Saturday, March 13, 2004

John Forbes Kerry seldom misses an opportunity to bring up the subject of his Vietnam War experiences.

“It is hard still to explain the clashing feelings,” Mr. Kerry wrote in the New York Times the other day. “There was [sic] the deep and enduring bonds forged among crewmates, brothers in arms from all walks of life fighting each day to keep faith with one another on a tiny boat on the rivers of the Mekong Delta. And there was the anger I felt toward body-counting, face-saving leaders sitting safely in Washington sending to the killing fields troops who were often poor, black or brown.”

Anybody who lived through the Vietnam era can understand the conflicted feelings about that war. Nor can one doubt that Lt. j.g. Kerry served honorably and well aboard his swift boat in the Mekong River Delta, bringing home a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for wounds in battle.

But as others have noted, the Vietnam War was fought at home as well as abroad. And legitimate questions can be asked about the honor — or dishonor — of John Kerry’s stateside experiences after returning from Vietnam.

In January 1971, Detroit was the site of the so-called Winter Soldiers Investigation, in which Mr. Kerry and others, financed by Jane Fonda and other far-left activists, sought not just to protest the war but to make the case America had become an Evil Empire that systematically looted, raped, killed and tortured its enemies.

Scores of supposed Vietnam vets were paraded before the cameras to proffer lurid accounts about what had gone on. Several days later Mr. Kerry, as leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, would assure Congress that “these were not isolated events but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”

The vets, Mr. Kerry told a rapt audience in Washington, “told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan… and generally ravaged the countryside.”

But as Vietnam combat platoon leader and military researcher B.J. Burkett and investigative reporter Glenna Whitney point out in “Stolen Valor,” a systematic look at the claims of VVAW and other antiwar groups, federal investigators were stonewalled when they tried to follow up on the claims.

Many of the stories were later shown to be fictional. Other so-called Vietnam veterans, such as the executive secretary of VVAW, Al Hubbard, a self-styled poet (“See what you’ve become, Amerika,” ends one of his Vietnam odes), turned out to have no record of service in Vietnam.

The Winter Soldier Investigation, in fact, was largely the work of Mark Lane, who had made a career of propounding weird conspiracy theories about the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Indeed, the Winter Soldier Investigation, according to University of Virginia scholar William F. Crandell, “began as a project of CCI [Citizens Commission of Inquiry],” a Lane organization set up to market those conspiracy theories — including assertions of widespread war crimes in Vietnam.

But Mr. Lane’s claims about widespread war crimes in Vietnam had been debunked by such experienced reporters as the New York Times’ Neil Sheehan and James Reston Jr.

Only after the VVAW was brought on board to provide protective cover did Mr. Lane’s smear of the American military began receiving respectful media attention.

Maybe Mr. Kerry, still only 27, was just naive. But he seemed a willing front man, even allowing himself to be listed as author of a book detailing the alleged war crimes uncovered by the Detroit “hearings,” for which Mr. Lane was listed as “general counsel.” Titled “The New Soldier,” the book’s cover featured a picture of Mr. Kerry in front of an upside-down American flag.

An outraged wife of a Vietnam prisoner-of-war provided one of the few discordant notes at the Detroit hearings. Breaking into a press conference called to urge the immediate, unilateral withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, she is quoted in the Detroit News as shouting at Mr. Kerry: “You’re using these people for your ambitions.” Turning to the stunned audience, she further demanded: “Are you going to let Mr. Kerry use your grief to help him become a congressman?”

And while Mr. Kerry’s testimony to Congress a few weeks after the Detroit event was praised for its seeming off-the-cuff eloquence, in fact his opening statement was ghosted for him by a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, according to a later report in the Detroit News by its Washington correspondent, J.F. Ter Horst. The speechwriter is identified by “Stolen Valor” as Adam Walinsky, whom Mr. Kerry has credited with attracting him to politics.

Only a few months later came the famous episode of Mr. Kerry throwing war medals over a fence in front of the Capitol. It later turned out the medals belonged to somebody else. (Mr. Kerry reportedly keeps his own medals on display in his Senate office.) But it was enough to cement Mr. Kerry’s position as an antiwar leader, clearing the way for a long political career as a second JFK from Massachusetts — the first JFK, who got America into Vietnam in the first place, having been a Kerry role model.

Mr. Kerry may have earned the right to criticize the Vietnam War. But has he earned the right to lecture the rest of us about political honor and courage here at home?

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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