The latest hubbub over John Kerry’s medals and Purple Hearts is a distraction from what really matters about his past. We should focus not on Kerry’s admirable military service but on his words and deeds as an antiwar activist–and what this reveals about the state of liberalism today.
The key to this larger, more important story is found in an interview John Kerry gave on NBC’s Meet the Press on April 18, 1971. Kerry was asked–regarding his claim that our policies in Vietnam were tantamount to genocide–”Do you consider that you personally as a Naval officer committed atrocities in Vietnam or crimes punishable by law in this country?” Kerry answered straightforwardly, “Yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones…. I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages.”
Now, suppose for a moment that a Republican politician had made such an admission. As we all know, his political career would have long since gone down in a hailstorm of accusations and recriminations. He would have been denounced as a fascist and a Nazi. Yet remarkably, the democratic Left is supporting for president a man who openly admits to having committed war crimes. Is this merely a case of double standards and political cynicism? I don’t think so. Deeper, more troubling political currents have enabled the former Swift-boat captain to stay afloat all these years.
VIETNAM AS SYMBOLOn April 22, 1971, a young Kerry just back from the war famously testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee about war crimes even more heinous than the “atrocities” cited above. Kerry claimed to speak on that momentous day, in “symbolic” fashion, “as one member of a group of 1,000″ veterans who had apparently committed horrific acts indeed. “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.”
Of course, no sensible person today believes that Kerry committed war crimes of any sort. And therein lies the puzzle: Why is Kerry able to confess to war crimes that no one believes he actually committed without the least political consequence?
Certainly, the conservatives I know don’t believe Kerry is a war criminal. If anything, among conservatives, there is a touch of hero-envy. “Why didn’t our guy volunteer to fight in Vietnam” is the hushed question on the lips of many. The Left also does not take the claim of war crimes to be true in the literal sense: As far as I’m aware, no reporter has lately asked Kerry to elaborate on what exactly he was guilty of in Vietnam.
Yet this is no case of liberal hypocrisy or double standards. Nor is Kerry a “liar” in the simple sense of the term. From the standpoint of the Left, if Kerry did not commit actual atrocities, he was nonetheless bearing witness to a deeper (or as Kerry would say, “symbolic”) truth: namely, that America is in some transcendent sense evil to its core.
In this sense, Kerry’s liberal supporters have revealed themselves to be “true believers” of the worst kind. They have let on that the anti-Vietnam crusade, now over 30 years old and still running, had almost nothing to do with what was or was not done in Vietnam. Had the United States never gotten involved in Vietnam, the Left still would have turned its furies upon America.
NO BASIS IN REALITYThe concept of America-as-criminal-nation, a staple on the Left nowadays, has always been less a conclusion than a premise or first principle. Kerry granted as much in his 1971 testimony when he acknowledged, “We are here in Washington to say that the problem of this war is not just a question of war and diplomacy. It is part and parcel of everything that we are trying … to communicate to people in this country–the question of racism … and so many other questions.”
“Racism.” This is the catch-all word the Left used in Kerry’s day, as it does in our own day, to characterize American life in its entirety. That the charge has little basis in reality is beside the point to the Left. Lest we forget, 2004 presidential candidate Al Sharpton first made his name in 1987 representing a black girl named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been repeatedly raped by vigilante white New York policemen. The entire episode was eventually proved to be a hoax. Not only that, but a grand jury investigation concluded that Sharpton had always known Brawley was lying.
Sharpton never apologized, but is today courted and toasted by white liberals. They didn’t mind the hoax or the lie, since Tawana Brawley for them was not a real girl but instead a symbol of what they already knew to be true about America–that it is racist through and through. Kerry’s faux war crimes operate for the Left on the same level, as an inner “truth” of some sort.
Generally, we rather sloppily think of liberals as pragmatists or empiricists. Liberals, it is said, take the scientific approach to life and politics. They base their opinions on the facts. (Conservatives, by contrast, are said to take things on faith.) As it happens, this is not the case at all. America-hatred on the Left would exist with or without the Vietnam War or Tawana Brawley–and with or without our involvement in Iraq today. It is a sentiment with deep ideological roots and in service of equally deep psychological needs. This explains why liberals can support a man for president who admits to war crimes. His crimes have no basis in reality, as we all know with a wink and a nod, but are still somehow “part and parcel” of a truer American reality. A Kerry victory in November would, in the eyes of the Left, substantiate this counter-reality–and in a way Michael Moore could only dream of.
–Adam Wolfson is editor of The Public Interest.