John Kerry on Dissent During a Time of War
NEAL CONAN, host:
35 years ago, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry stood before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and called for the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. In testimony that draws criticism from some veterans groups to this day, Kerry posed two powerful questions.
(Soundbite of John Kerry's testimony)
Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts): How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
CONAN: Speaking in Boston this past Saturday, 35 years to the day after his original testimony, the United States Senator and former presidential candidate, said he believes today what he believed then, that it was right to dissent from a war that was wrong.
To reject dissent, John Kerry said, was not only wrong, but dangerous. In the speech, Kerry also called for a May 15th deadline for Iraqi leaders to put together a unity government in Baghdad or face the possibility of U.S. withdrawal.
If you have questions for Senator Kerry about dissent, then and now, give us a call, 800-989-8255; e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Kerry is the junior Senator from Massachusetts, a Democrat. He joins us now by phone from his office at the Capitol. Thanks very much for being with us today Senator.
Sen. KERRY: I'm glad to be with you. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: I wonder, that day, 35 years ago, do you remember what you felt like that morning as you prepared to go before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
Sen. KERRY: I was embarrassed that I was late to the hearing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. KERRY: I arrived late, and I had no idea I was the only person testifying, so they were sitting there waiting for me. And I felt a little badly.
CONAN: Looking back, you said some controversial things that day. Do you have any regrets?
Sen. KERRY: I said things that were true. My only regret is that it took so long for America to come to reconcile the truth, and, in fact, some people today still have not reconciled the truth. And the fact is that there's a lot of revisionism going on about Vietnam even itself.
Unfortunately, as we know from Neil Sheehan's brilliant book, "Bright Shining Lie", and as we know from Robert McNamara's book about the war, Rob McNamara, himself, had come to the conclusion that the war was not winnable. He said the strategy was flawed years before I even protested.
So how can you--how can you second-guess when the leaders themselves are sending people to die for something which they themselves no longer believe in? It's ridiculous.
CONAN: As you know, some veterans groups objected to your testimony when you said that atrocities in Vietnam were apparently less of an aberration and more routine.
Sen. KERRY: Well, what I said was they happened, and I quoted other people. I said that this was something that happened in Vietnam, quoting the group of veterans who had testified to the things that they had personally done. But I also said that there were things that happened on a routine basis that, unfortunately, were, at that time, in violation of some of the laws of warfare.
Now, you know, I didn't write the rules, but I saw what I saw, and I responded to them and I told the truth. The fact is that, you know, free fire zones created an incredible ambiguity, which some people dealt with differently than others. But the fact is that all of us know that there was a saying in Vietnam that if they're dead, they're VC. And there were lots of people sort of innocently caught up in that.
Now war is war, you know? I don't think it does us any good to go backwards and rehash everything about what happened at that period of time. The bottom line is, our soldiers fought brilliantly. Our soldiers, just like in Iraq, never lost the battles. Our soldiers gave themselves and gave their all. And during Vietnam, the soldiers were confused with the war itself, regrettably.
It, you know, one of the things I'm proudest of is that we fought very, very hard on return to pay attention to the soldiers, to make sure they weren't forgotten. We helped raise the benefits at hospitals. We helped raise the education benefits. We got Agent Orange recognized. We got post-Vietnam stress syndrome recognized. We helped to close the gap with respect to knowledge about prisoners of war. And we did a lot of other things besides just talk about the war, and I think we kept faith with our fellow veterans.
CONAN: The last presidential election was awfully close. If your testimony 35 years ago was what cost you the presidency, there's debate about that, but if it's so, was it worth it?
Sen. KERRY: Well I don't believe that, number one, that it was. And number two, telling the truth is always worth it. And you have to tell the truth.
I think its important, you know--we could have done, perhaps, more during the course of the campaign to respond to lies, and there were a great many lies put out there about me and my service and I can tell you that at any time in the future anybody wants to try to reassert one of those, they will be properly answered.
But, the fact is, that here in Iraq we find ourselves in a sort of increasingly, you know, situation with similarities. Now Iraq is not Vietnam. I've said that a hundred times. Iraq is not Vietnam. And we do have a fundamental confrontation with jihadists around the world, and we need to be effective in the way that we're going to fight the war on terror. I accept all of that.
What I don't accept is that Iraq, like Vietnam, has been based on a great deal of deception, on a great deal of incompetence and a great deal of flawed strategy. You just had Gen. Batiste on, you've had a bunch of generals have come to get forward lately, talking about the ways in which Americans were misled and the ways in which our troops have been exposed to danger without adequate strategy, planning, equipment, which I think is unconscionable. I mean, if there was any lesson of Vietnam, don't ever do that again. And what you're hearing now from soldiers themselves is that some of the leadership has allowed that to happen again.
Now, Gen. Casey, himself, has said that our large presence of troops contributes to the feeling of occupation and that it delays the Iraqis standing up by themselves. Now, the target is supposed to be 270,000 Iraqis in the security forces trained and standing up. And the president has said, as they stand up, we will stand down. Well, the fact is we've trained 242,000. We're 30,000 shy of the final goal, and we don't see people standing down. We don't see the Iraqis moving in the positions they ought to be.
I mean, if you train a pilot in America at Pensacola or Corpus Christi or wherever, you know the date they're graduating; you know the date they'll be through their primary and secondary training; you know the date they can deploy. Same for a Marine, from the Marine Corps recruit depot, or a soldier from Fort Benning. We've been three-and-a-half years at this with the Iraqis, who once upon a time had a million people in the Army and fought against the--not a million, about 500,000--fought against the Iranians for ten years. Why are American soldiers still doing some of the things they're doing in Iraq?
And I think that's a legitimate question for all Americans to be asking.
CONAN: We're talking with Senator John Kerry. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: And let's get a listener on the line.
This is Mike(ph). Mike calling us from Stratford, New Jersey.
MIKE (Caller): Senator Kerry, glad to speak with you. I voted for you. Briefly, I have a question for you. Do you believe that the general's dissent is genuine, or is this payback for Rumsfeld's stated goal at the beginning of his term?
MIKE: Strike the military.
Sen. KERRY: No, I think it's very genuine. I think that most of the military folks I've talked to accept that we have to have a transformation of the military. People aren't fighting a transformation tooth and nail. The fact is, we're going to need a little of both of the things sort of being argued about. We need a faster, lighter, more flexible special operations ability, because that's part of the kind of thing we're going to be fighting. But we also need to have the ability to slug it out the way the Army and the Marines have in the past in certain kinds of wartime scenarios.
I don't think there's been enough transformation, to be honest with you. I think whatever transformation Rumsfeld has been talking about was completely sidetracked anyway by Iraq. The fact is there's been precious little real transformation of the military over the course of the Rumsfeld tenure, and I think what they're objecting to is exactly what they're talking about.
They're objecting to going to war in the way that we did, where whole plans were just thrown aside, where generals and their best advice was ignored and then a kind of chill was sent throughout the military higher brass, because of what happened to Gen. Shinseki, and so people obviously with the--I mean, you could argue about whether they should have or shouldn't have, but the fact is, the result was that there was a chill and careerism and, you know, the sort of culture set in--in a way that prevented people from speaking up further.
CONAN: Senator Kerry, are you concerned by the concerns of Andrew Bacevich and others we've had on the show, saying that if this succeeds in driving Secretary Rumsfeld from office, you're threatening civilian control of the military?
Sen. KERRY: That is just bunk. I mean, that is just the most ridiculous thing I've heard in my life.
First of all, the generals who are speaking out are retired. They're all retired. Who is kidding who? I mean whom? This is, this, boy, you don't give up your citizenship in the United States of America when you retire from the military. You don't even give it up when you're in the military. You have the right to vote, and there's certainly, obviously, an unspoken, you know, rule that you don't stand up and, not even unspoken, you don't stand up and get involved in politics when you're in the direct chain of command. And, you know, you work for the commander in chief. We all understand that.
But these folks are retired. And they have a sense of patriotic duty and responsibility that is obviously driving them to speak out. Now, the notion that this threatens civilian control of the military is just ridiculous. Nobody's talking about--what they're doing is saying, where's the accountability?
They're asking a question that many of us in Congress have asked for. I asked for Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation over two years ago. He should have resigned over Abu Ghraib. He should have resigned over what happened in Iraq when they completely misinterpreted the insurgency. He should have resigned over the lack of armor and the lack of adequate numbers of troops and support for our troops. He should have resigned for the failure to commit enough troops to Tora Bora to actually surround and capture Osama bin Laden.
CONAN: Senator Kerry, thank you very much. I'm afraid we're out of time, but we appreciate your being with us today.
Sen. KERRY: Good to be with you.
CONAN: John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, joined us by phone from his office at the Capitol.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.
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