John Forbes Kerry
Illustration by Saul Lambert
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 92 in 1971 and republished in Issue 107 in 2004.
On April 22, 1971 John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and member of the Executive Committee of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, read the following statement to Senator William J. Fulbright's Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as an adjunct to the spring 1971 "March on Washington" asking for the "immediate withdrawal" of all US. armed forces from South Vietnam. The statement subsequently appeared in the April 23, 1971 issue of the Congressional Record.
I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of one thousand, which is a small representation of a much larger group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table, they would be here and have the same kind of testimony.
I would like to say, representing all those veterans, that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over one hundred fifty honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to. war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did, they relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.
They told stories that at times they 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, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
We call this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation. The term "winter soldier" is a play on words of Thomas Paine's in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.
We who have come here to Washington have come because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country, we could be quiet, we could hold our silence, we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats, but the crimes which we are committing threaten it, that we have to speak out.
I would like to talk to you a little bit about the result of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn't know it yet but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.
As a veteran and one who feels this anger, I would like to talk about it. We are angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration of this country.
In 1970 at West Point,Vice President Agnew said, "Some glamorize the criminal misfits of society while our best men die in Asian rice paddies to preserve the freedom which most of those misfits abuse," and this was used as a rallying point for our effort in Vietnam.
But for us, as boys in Asia whom the country was supposed to support, his statement is a terrible distortion from which we can only draw a very deep sense of revulsion, and hence the anger of some of the men who are here in Washington today. It is a distortion because we in no way consider ourselves the best men of this country, because those he calls misfits were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to, because so many who have died would have returned to this country to join the misfits in their efforts to ask for an immediate withdrawal from South Vietnam, because so many of those best men have returned as quadriplegics and amputees, and they lie forgotten in Veterans Administration Hospitals in this country which fly the flag so many have chosen as their own personal symbol, and we cannot consider ourselves America's best men when we are ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia.
In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos, by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.
We are probably much more angry than that, and I don't want to go into the foreign policy aspects because I am outclassed here. I know that all of you talk about every possible alternative to getting out of Vietnam. We understand that. We know you have considered the seriousness of the aspects to the utmost level and I am not going to try to dwell on that, but I want to relate to you the feeling that many of the men who have returned to this country express because we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.
We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.
We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Vietcong, North Vietnamese, or American.
We found also that all too often American men were dying in those rice paddies for want of support from their allies. We saw firsthand how monies from American taxes were used for a corrupt dictatorial regime. We saw that many people in this country had a one-sided idea of who was kept free by our flag, as blacks provided the highest percentage of casualties. We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs as well as by search-and-destroy missions, as well as by Vietcong terrorism, and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Vietcong.
We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose its sense of morality as it accepted very coolly a Mylai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.
We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals.
We watched the United States' falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons against "Oriental human beings," we fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater, or let us say a non-third-world people theater. And so we watched while men charged up hills because a general said that hill has to be taken, and, after losing one platoon or two platoons, they marched away to leave the hill for the reoccupation by the North Vietnamese. We watched pride allow the most unimportant battles to be blown into extravaganzas because we couldn't lose and we couldn't retreat, and because it didn't matter how many American bodies were lost to prove that point. And so there were Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 881s and Fire Base 6s and so many others.
Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something the entire world already knows, so that we can't say we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, "the first president to lose a war."
We are asking Americans to think about that because: 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? But we are trying to do that, and we are doing it with thousands of rationalizations, and if you read carefully the president's last speech to the people of this country, you can see that he says, and says clearly, "but the issue, gentlemen, the issue is communism, and the question is whether or not we will leave that country to the communists or whether or not we will try to give it hope to be a free people." But the point is they are not a free people now under us, they are not a free people, and we cannot fight communism all over the world. I think we should have learned that lesson by now.
But the problem of veterans goes beyond this personal problem, because you think about a poster in this country with a picture of Uncle Sam and the picture says, "I want you." And a young man comes out of high school and says, "That is fine, I am going to serve my country," and he goes to Vietnam and he shoots and he kills and he does his job or maybe he doesn't kill, maybe he just goes and he comes back, and when he gets back to this country he finds that he isn't really wanted, because the largest employment figure in the country - it varies depending on whom you get it from, the VA Administration fifteen percent, various other sources twenty-two percent - the largest corps of unemployed in this country are veterans of this war, and of those veterans thirty-three percent of the unemployed are black. That means one out of every ten of the nation's unemployed is a veteran of Vietnam.
The hospitals across the country won't or can't meet their demands. It is not a question of not trying, they haven't got the appropriations. A man recently died after he had a tracheotomy in California, not because of the operation, but because there weren't enough personnel to clean the mucus out of his tube and he suffocated to death.
Another young man just died in a New York VA hospital the other day. A friend of mine was lying in a bed two beds away and tried to help him but he couldn't. He rang a bell and there was nobody there to service that man and so he died of convulsions.
Fifty-seven percent, I understand fifty-seven percent, of all those entering the VA hospitals talk about suicide. Some twenty-seven percent have tried, and they try because they come back to this country and they have to face what they did in Vietnam, and then they come back and find the indifference of a country that doesn't really care.
Suddenly we are faced with a very sickening situation in this country because there is no moral indignation and, if there is, it comes from people who are almost exhausted by their past indignations, and I know that many of them are sitting in front of me. The country seems to have lain down and shrugged off something as serious as Laos, just as we calmly shrugged off the loss of seven hundred thousand lives in Pakistan, the so-called greatest disaster of all time.
But we are here as veterans to say that we think we are in the midst of the greatest disaster of all time now because they are still dying over there, and not just Americans, Vietnamese, and we are rationalizing leaving that country so that those people can go on killing each other for years to come. Americans seem to have accepted the idea that the war is winding down, at least for Americans, and they have also allowed the bodies which were once used by a president for statistics to prove that we were winning that war to be used as evidence against a man who followed orders and who interpreted those orders no differently than hundreds of other men in Vietnam.
We veterans can only look with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see that there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter crew, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration.
No ground troops are in Laos so it is all right to kill Laotians by remote control. But believe me, the helicopter crews fill the same body bags and they wreak the same kind of damage on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside as anybody else, and the president is talking about allowing that to go on for many years to come. One can only ask if we will really be satisfied only when the troops march into Hanoi.
We are asking here in Washington for some action, action from the Congress of the United States of America, which has the power to raise and maintain armies, and which, by the Constitution, also has the power to declare war.
We have come here, not to the president, because we believe that this body can be responsive to the will of the people, and we believe that the will of the people says that we should be out of Vietnam now.
We are here in Washington also to say that the problem of this war is not just a question of war and diplomacy. It is part and parcel of everything we are trying as human beings to communicate to people in this country, the question of racism, which is rampant in the military, and so many other questions--the use of weapons, the hypocrisy in our taking umbrage in the Geneva Conventions and using that as justification for a continuation of this war when we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions, in the use of free fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search-and-destroy missions, the bombings, the torture of prisoners, the killing of prisoners; accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam. That is what we are trying to say. It is part and parcel of everything.
An American-Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians, and then suddenly one day he stopped in Vietnam and he said, "My God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people," and he stopped. And that is what we are trying to say, that we think this thing has to end.
We are also here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country, where is the leadership? We are here to ask where McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatric, and so many others, where are they now that we, the men whom they sent off to war, have returned? These are commanders who have deserted their troops, and there is no more serious crime in the law of war. The Army says they never leave their wounded.
The Marines say they never leave even their dead. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude. They have left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun in this country. Finally, this administration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country. In their blindness and fear they have tried to deny that we are veterans or that we served in Nam. We do not need their testimony. Our own scars and stumps of limbs are witness enough for others and for ourselves.
We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more. And so when in thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say, "Vietnam," and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.