The Swift Boat Mess

The Kerry campaign has to have known that it was waving a red flag when Kerry’s Vietnam war record was made the focus of the campaign. They couldn’t possibly have overlooked the bitterness that still exists among veterans because of his leadership role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, could they?

The sad truth is, the vets have a point. Attacking Kerry’s war record makes little sense, but they’re cynically being led to do that by the corrupt group behind the attack. It was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Kerry’s role in it, that finally turned public opinion against the war. The result was that the returning vets were treated HORRIBLY, and they blame Kerry for it. To them, Kerry was a traitor to his fellow vets. Yes, they really were treated horribly, and they should have at least been treated with respect.

I remember one night, returning by plane from New York to Detroit. There were some crippled veterans, in uniform, on the plane, and they were derided and made fun of by other passengers during the entire flight.

One of the vets, in uniform and on crutches, happened to be the son of a neighbor, so we decided to share a cab. It was a rainy night, late. NO cab would stop for us. Crowds from other flights appeared and cabs took them away. I finally moved away from him, got a cab immediately, and forced the driver to take him home. Not funny.

I was avidly opposed to the war and took part in every demonstration against it I could. Even so, I knew many of the vets and saw how horribly they were treated — for years afterward. The war was not their fault, and no wonder they are still bitter. Kerry’s message about the war is double-edged. Yes, he was undoubtedly a hero. Yes, the vets consider him a traitor who caused them incredible pain. Both are true.

This is a far more complex problem than most of us realize. Yes, it’s also true that Kerry’s stand against the war was as heroic as his war service. It had a huge impact on public opinion and helped end the war. That’s certainly a good thing. Turning against the soldiers who had served their country was a horrible thing to do. They not only had no parades, no welcome when they came home, which all other returning soldiers in our history had received, but were treated with contempt. This was as shocking and damaging to many of them as the war itself.

Dismissing them as a bunch of evil, worthless drunks doesn’t cut it. It’s true that the vets returning from Vietnam had a rougher time than any previous group of soldiers adjusting to civilian life. Vast numbers of them never did adjust. The homeless population is filled with Vietnam vets, even now. Isn’t this largely because they were treated so badly instead of being welcomed home and helped to adjust, as all other groups of returning soldiers had been? Of course plenty of them are still bitter. And of course this bitterness is being exploited by the Republican party. Aren’t they cynically being made victims once again?

The question is, what to do about this now? I can’t help wondering whether the Democratic leadership didn’t cynically know that stressing Kerry’s war record, while ignoring his stand in Vietnem Veterans Against the War, was bait, that the result would be irrational, frothing-at-the-mouth attacks they could ultimately use to their advantage to make the Republicans look as nutty and evil as possible — thus victiming the vets once again, and submitting them to even more abuse from both sides. Life is never as black/white or as one-dimensional as we like to think it is. Another sad truth is that we’re making the same mistakes in Iraq that we made in Vietnam — setting up a puppet government, turning the mess we’ve created over to them to handle, while we pull the puppet strings in the background. Just so this time we remember how these troops got to Iraq and don’t treat them as badly as the Vietnam vets were treated when they come home.