Democratic Underground

Concerning Vietnam

September 1, 2004
By Aden Nak

I would like to take this opportunity to offer my heartfelt thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. I don't mean that sarcastically, I am genuinely glad that they appeared on the political scene and presented their absurd set of charges. And I am not alone in feeling this way. The majority of my peers (in that coveted 18-25 voting demographic) are also glad that the Swift Boat Veterans came forward, because although their intention was to tarnish John Kerry's military record, what they've done is shine a spotlight on it.

During the Vietnam War, most of us in the 18-25 demographic weren't even a percussive dinner-and-a-movie date yet. I have no firsthand experience or knowledge of Vietnam, neither from the front lines nor from the home front. I first learned about it in a high school history class, and the lifeless text that rattled off the battlegrounds and the statistics, both in political and human terms had very little emotional impact on me.

I didn't really learn about Vietnam until later on, when I began to study journalism and politics. Starting with writers like Hunter S. Thompson (who had a special relationship, to say the least, with Richard M. Nixon) was probably not the most unbiased way to learn about Vietnam, but it was a good introductory course to the culture shock of that war.

And still, despite this re-education through letters and government transcripts, there was always something done-and-dry about Vietnam. I had no direct connection to it, other than to observe the aftermath. The toll it took on so many veterans, the shift it caused in the political landscape, the backlash it eventually allowed as activism was suplanted by complacency. Because of the near-death of political activism in this country, it was this third warning I took away from Vietnam. And until recently, that was how I primarily related to it.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth changed all of that. They made some hideous claims about John Kerry's service in Vietnam, ranging from callous name-calling to factual reorganization to accusing him of orchestrating his own unearned cache of medals and honors (presumably, because he knew he would be running for President 35 years later). They painted a picture of a man so cowardly and unscrupulous... and I am naturally suspicious when presented with such an overwhelmingly one-sided view of anything.

Kerry the Soldier

It wasn't until the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth thrust the issue into the foreground of the political debate that I learned about Kerry's actual service. I began reading essays and accounts from the men he actually served with (as opposed to the members of the Swift Boats organization), and found myself impressed with what I read there. Before the Swift Boat group drew my attention to Kerry's military record, what I knew about it could be boiled down to three words: "decorated war hero." It started and stopped there. I respected his status, his ability to survive, and his willingness to serve his country despite whatever personal qualms he may have had about that service.

But the personal accounts of his activities in Vietnam left me genuinely impressed with him. What I read, time and time again, was about his ingenuity and inventiveness. His willingness to break from convention when convention failed, and attempt to improve the situation through logic and tactical inventiveness. I found myself respecting him far more after reading about his record than I did before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group started squawking.

Their attacks allowed me to make an emotional attachment because unlike my previous studies of Vietnam, which were often editorials by men who had never served or singular stories told by a sea of unknown soldiers, these were the accounts of a human being whose life and character, like him or not, are now part of the American collective conscious. He is a man I have seen and heard on a daily for the past several months. And he is a man whom I respect considerably more than I did before the Swift Boat Veterans surfaced.

I read about his selflessness, pulling Jim Rassmann out of the river amidst enemy fire. I read about his bravery, charging the coastline, rifle in hand, to prevent an enemy soldier from firing an explosive device at his craft and crew. I read about his ingenuity, his willingness to invent new tactics (such as turning the boats and their heavy 50mm guns directly on ambushers, instead of sweeping around later after they had already retreated off the coast) and to evolve methods of combat that simply weren't working.

These are things I really would not have read about if it had not been for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They are stories that likely would not have been told, or at least would not have received national media attention. They are stories of a man who, despite being waist-deep in the hellish theater of war that was Vietnam, demonstrated courage, sacrifice, decisiveness and intelligence. I had always planned on voting this November simply to oust Bush from office. But after reading these stories, there was at least a part of me that was voting this November to put Kerry into office.

I thought, at that point, that I was done learning from the Swift Boat Veterans. But no, they had much more to teach me.

Kerry the Firebrand

I have been casually aware for some time that, upon returning from Vietnam, John Kerry joined the cause against the war itself. I knew about this, primarily, because of how it had been used to discredit him. There was the issue about whether he threw his medals or simply his ribbons on the White House lawn. There was the criticism of his use of the word "atrocities" when describing some of America's military practices abroad. And, of course, there was the mediocrely doctored photo of him giving a speech side by side with Jane Fonda. That was pretty much my entire store knowledge of John Kerry's post-Vietnam activities. Once again, it was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who, in an ironic testament to their self-appointed name, caused the truth to surface.

You see, I was born almost a decade after John Kerry testified before Congress concerning the War in Vietnam. And my knowledge of that testimony was more or less that it took place, and it pissed some people off. Having studied Vietnam and having formed my own opinions about what the American government did there, I was glad that Kerry spoke out. But again, these were facts, and there was little to no emotional attachment for me.

Enter the Swift Boat Veterans. It wasn't until I saw the bitterness they clearly held over his testimony that I appreciated what Kerry risked by standing up and being heard in the first place. And it wasn't until they began attacking Kerry's testimony that I heard his famous quote, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" And the moment I heard him speak those words, I began to anticipate him asking George W. Bush the same question.

Kerry the Leader

I didn't live through Vietnam. I didn't even live through the aftermath. Hell, I was still a child when the issue of Vietnam Veterans' rights began to fade from the national debate. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, despite their ill intentions, forced me (and my generation) to focus on a war that we would otherwise never have considered. They have forced me to deal with Vietnam as more than just a textbook example of a war gone wrong, and by turning attention to John Kerry's activities both during and after his service in Vietnam, they have fostered respect in still-young hearts that were otherwise luke-warm towards the man.

They have reminded millions of draft-age Americans that John Kerry served his country in a foreign war that need not have been fought. They have shown them that John Kerry can recognize the difference between a war of necessity and a war of opportunity. And most importantly, they have let these millions of draft-age Americans know that John Kerry will not ask any of them to be the last one to die for a mistake.

Aden Nak is an easily-agitated computer technician and a woefully underemployed freelance writer. More of his personal vitriol can be found at http://www.adennak.com.

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