View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, May 11, 2004

For The Record 

Here is then-ex-officer-Kerry's closing essay in his book, The New Soldier. It is presented here as a public service. Honestly, I don't hold this against him now. But anyone running for President, who's trying so hard to rewrite his own personal history, while using that personal history as the basis for a campaign, doesn't get to pick and choose what's part of the record, no matter how poorly edited, or how juvenile the punctuation.

If you make it to the end, note how tired you are just reading it, and think about the suspension of mental activity necessary to transcribe it.

   And so a New Soldier has returned to America, to a nation torn apart by the killing we are asked to do. But, unlike veterans of other wars and some of this one, the New Soldier does not accept the old myths.

   We will not quickly join those who march on Veterans' Day waving small flags, calling to memory those thousands who died for the "greater glory of the United States." We will not accept the rhetoric. We will not readily join the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars - in fact, we will find it hard to join anything at all and when we do, we will demand relevancy such as other organizations have recently been unable to provide. We will not take solace from the creation of monuments or the naming of parks after a select few of the thousands of dead Americans and Vietnamese. We will not uphold traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim.

   It is from these things that the New Soldier is asking America to turn. We are asking America to turn from false glory, hollow victory, fabricated foreign threats, fear which threatens us as a nation, shallow pride which feeds off fear, and mostly from the promises which have proven so deceiving these past ten years.

   For many of us there is little to remember but the promises and, most poignantly, the loss of the symbols of those promises - of John and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Medgar Evers, of Fred Hampton and Malcolm X, of Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, Jeffrey Miller, and William Schroeder of Kent State and Philip Gibbs and James Green from Jackson State; the loss, too, of friends, of Richard Pershing, Peter Johnson, Johnny White, Don Droz, and the other 53,000 Americans who have lost their lives in this degrading and immoral war. The promises of peace candidates who were not peacemakers; of civil rights laws which were not enforced; of educational and medical aid which was downgraded in priority below bombs and guns; of equal opportunity while Mexican-Americans and blacks were drafted in numbers disproportionate to their representation in this country and then made up casualties in even greater disproportion.

   I think that, more than anything, the New Soldier is trying to point out how there are two Americas - the one the speeches are about and the one we really are. Rhetoric has blinded us so much that we are unable to see the realities which exist in this country.

   We were sent to Vietnam to kill Communism. But we found instead that we were killing women and children. We knew the saying "War is hell" and we knew also that wars take their toll in civilian casualties. In Vietnam, though, the "greatest soldiers in the world," better armed and better equipped than the opposition, unleashed the power of the greatest technology in the world against thatch huts and mud paths. In the process we created a nation of refugees, bomb craters, amputees, orphans, widows, and prostitutes, and we gave new meaning to the words of the Roman historian Tacitus: "Where they made a desert they called it peace."

   The New Soldier has come back determined to make changes without making the world more unjust in the effort to make it just. We have come back determined that human will can control technology and that there is greater dignity and power in human spirit than we have yet been willing to grant ourselves. In Vietnam we made it particularly easy to deny that spirit. We extended an indifference which has too often been a part of this country's history and made it easy for men to deal in abstractions. "Oriental human beings" - "gooks" - "body count" - "Nape" - "Waste 'em" - "free-fire zone" - "If they're dead, they're VC" - the abstractions took command from the commanders themselves and we realized too late that we were the prisoners of our own neglect and callowness.

   By discussing crimes committed in war, the New Soldier is trying to break through the callowness and end the neglect. Regardless of whether crimes have been committed in other wars or even by the other side in this one, America must understand how our paticipation in Vietnam and the methods and motives used by American fighting men are part of a continuing national moral standard. As New Soldiers we are seeking to elevate that standard as well as to demonstrate when it has been part of a significant illusion. Individuals are trying, by denying themselves the luxury of forgetting about their acts, to spare other the agony of having to commit them at some time in the future.

   This is not tosay that all soldiers have departed Vietnam with the same feelings about their military service. Certainly not all veterans of this war are New Soldiers. Not all want to be or even understand what many of their veteran contemporaries are trying to say.

   Even among the New Soldiers, in our hatred for the war and our drive for change, there is a wide divergence on approaches to change, or, for that matter, on what causes the need for change. I know that my own views do not necessarily represent the feelings of some Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But among all there is an intense and deep-rooted agreement that America has lost sight, hopefully only temporarily, of much that we knew as our greatness.

   The New Soldier does not have all the answers. We do not even pretend to. Unquestionably we lack some of the depth of experience from which to provide guidelines for many policy questions. We are aware also of all the traditional arguments - that those in power have access to information, that America can do no wrong, that America has particular interests which it must safeguard, and so on. In reality, however, there is a big difference between these arguments and what happens to the people involved. In the end the abstractions never convey the reality of human life.

   To be sure, those who make the decisions experience special interest pressures which others, not directly involved in the decisionmaking process, will not feel. Consequently, those on the outside of the power spectrum find it easier to prescribe solutions for the myriad problems we confront today. In their simplicity these solutions sometimes ignore reality. But more often they cut to the quick of the problem and those on the outside of the power structure show in the absoluteness of their criticisms and demands more wisdom, more moral strength, more compassion, and far more willingness to consider what effect the prescribed solution will have on people - not the people whose security and social welfare is already guaranteed, but the thousands whole are literally and figuratively "in the street.".

   I myself went into the service with very little awareness of the people in the streets. I accepted then and still accept the idea of service to one's country. But because of all that I saw in Vietnam, the treatment of civilians, the ravaging of their countryside, the needless, useless deaths, the deception and duplicity of our policy, I changed. Traditional assumptions and expectations simply were not enough. I still want to serve my country. I am still willing to pick up arms and defend it - die for it, if necessary. Now, however, I will not go blindly because my government says that I must go. I will not go unless we can make real our promises of self-determination and justice at home. I will not go unless the threat is a real one and we all know it to be so. I will not go unless the people of this country decide for themselves that we must all of us go.

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