Thursday, October 21, 2004

Kerry's Most Contentious Statement on Vietnam


In 1971, John Kerry made the following statement:
It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit [in a meeting with 150 Vietnam veterans], 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 the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape 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 country side 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.
The Swift Boat Liars and affiliated groups like to misrepresent that quote, as if Kerry is attributing the atrocities to all veterans as opposed to describing stories from individuals who were confessing to have committed atrocities. We know, both from military records and from extensive photojournalism, that at some level the described atrocities did occur. And while in retrospect I'm sure Kerry would have tacked on a whole host of disclaimers, I think he made pretty clear that he was relating individual confessions and was not accusing the average G.I. of having beheaded civilians.

When Life, Look, and other publications of the time published large format, black and white photographs of the atrocities Kerry described, nobody of consequence pretended that they were depicting the conduct of every soldier, or even the average soldier. And while I understand why nobody wants to dredge up those photographs (save, perhaps, for Vietnam - they are prominently featured in the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City), would the Swift Boat Liars and their ilk make similar accusations at those publications if the images were brought forward by the mainstream media?

And for "documentaries" such as "Stolen Honor", which speak of prisoner mistreatment at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", what was the greater sin? Kerry's testimony, which doesn't seem to relate to the conduct of the soldiers held at that prison, or Life's photo spread, carefully orchestrated by the North Vietnamese to make it appear that the prisoners were exceptionally well fed, housed and treated. When a prisoner, Lieutenant Paul Galanti, tried to convey a message, "This is all B.S.", by posing for a picture with his middle fingers extended, Life opted to edit out the middle fingers before publishing the picture - so as not to offend its audience.

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