Kerry’s Murky Past, Our Uncertain Future

Republicans and protesters still roam the media capital of the nation-which is good for John Kerry, because the campaign news he was making was not helpful. The story of John Kerry and Vietnam can be divided into three pieces.

The most acrid, and arguably the least important piece, concerns John Kerry’s deeds during his Vietnam tour of duty in 1968-69, and his descriptions of them since. Mr. Kerry put his Vietnam service at the center of his campaign, from the Iowa caucuses to the Boston convention. It was inevitable that enemies would seek to pick it apart, though somewhat surprising that these enemies would be fellow veterans. The clearest mistake Mr. Kerry seems to have made in telling the story of his military life is that he took his Navy Swift boat into neutral Cambodia at Christmas 1968 – a surreal covert operation that is, as he told the Senate 18 years later, “seared-seared” in his memory as an archetype of illegal actions and official lying about them. Yet it seems that Mr. Kerry and his boat were not in Cambodia on Christmas 1968.

Mr. Kerry’s rhetoric falls prey to two common vices. The boastful soldier is a stock figure of comedy, made immortal in Falstaff. “I am a rogue if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have scaped by miracle.” Once the boastful solider talked about what great things he did; now he talks about what bad things he saw. When a soldier is elected to the Senate, the temptation to dramatize increases exponentially. If John Kerry stays where he is a few more decades, he may become as florid as Robert Byrd.

Whether Mr. Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas 1968 or at any other time, certainly Americans probed that country. They did it because the Communists were using it as a base, and the Cambodians were unable to police them. Finally, we invaded in 1970. The left has maintained for years that our invasion-not the invasion of the Communists-ultimately led to the skull piles of the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Kerry could make that case whether or not he himself had been part of the problem, though the drama is obviously heightened if he was.

Less excusable is Mr. Kerry’s conduct as a soldier of the anti-war movement after he came home. In 1971, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Several months ago in Detroit,” Mr. Kerry said, “we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.” Mr. Kerry was referring to the Winter Soldiers Investigation, organized by Jane Fonda and other prominent war opponents. The war crimes, Mr. Kerry said, were “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He offered details: American soldiers “had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies.”

This is a lot more serious than sailing into Cambodia. It raises similar truth problems, however. When Congress directed the military to investigate the allegations of the Winter Soldiers, many would not cooperate; others turned out to be frauds-spurious vets who had stolen the identity of real veterans. The main problem it raises for Mr. Kerry, however, is hypocrisy. Why does he now describe himself as “reporting for duty” if these were the duties his comrades carried out? Why does he claim brotherhood with ear slicers and genital fryers? Mr. Kerry could say now that he believed his charges in 1971, though he no longer does. Or he could say that, in order to rivet the nation’s attention, he had to paint a lurid picture. He could say both things and still say that the Vietnam War was misbegotten, and that he was right to oppose it. Instead, he has it both ways: It was a dance of death, and he is proud to have served.

More important than John Kerry’s past in Cambodia or on Capitol Hill is how he would behave as commander in chief of the war we are now in. After all, it’s not as if nothing has happened in the world since 1969.

It can be hard to extrapolate a candidate’s behavior in office from his military record, or lack of one. Theodore Roosevelt chased glory in the Spanish-American War like a hungry dog, yet he won the Nobel Peace Prize as President. Franklin Roosevelt was a Navy desk jockey during World War I, yet he helped lead the Grand Alliance during World War II.

One Presidential candidate who truly showed his stuff on the battlefield was George McClellan. Young, organized, intelligent, McClellan commanded the Union armies early in the Civil War and had every faculty except that of going on the offensive. John Keegan’s judgment is acidulous: “[H]e resembled [Douglas] MacArthur in his arrogance and George C. Marshall in his hauteur,” without “the former’s dynamism and the latter’s strength of character.” Shunted aside by Lincoln, he let himself be nominated by the Democratic Party in the wartime election of 1864. The victory of such a man would have meant a temporizing policy and a negotiated peace. Happily, the country was spared the experiment.

Mr. Kerry was sickened by his Vietnam experiences-if he really had them. He was a raging leftist-though he now runs as a warrior. He says he would see the struggle in Iraq-which he has, at different times, supported and opposed-through to the end, and we may believe him. No President comes in with a clean slate; half the job is serving the drinks your predecessor mixed.

Yet Iraq is only phase two of a war that will have many phases. If Mr. Kerry had some clear vision of its future, we could debate that. If he had some clear vision of his Vietnam past, we could debate that, too. The Terror War will have to be fought by Democrats as well as Republicans. Is John Kerry the way to begin that experiment?