Democratic Underground

A Fresh Start

September 23, 2004
By Raul Groom

It's amazing how little there is to do on an airplane. Look out the window, spend ten dollars on two shots of cheap whiskey, take a wobbly piss in a tiny bathroom that smells of Listerine and some sort of rose-tinged garbage that sprays out into the air when you flush. That pretty much covers it.

Not exactly the ninth circle of hell, certainly, but not enough to keep even a moderately stable adult human brain engaged for five hours on a Thursday afternoon trip to San Francisco, erstwhile heart of that faded chimera, the American Dream.

Of course, if there were anything else to do, I probably wouldn't be writing on this shitty little laptop PC, so that's something. I hate laptops, with their just-a-bit-too-tiny keyboards and that infernal touchpad that will occasionally wipe out entire paragraphs because a stray thumb happened to move just a bit too close to its sacred black surface.

On top of that, I haven't written anything in a good long while, for reasons that have nothing to do with smallish keyboards or ill-designed pointing devices. The fact of the matter is, for the entire month of August I was simply, shockingly, completely unable to bang out an article.

I've had writer's block before; in fact it is a more or less constant condition for me and, from what I can tell, people of my particular temperament. The condition, I've often thought, is eerily similar to insomnia. There are essentially two types of insomnia - slow-sleep and early waking. I've personally suffered from both, and I've always found early waking to be mostly manageable, while the slow-sleep sort completely paralyzes me.

Strangely, the opposite is true with The Block. My normal block is a sort of creative constipation; I can feel the words building up inside my mind, like water behind a dam that's about to burst, but I can't bring myself to bring that first trickle over the edge and release the deluge. Always, though, once I get started, the whole things picks up a strange and frightening momentum all its own, and I finish the thing in a cold sweat, heart pounding, ready to run out and conquer the world.

What happened to me over the last few months was the other kind - I started on several ideas - good ones, if you ask me - and about a thousand words in, the thing would just kind of peter out, like a river running into sand and becoming a quagmire. I'm rambling here, of course, but it feels good, Dear Reader, and I know you won't wind if I just ramble on and on, like the old days!

Quagmire. There's a word that's looming large in current events and down through the echoes of history, too. John Kerry's gotten in trouble recently on account of that word, though to hear all the talk about it you wouldn't know that word, that terrible, soul-stealing liar's lament would have much to do with it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning.

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth first took to the nation's airwaves to slime John Kerry's service in Vietnam, their intent appeared to be to discredit the honors he had received and the medals he had won, and stories were floated of doctored after-action reports and superficial wounds that led to Purple Hearts. It seemed just about Karl Rove's speed - a blunt and brutal sack of foul-smelling mud flung right at what had appeared to be his opponent's biggest strength.

Indeed, the initial volley of Swift Boat ads did appear to have some affect along these lines. Independents - even Democrats - began to wonder whether Kerry's heroism in Vietnam had really been all that heroic. News programs began referring to Kerry's "disputed" medals of honor - the Bronze and Silver Stars Kerry had received for courage under fire in the Big Muddy.

There were problems, however, with this surface strategy. The attacks were so crude and craven that it did not take long for even the pliable mainstream press to begin asking some questions about the Swift Boaters that were difficult to answer. First of all, who are these guys? Where did they come from, and what are they really so upset about? Gradually, people began to catch on to the ruse, and in the end even Katie Couric wound up teaming with Carville to humiliate some pathetic, snot-nosed Bush campaign toady by calling him out on the Swift Boat nonsense on national television.

The initial wave of Swift Boat attacks brought Kerry to a dip in the polls before the Republican primary, and gave Bush the appearance of post-convention momentum where there probably wouldn't have been any. It's possible that short-term tactical advantage was the extent of Karl Rove's plan when he unleashed the onslaught, and if so, he won a minor but not insignificant battle.

But there is a new problem for Kerry, a very subtle and sticky one that could very well doom his candidacy if he hasn't the foresight and the balls to handle it in the right way. And whether or not Karl Rove intended it, the problem is there, and must be dealt with. Because if you listened to the Swift Boat Veterans, you began to realize after a while that they weren't upset about John Kerry's medals at all. They were angry because John Kerry said things about the Vietnam War that, to this day, no one in power is allowed to say.

Of course, nowadays it is widely recognized that the invasion and destruction of Vietnam - followed by a disgraced retreat - was not America's greatest foreign policy triumph. Far be it from me to suggest that it is taboo in the mainstream U.S. press to say bad things about the Vietnam War. Indeed, the words "quagmire" and "blunder" have become virtually synonymous with that devastating war in Indochina, such that one rarely hears the word Vietnam spoken without one of those modifiers attached.

The trouble is, when Kerry returned from Vietnam, he did not speak of a "quagmire;" that description is one coined by analysts and pundits who never saw the war up close, who never felt a lead slug whiz malevolently past their skulls and splinter a nearby sapling. Tellingly, and unsurprisingly, George W. Bush, who has never been to Vietnam in time of war or peace, regularly used the word "quagmire" when referring to Vietnam during the 2000 presidential campaign, though as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out, it was not clear that he understood that this term referred to the war's unwinnability and not to the actual jungle terrain. Hi ho.

Kerry, on the other hand, described the war as it really was, and revealed in the hallowed hall of the U.S. Senate exactly what was happening in Vietnam. By invading, on false pretenses, a small, defenseless country far across the globe, and continuing to bombard that nation's wretched population for years after the initial justifications had long been exposed as specious, the United States was losing its soul.

But the real crime, from Kerry's perspective, was that the people inside the United States couldn't feel the moral devastation that was being wrought by the senseless killing in a land far from anywhere most of them had ever set foot. Americans were sending the poor and the desperate overseas to lose their humanity bit by bit, wasting away in a crazy place where nothing made sense, least of all the stories on the nightly news about how close the Americans were to finally winning.

So upon his return, John Kerry did the only thing he could think to do - he used his status as a child of privilege, not to run from his responsibilities as some did, but to force the nation to face up to the reality of what he had been a part of in Vietnam. He went before the most powerful body in the United States and, despite the fact that it was monstrously unpopular and personally painful, he told the naked truth.

It was, as such decisions often are, the single worst political mistake John Kerry would ever make. America was not ready - nor, in some sense, would she ever be - to come to terms with the evil that she had wrought, by choice, for no reason except the idle fantasies of some rich white men, most of whom had never known the horrors of real combat.

Elite opinion was beginning to turn against the war, but not because it was horrifying and barbaric, not because it was killing an entire generation of Southeast Asians and devastating their homeland, not even because it was robbing America's own sons of their lives and their fundamental sense of goodness and purpose as human beings. No, America's liberal intellectuals were getting uneasy about the war in Vietnam because they had come to believe it was unwinnable. Because it was costing a bit too much. Because it was a quagmire.

Antiwar activists who had opposed the war for years, including people like John Kerry who had actually been in Vietnam, were dismissed by these sudden converts to the Stop the War cause as obvious cranks, malcontents and conspiracy theorists. It became fashionable to favor withdrawal from Vietnam and yet deride the folks who had been against the war for years as starry-eyed idealists who couldn't understand the realities of global politics, and the great burden that lay on the shoulders of the United States, the greatest country in the world.

This line of argument had its merits, to be sure. It enabled Americans, especially rich and powerful ones who would have otherwise supported the war indefinitely, to justify a reversal of position simply by uttering the shibboleth "quagmire." The resultant shift in elite opinion eventually led to withdrawal and peace, of a kind. It was not, as we hippies like to believe, the peace movement that stopped the war, but the money men and their mouthpieces, who finally decided, at long last, that all that killing was bad for business.

Unfortunately, the truth exists not only for its own sake, but for ours as well, and we blind ourselves to it at our peril. The easy lie of the Vietnam "quagmire" allowed the citizens of the United States to delude ourselves into thinking that the war had gone poorly because it had been mishandled by incompetent politicians and allowed to spiral out of control, when in fact the war failed because it was a horror and a crime that was killing the American spirit just as surely as it was snuffing out ox farmers in the Mekong Delta.

Today, a new generation of soldier is enduring a new horror in a new country, as the same old pattern emerges back in the States. Voices that opposed the Iraq War on moral grounds are shut out of the mainstream discourse at least as completely as they were before the war. Pathetic cheerleaders like David Brooks and David Ignatius, who told us many times what an easy time we would have in Iraq, have kept their jobs and their seven-figure incomes, and continue to remind us daily that as long as there is money to be made licking the boots of power, there will be those who feel no shame at taking it to the bank, long after that power and the hucksters who pushed it have been exposed as frauds.

And once again, standing off on his own, ruminating on just what to do with his unique position as a rising star, is John F. Kerry. Monday, Kerry delivered a stirring speech on the subject, his best of the campaign, in which he not only laid out the case that the Iraq war is being lost, but also said, for the first time, that the Iraq War should not have happened. He reminded the world that it was this President who repeatedly misled the country, not just before the war when he used his subordinates to claim Iraq had huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, but every single time he has gone before the American people since then.

But if Kerry is to help America getting over our intellectual blockage about the Vietnam War, he must go farther even than he did on Monday. He must maintain his convictions in the face of intense criticism, just as he did as a much younger man returning from war those many years ago. He must have the courage to say over and over, not just that the war is unwinnable, expensive and foolish, but that it is, at its heart, a lie.

Commentators have often asked (usually in dismissing questions about George W. Bush's lackadaisical National Guard Service) why it is that the American political discourse is still dominated by talk about the Vietnam War. What they cannot see, because they have spent their lives learning to be blind to it, is that this obsession will persist until Americans can finally come to terms with what the Vietnam War really was - not a mistake, but a lie, not a quagmire, but a moral cesspool that polluted and poisoned the American Dream.

Until that realization happens, the collective unconscious of this country will continue to present us with opportunity after opportunity to rectify the mistakes of our past. If we once again shirk our duty and pretend that the Iraq war was simply a mismanaged exercise in good neighborliness, our willful blindness will lead us again into the next Vietnam, and the next, and the next, until the inevitable fiery conclusion.

But now, as we stand upon this precipice in history, we suddenly realize that despite the overwhelming and lamentable damage our horrific, aggressive invasion has done, Iraq - where tens of thousands have died - is not yet Vietnam, where millions perished. There is still time to reconsider our ambitions. There is time to reformulate our plans. There is time to admit, as we could not in Vietnam, that this time, the United States was simply wrong.

Many of my friends on the left grumble that John Kerry, with his record of mainstream, pragmatic foreign policy votes supportive of large military budgets, is not the man to give us that fresh start. Perhaps they are right. But thirty-five years ago, he was on the right side of the debate over the most disastrous war of choice in U.S. history. He told us, when it was unpopular and even dangerous to do so, that the war in Indochina was killing the character of the country he loved. George W. Bush, meanwhile, was AWOL - he says to this day he cannot recall a single conversation he had about the war he supported from afar.

If there is to be a fresh start for us, in Iraq or anywhere, it will not come with George W. Bush in the White House. With him, we will get only the same failed policies, lame excuses, and childish finger-pointing.

With John Kerry, we will get a man who began his political career by trying to wake his country up and prevent a war like this from ever happening again. Though he and his contemporaries ultimately failed, the foundation they laid was mobilized against this new terrible invasion from the very start. Now Kerry, as a result of a lifetime of hard work and tireless service to his country, is finally in a position not only to speak out against an evil war but to stop it. All he needs is your vote.

Why, again, are you voting for someone else?

Explain yourself at

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