Mekong Delta Blues
By now, much of the sturm und drang of the Swiftboat controversy has passed. Yet, one man seems intent on keeping it alive. His name is John Kerry and he's from Massachusetts. At a rally here in Ohio, Kerry denounced Bush for questioning his patriotism, and mocked Cheney for not serving in Vietnam (in contrast to, say, John Edwards?). Beyond sounding petty in light of the larger campaign issues, this tirade reveals some fundamental flaws in Kerry as a presidential candidate. These flaws range from the personal, to campaign strategy, to larger misunderstandings about America's cultural dynamic.
On the personal level, Kerry's insistence on being outraged over every attack by the Swiftboat Veterans For Truth shows unmistakably that for John Kerry, the most important thing in this campaign is John Kerry. Rather than being dignified and graceful about it, he's acting like a little kid, determined to respond in kind to every insult until the offender takes it back. The smart thing would have been to give a solemn and comprehensive renunciation of the accusations, and then moved to issues on which the Democrats have an advantage, like health care. Instead, Kerry screams like a child every time someone takes a shot at him, while other Democrats accuse Bush/Cheney of being AWOL draft-evaders. This latter approach reeks of hypocrisy: If you don't want your guy's Vietnam record to be a matter of public debate, then don't insist on making the other guy's Vietnam record an issue.
Nonetheless, Kerry just can't drop it. After all, if this election isn't about John Kerry, what is it about? He may be surprised in November when he realizes how many voters think that this election is about defeating Islamic terrorists and improving the American economy.
Beyond self-absorption and poor campaign strategy, Kerry's approach to the Vietnam issue calls into question his character. On too many issues, Kerry tries to have it both ways. He's the decorated Vietnam hero, and the anti-war protestor who defiantly hurled...well, somebody's medals over the White House fence. He is part of a band of brothers made up of fellow veterans, and he is the guy who denounced fellow veterans for innumerable war crimes. Although he doesn't get it, this last act is what really set-off the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Anyone who has served in the military, or even been in any kind of all-male environment, knows that you never, ever rat out your buddies. Yet, Kerry sold all Vietnam veterans down the river to advance his own career. This is another aspect of Kerry's character that has not gone unnoticed. From wives to fellow soldiers, everyone is a means to an end for John Kerry.
Finally, the larger aspect of the Swiftboat controversy that eludes both Kerry and the mainstream media is Vietnam's place in America's culture wars. Well into the 1980s, the Left congratulated itself ad nauseum on opposing the Vietnam conflict as an unjust war of American imperialism. However, this attitude never penetrated more than media elite deep. As time passed, more Americans came to believe that although the war was poorly conducted, its aim was noble. Defending a people against Communist tyranny could only be a sin in Hollywood or a university faculty lounge. Kerry, as a very wealthy Massachusetts liberal, has no exposure to average Americans. His attempt to play the hero both as a warrior and protester simply doesn't work for these folks. Real soldiers do not stab their comrades in the back before Congress, and real Americans do not run off to Paris to meet with the nation's enemies. Influencing the domestic politics of an enemy nation is very much part of warfare, and it was integral to North Vietnamese strategy (see former NVA Col. Bui Tin's "Following Ho Chi Minh"). Given this fact, Kerry effectively aided and abetted America's enemy. He's not a traitor in the strict sense, but his actions won't win any hearts and minds among average Americans.
On last, small thing, I'd like to mention. The fact that a presidential candidate served in the military is definitely a plus. However, it is not the president's job to command an infantry platoon, or a destroyer, or a fighter squadron. His job to manage the war at the highest strategic level, and so the necessary job skills are different. Of the two best wartime leaders produced by this nation, Lincoln and FDR, one had two weeks worth of militia service, and the other had no military experience. Kerry's partisans among the punditry should keep this in mind, especially as former supporters of Bill Clinton.