Jonathan Schell on John Kerry’s war dilemma

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Ours may be a couch-potato rather than a warrior society, but it’s certainly a war society, which remains a simple but hard-to-grasp fact for Americans. We have been subjected to a kind of militarization that is so widespread as to be — strangely — unnoticeable because, until very recently, it involved none of the normal signs of militarism in what we have now come to call “the homeland.” No parades, no martial music, few uniforms in sight. Yet we pony up just over $400 billion a year for the Pentagon — and that’s just the official figure. Once you throw in all the extras (including the multibillions in supplemental appropriations going to the Iraq and Afghan wars), the actual figure probably lies in the range of $650-$750 billion (and that’s without even including the budgets of the CIA and most of our other intelligence agencies).

Our legions are now “forward deployed” to so many places on Earth that “forward” itself has lost all directional meaning and so yearly find themselves in harm’s way or engaging in skirmishes, police actions, invasions, or actual wars. You can probably list many of these little wars, incursions, and incidents (including those where we just let the missiles fly) yourself, starting with our 1983 invasion of that pathetic dot of a Caribbean island, Grenada (and I’m not even speaking here of our more covert activities during these same decades).

Throughout my lifetime, our presidents have been thought of in terms of wars: first, there was the World War II generation; then the Vietnam generation; soon, undoubtedly, there will be the Gulf Wars generation. Nobody talks about environmental generations or social-legislation generations or even commercial generations of presidents. Our bookmarks, our yardsticks, so many of our measurements for leading the country have to do with war and the military experience.

And yet our form of militarization only gets “curiouser and curiouser” as it deepens. Now we have a self-proclaimed “war president” and his supporters who, like our besuited corporate militarists at home, have fought their “battles” with multimillions of dollars, lobbyists, and strong-arm tactics in Congress, the corridors of the White House, and the media, not to speak of the restaurants, law firms, and think tanks of Washington (and Texas). When George Bush actually “went to war,” he whiled away part of his time working for an Alabama congressional race, while the Air National Guard continued to carry him on its rolls. Like his vice president and the rest of his administration — with the sole exception of Colin Powell — he had better things to do than fight a war himself but thinks there’s nothing better than to send others to fight one (or two, or three) for him. War, in his case, has proved the least dangerous activity on Earth with the greatest payoff. Glory! Jutted jaws! Honor! Resolve! Putting your (domestic) enemies in a hole (if not a spiderhole)! It’s given him a reason to be alive — and so far it works.

Since 9/11, our society has been militarized, tightened, and locked down in countless ways. We are now a vast, gated, over-armed country where opposition is often not looked on in a kindly fashion. After all, we are in “wartime” — as if even our watches had little weapons hands wheeling around inside them. At a recent news conference, when asked whether any comparisons could be made between our present experience in Iraq and our previous one in Vietnam, our President said, ominously enough: “I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It’s hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation’s interest.”

That very phrase, “stay the course,” is the most Vietnamish of expressions — but who cares, really? The President’s was yet another suggestion that an all-war-all-the-time world was just hunky-dory with him and a reasonable excuse for threatening to enforce a no-opposition-none-of-the-time environment on the nation. (One way in which Vietnam did not resemble the present moment was that President Lyndon Johnson tried desperately to pretend we were a land in peacetime, not wartime, even as the war bore down on his presidency.) It is in this upside-down and bizarre environment that former Vietnam Vet John Kerry, who actually fought in a war and came home to oppose it, finds himself running for — or is it running from — president. Put another way, in the worst month the Bush administration has experienced thus far, Kerry still seems to be running scared. His war experience, his very identification with Vietnam which, at this moment, one might imagine to be a strength, seems to have sent him reeling, as Jonathan Schell describes below. In these same weeks, Kerry has managed to lay out a position so close to Bush’s on Iraq — stay the course, put an international “face” on the occupation, keep the troops in place, and so on — that the two are nearly indistinguishable; and, on the Bush-Sharon position on the Middle East — keep the West Bank settlements, conduct extrajudicial assassinations of enemies, build the wall, and so on — just announced to an astounded world, he has, if anything, gone the president one better.

Only the other day, he could be found stumping Florida with Senator Joe Lieberman, whose hawkish Iraq position didn’t raise even a seismic hiccup among Democratic voters anywhere in America in the primary season. Recent polls show that against Kerry’s less than challenging campaign so far, the president seems to be at least holding his own, despite the Clarke revelations, his 9/11 Commission problems, and the disintegrating position of the American occupation forces in Iraq. In the case of recent CNN-USA TODAY and Washington Post-ABC polls, he’s doing better than that, beating Kerry in each (with Ralph Nader in the latter pulling in a hefty 6% of the prospective vote).

This is the “war world” John Kerry find himself in and Jonathan Schell in his latest “Letter from Ground Zero” for the Nation magazine (shared with Tomdispatch thanks to the kindness of the editors of that magazine) lays out its contradictions tellingly. Perhaps someone should remind Senator Kerry, before he loses his compass entirely in the wilderness of George’s planet of global insecurity, that Al Gore (despite a somewhat similar performance) actually won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election; that energizing the Democratic (and democratic) base in America, bringing increased numbers of people outraged or unnerved or disturbed by the Bush administration to the polls may be more important than becoming a War President Lite. After all, if that’s what Americans truly want, they can vote for the real thing, our genuine, mission-accomplished, war-is-the-life-of-the-planet catastrophe of a President. Tom

Politics and Truth
By Jonathan Schell

Halfway through Tim Russert’s hour-long interview with Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry on April 18, there was an exchange that revealed in microcosm some of the fundamental unspoken rules of American politics in our day. Russert played a clip from Kerry’s 1971 appearance on Meet the Press following his testimony as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A longhaired Kerry, in uniform, was seen saying that he stood by the essence of his testimony, in which he had said that veterans had admitted that they had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power.” He added that under the Geneva Conventions such acts were war crimes.

Russert did not play the tape to congratulate Kerry for his truth-telling. On the contrary, he was clearly calling him on the carpet. He even suggested that “a lot” of Kerry’s allegations had been discredited. In fact, every word that Kerry spoke then has been shown to be true in an abundance of testimony. Even now, new revelations pour out. For example, the Toledo Blade just won the Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the story of an army company that went on a seven-month rampage in Vietnam, routinely killing peasants, burning villages, cutting off the ears of corpses. Troops in the field can hardly engage in such conduct over a period of months without the knowledge and at least tacit approval of higher authority.

Kerry answered warily. He began by trying to make light of the clip. “Where did all that dark hair go? — that’s a big question for me,” he joked. He went on to say that although some of his language had been “excessive,” he was still proud of the stand he had taken. His predicament is worth pondering. The powers that be, with the approval of mainstream opinion, had sent him into a misbegotten war whose awful reality they covered up. When he helped uncover it, it was not they but he who was punished. In short, by sending young men into an atrocious, mistaken war, they created a truth so distasteful to the public that its disclosure, by discrediting the discloser, keeps them in power.

Was Kerry “flip-flopping” — the Bush Administration’s main campaign charge against him? Was he all-too-characteristically trying to back off from a position he had once taken while at the same time embracing it? And didn’t this performance echo his complicated and equivocal stance on the Iraq war, in which he has said that his vote in the Senate to authorize the President to use armed force against Iraq was “not a vote to go to war” and that in 2003 he voted “for” the $87 billion supplemental authorization for the war “before” he voted “against it” (a statement the Republicans are making political hay with in a current TV ad)?

Kerry’s equivocations are indeed related. For if as a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69 he was brought face to face with one reality — the human reality of the war — then as a presidential candidate in 2004 he has been driven up against another — the political reality that no antiwar candidate of modern times has ever made it into the White House. One might think that Kerry’s good sense and bravery in opposing the Vietnam War three decades ago might stand him in good stead today. (How many Americans now think getting into Vietnam was a good idea?) But as the Russert interview shows, just the opposite is the case. It is Kerry’s bravery as a soldier fighting the mistaken war, not his bravery as a veteran opposing it, that helps him in his bid for the presidency.

And so just as Kerry bowed to political reality by distancing himself from his old testimony while expressing continued pride in it, so he bowed to that same reality by voting for the Iraq authorization (while expressing opposition to “the way” the President went to war). Even today he will not acknowledge that his vote — and the war — were a mistake. Kerry is stuck between politics and truth. After the Congressional vote on the war, however, a peculiar thing happened. Kerry’s political sails, far from filling with a fresh breeze, began to flap idly in the wind. Polls and pundits agreed: His nomination was dead in the water.

The action shifted elsewhere. For while opposition to a crazy war might not be a ticket to the White House, it was still good for something. It swelled a powerful popular movement. Huge demonstrations against the war took place in the United States, as they did throughout the world. In the time of Vietnam, antiwar sentiment propelled first Eugene McCarthy, then Robert Kennedy and later George McGovern into the forefront of Democratic politics. Now antiwar sentiment propelled Howard Dean into his brief moment of front-runnership. In the game of politics and truth, truth was sneaking in the back door. Suddenly, everyone was saying that the Democratic Party had recovered its energy, its “backbone.”

But then came another surprising twist. A shrewd, or possibly over-shrewd, Democratic primary electorate, steaming with indignation against the war but apparently fearful of history’s lesson that the antiwar man cannot win, shifted its allegiance from Dean to Kerry. All at once, the apparently political calculation that had underlain Kerry’s vote for the war in the first place paid off, and he became the candidate.

Such is the archeology of the dilemma that Kerry and the Democratic Party face today. Their flip-flopping, which is real enough, is between the truth as they see it and politics as they know it to be. The party is an antiwar party that dares not speak its name. Its candidate is energized, but with a borrowed energy. He has a backbone, but it is a borrowed backbone.

The antiwar movement that has lent Kerry and his party this energy and this backbone faces a dilemma, too. On the one hand, it needs Kerry to win, even though he refuses to repent his vote to authorize the war. On the other hand, neither the movement nor Kerry can afford to let the antiwar energies that were and remain a principal source of their hopes and his, die down. The movement must persist, independent of Kerry and keeping him or making him honest, yet not opposing him. If truth must be an exile from the mainstream of politics, let it thrive on the margins.

Jonathan Schell, Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (Metropolitan).

This article was originally published in the May 10 issue of The Nation


Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell