A Fresh Start
September 23, 2004
By Raul Groom
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 raulgroom.blogspot.com