NEW YORK--John Kerry has made a career out of trying to have things both ways. Now it's catching up with him.
In October of 2002, when he voted for a Senate resolution giving George W. Bush the authorization to invade Iraq, Kerry knew that there was no solid proof that Saddam Hussein had illegal weapons.
"Let me be clear," he said at the time, "the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies." That was an exact summary of the position that most Americans supported at the time. Sixty-three percent told the October 7, 2002 CBS News-New York Times poll that they favored giving the UN inspectors as much time as they needed to get the job done. But while just 30 percent favored war, Kerry knew that the Bushies were just beginning to unleash a blizzard of pro-war propaganda. Banking that the percentage of hawks would soon increase, he voted with the winning team.
Indeed, by March 2003 72 percent of the U.S. public supported attacking Iraq. Kerry's cynical calculus, it seemed, had paid off.
Five months after the fall of Baghdad, Bush asked Congress for $87 billion to finance the occupation of Iraq. But with 130,000 troops bogged down by a resistance movement that was killing at least one soldier a day, the war had already become unpopular. Only 41 percent of Americans--the number kept sliding--remained sweet on regime change. Again wanting to be on the winning side of the polls, Kerry voted against the appropriation.
Republicans have had a field day with his hawk-to-dove act. "[Kerry] tried to explain his vote by saying: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it. End quote," Bush told his chortling audiences. "He's got a different explanation now. One time he said he was proud he voted against the funding; then he said that the whole thing was a complicated matter. There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat."
Kerry has a reasonable explanation for voting against the money to pay for the war he voted in favor of: he preferred that the $87 billion come from a partial repeal of Bush's tax cuts, whereas Bush tacked it onto the deficit. The elephant in the room, however, is this: he never should have voted for the Iraq incursion in the first place.
The debate about Kerry's Vietnam War record similarly revolves around the Democratic candidate's penchant for flipfloppery.
Kerry returned from the war in Vietnam in 1971. An early supporter of the conflict, what he saw there changed his mind--prompting him to help found Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones," he told Meet the Press in 1971, "I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used fifty calibre machine guns ... I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this is ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley [found guilty in the My Lai massacre], are war criminals."
By 1971, American public opinion had turned against the war in Vietnam. Kerry's views were widely accepted. But it has now been three decades since we fled Saigon. Hollywood movies have portrayed Vietnam vets as noble warriors hampered by simpering politicians. We've forgotten the million-plus people we killed to prop up a right-wing puppet dictatorship. And militarism is in the air. Vietnam has been rehabilitated, and no one has done more to rewrite this history than John Kerry.
When Kerry reappeared on Meet the Press in 2001, the new rightist paradigm prompted him to back down from his original comments: "I don't stand by the genocide. I think those were the words of an angry young man. We did not try to do that. But I do stand by the description--I don't even believe there is a purpose served in the word 'war criminal.' I really don't."
The Kerry campaign has played both sides of the Vietnam equation. He scores points both as a pacifist hippie and as a Silver Star-winning war hero! Choose whichever Kerry you prefer--1969 or 1971 or 2004--and vote for whichever version you like best.
Serious people and historians know that Kerry was right the first time around. Like Iraq, Vietnam was an ill-conceived, doomed war that wasted countless lives for no good reason, launched by a president who lied about a Cold War threat (the absurd "domino theory") that simply didn't exist. As U.S. troops are doing now in Iraq, we committed horrific atrocities in Vietnam.
Not only did the guys in black pajamas beat us fair and square, we deserved it. We were wrong. We deserved to lose. Service in the wars against Vietnam and Iraq are nothing to be proud of. If John Kerry can't admit now what he knew in 1971, at least he can stop bragging about his medals.
That, of course, would require that he pay more attention to his heart than the polls.
Ted Rall is the author of two new books, Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com