. The Vietnam people stress working with other nations and assembling a “coalition.” The September 11 people say this is no time to be playing word games at the United Nations while terrorists and rogue nations plot to destroy us.
Secondly, we need to join together and admit that the crux of our problem lies in radical Islamism, and not in us. It would take an extensive educational effort in the Arab world to stop terrorists from breeding, but it’s worth a try. Nations who don’t grant basic rights to their citizens are inviting people to resort to terrorism.
Most importantly, the September 11 generation should understand that force is sometimes the only answer to our problems and that we must pre-empt any future attack on us. Millions of Afghanis and Iraqis now no longer live under repressive regimes as a result of our actions. This is not to say that we should be running around crushing every repressive country. But when we have an interest in something – like when people fly airplanes into buildings or break a cease-fire and 17 UN resolutions (Saddam Hussein) – there comes a point when failed diplomacy has to go out the window as an option.
It is on this point where the biggest divide exists between the Vietnam generation and the September 11 generation. Isolationism and diplomacy are popular choices for the Vietnam crowd, while they are always skeptical about using force. Hopefully the lessons of 9/11 will ensure that my generation doesn’t return to isolationism.
John Kerry represents the Vietnam generation’s hesitations about using American force to protect our interests. In President Bush, he is running against a man profoundly affected by 9/11 and who knows that force is sometimes the only way to achieve a goal. That voters will have to choose between the lessons of Vietnam or the lessons of September 11 is certainly an interesting dynamic to this election. Where do you stand?