Published May 2, 2004
Discrete facts, to say nothing of truth, have a rough time in presidential campaigns. When Senator John Kerry called President Bush supporters “the most crooked lying group I’ve ever seen,” his campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Kerry didn’t regret his words and then accused the “Republican attack machine” for smearing the Democrats. Such exchanges may be par for the course in a hotly contested presidential race, but overheated rhetoric may not be Kerry’s most grievous fault.
Attentive Americans are aware of Kerry’s courage under fire in Vietnam, that his Senate voting record is more liberal than Teddy Kennedy’s, and that he has voted on both sides of key foreign policy and domestic issues.
Jaded observers may say that such behavior is par for the course — all politicians are shifty and easy with the truth. This view is too cynical for my taste, but certainly we Americans grant a wide berth to aspirants for high office. We don’t expect them to be totally honest.
Yet, there is a significant difference between small lies, big lies, and damned lies that impugn the patriotism of American leaders.
One such damned lie, revealed early in the Democrat primaries, was Kerry’s 1971 charge that U.S. troops committed widespread war crimes in Vietnam with the complicity of their officers. The story received momentary press attention, but was soon lost in his triumphal march in the primaries.
Neither Kerry’s laudable military service in Vietnam nor his subsequent opposition to that war entitles him to malign his comrades in arms or falsely accuse the United States of widespread war crimes.
On April 22, 1971, speaking for himself and other angry Vietnam veterans, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they all condemned widespread “war crimes” committed in Vietnam “on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” Including the Commander-in-Chief?
He asserted that our soldiers “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, … cut off limbs, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages … reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside.” When confronted with his words, Kerry tried to weasel out of his appallingly false accusations by saying he was merely quoting cohorts. He blamed his anti-war comrades.
When Judy Woodruff of CNN asked Kerry whether he had accused “American troops of war crimes,” he said: “No, I was accusing American leaders of abandoning the troops. … I always fought for the soldiers.” His answer was devious and downright false.
Indeed, the Vietnam War was a quagmire, but the United States hardly behaved like Genghis Khan. Our military troops are pledged to observe the Geneva Conventions that prohibit intentional harm to civilians or POWs.
These rules were observed overwhelmingly in Vietnam, but in the heat of battle, men occasionally snap and commit atrocities. One such was Lt. William Calley whose unit in 1968 killed several hundred civilians in My Lai. This was a tragic exception and a violation of the U.S. military code. In 1971, Calley was court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to life at hard labor. Later, out of misplaced sympathy, his sentence was reduced.
Chafing under charges of lying about U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, Kerry in an unusual open letter admonished President Bush to stop questioning his “commitment to the defense of our country.” Then, incomprehensibly, he added: What do “Republicans who didn’t serve in Vietnam have against those of us who did?”
Even if Kerry hadn’t lied about U.S. behavior in Vietnam and then denied it, he must be held to account for maligning his comrades and their officers at “all levels of command.” Can a genuine American patriot impugn the integrity of the entire U.S. military establishment?
Senator Kerry or any other candidate for president should be judged not only on his understanding of current threats to the United States, but by his character and his capacity to tell the truth, especially about the America he aspires to lead.
Statesmanship, especially in a democratic society, requires both truth and courage. Courage and truth-telling are the two virtues that make all other virtues possible. But courage without truth can be dangerous. John Kerry’s service in Vietnam attests to his courage. But his subsequent public life has been scarred by his cavalier dance with the truth.
– Ernest Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author, most recently, of America’s Imperial Burden.