Democratic Underground

The Old Lie

August 25, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

So, I see from USA Today that Bob Dole has finally weighed in on the Swift Vets Against Kerry controversy:

On Sunday, former Kansas senator Bob Dole called on Kerry to apologize for 1971 testimony before Congress in which he accused U.S. forces in Vietnam of atrocities. Appearing on CNN's Late Edition, Dole also questioned the severity of the injuries for which Kerry received his Purple Hearts. "Three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of," Dole said of Kerry.

We all know that Bob "Erectile Dysfunction" Dole isn't easily embarrassed; but all the same, it's still amazing to think about how a guy gets the gall to stand up there and tell a fellow veteran that his service doesn't count because he didn't get hurt enough.

If nothing else, you'd think everyone would realize that this is not a very good recruiting tactic for our badly understaffed military. "Be all that you can be... and then come home and have everyone tell you it wasn't good enough."

Once you start playing this game, it gets pretty gruesome pretty fast. Does Bob Dole have the right to demand a recall for Kerry's medals because Kerry didn't lose the use of his hand? OK, fine... so does Max Cleland get the right to question Dole's service in combat because all four of Dole's limbs are still attached to his body? And who has the right to question Max Cleland's patriotism?

According to this logic, only someone who was actually killed in action... or wait, no, I'm wrong. As we learned during the last election cycle, the answer to that last question is "any bunch of Republican political hacks with enough time and money to put together a smear campaign."

The fact that the 'charges' in the Swift Vets Against Kerry ads are basically lies that were made up out of whole cloth by a right-wing political attack group has been demonstrated over and over again by so many different sources in so many different ways that it would be pointless for me to rehearse it all again here. The really interesting question is why a narrative that is so obviously and demonstrably false and has already been shot full of holes from so many different angles is somehow managing to stay afloat.

Part of that, obviously, can be explained by the abject condition of the American mainstream media, which is so depressing to me that I would rather just skip that rant. Instead, I want to go back to that USA Today snippet, because it reveals something very interesting about what's keeping this controversy alive.

After all, this is not just about the lies being told in the SVAK ads about Kerry's particular experience in this particular war. This is about some much bigger lies that have been told about war since long before the United States existed, and which have become alarmingly threadbare and transparent as post-World War II American foreign policy has put an ever greater strain on them.

Looked at in the cold light of reason, the whole SVAK campaign is ridiculous. The most serious charge they're making is that Kerry didn't serve his time in Vietnam with quite as much distinction as the Navy thought he did. Even if you accepted that argument, Kerry would still beat Bush quite handily in a game of "who served better" or "who sacrificed more" - after all, even for the SVAK and their Republican sponsors, it would just be too big a lie to try to claim that Kerry didn't actually go to Vietnam, which would be the only way to make George W. Bush's stint in (or out of) the Texas National Guard look any better by comparison.

The real point of these ads is to attack what the rhetoricians would call Kerry's ethos - the qualities that make him credible and trustworthy to those all-important "undecided voters." As constructed by the Kerry campaign and especially at the Democratic National Convention, Kerry's ethos is almost entirely dependent on his status as a decorated war veteran. The Bush campaign knows perfectly well that if they want to beat Kerry they will have to render him as untrustworthy as their own candidate, and the only way to do that is to take those medals away from him.

They can't, of course, do that by telling the truth; but if anyone on the Bush team gave a damn about the truth, we wouldn't be fighting a war in Iraq right now.

And that's what this is all really about. The Bush campaign is supporting the SVAK ads for one reason and one reason alone, which is that they want George W. Bush to get another four years in office. The Swift Boat Vets themselves, and Bob Dole, share another, more complicated motivation. They want to revoke Kerry's medals, not just because they don't want him to be the next president of the United States, but because they want to revoke his authority to speak about the Vietnam War; and they want to revoke that authority because they don't like what he said about it.

For them, this desire to shut Kerry down and shut him up is rooted deep in their own experience of combat, and as much as I hate lying, I can understand why they would choose the lie they cling to. It's a lie that much of the rest of the country has been clinging to pretty tightly under the Bush administration. Because the reason the rest of the country is in a tizzy about these medals is that what Kerry had to say about the way we fought the war in Vietnam sounds way too much like what is now being said constantly, all over the world, about the way we're fighting the war in Iraq.

What Dole says he wants - before he gets to the question of whether Kerry bled sufficiently - is for Kerry to apologize for having gone to Congress and told the government and the American people exactly what they were sending their fellow-Americans over to Vietnam to do. In other words, he wants Kerry to pretend either that American troops never committed atrocities in Vietnam, or that it was wrong to tell the truth about the war to the people who were responsible for perpetuating it.

And that's exactly the attitude that Rumsfeld, Bush, the corporate media, and many of the Republicans in Congress have taken toward the atrocities that have been committed by our troops during the War On Terror - not just at Abu Ghraib, but at Fallujah, in Najaf, in Makr al Deeb, in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo.

These are not atrocities; this is not who we are; how dare you come in here and tell us that American soldiers would ever do anything wrong just because we put them in a situation where it would be impossible for them to do anything else. Get out of here with your stories about rape, mutliation, torture, humiliation, indiscriminate violence. We are Americans. We never do wrong. You say you've seen us do these things? You say you've done them yourself? Well, you're either lying, blind, or mad, and we're not going to listen to you.

So this is the first lie that's keeping the Swift Boat Vets Against Kerry afloat: there were no atrocities, there are never atrocities, Americans don't commit atrocities because somehow even when we're at war we're just better and more moral than everyone else. And thirty years after Vietnam, we know damn well that it's a lie; but we still make ourselves believe it.

After all, at the Democratic convention, there was no discussion of these same atrocities. And even though we have plenty of evidence from Abu Ghraib and elsewhere of the atrocities that our soldiers are committing even as we sit here, we still don't want to let go of that lie.

Instead, we focus on the sufferings of our own soldiers, the damage that is done to their bodies and hearts and spirits by the wars they are asked to fight. That damage is real, it's awful, and it is an atrocity in its own right; and it is particularly sickening in that we do it to our own people. Nobody who went to Vietnam came out unscathed, whether he bled enough to satisfy Bob Dole or not.

The same will be said of the war in Iraq. And that only makes it more disgusting to contemplate the discrepancy between the way this administration rhetorically fawns over soldiers and veterans and the way it actually treats them.

Partly, of course, this is because caring for veterans would cost money, and the Bush administration is loath to spend money on individual people when they could be shoveling it into the corporate trough. But partly, it's because they want to deny and repress the reality that these veterans, with their shattered bodies and wounded minds, represent. Because that would threaten one of the other big lies that is always told about war, especially by the government sending its citizens off to fight it: that this war, which is necessary, just, and right, will bring these soldiers honor and glory instead of a lifetime of pain.

But these lies are just the offshoots of the lie at the root of the anti-Kerry campaign - the big lie that the Swiftboat Vets Against Kerry are willing to tell their smaller lies to protect. And since they are after all veterans too, let's do them justice: they undoubtedly realize that the smaller lies they're telling are false, since they are the ones who had to make them up, but they may well have convinced themselves that the big lie they're protecting is true.

Because this particular lie has long comforted people who are legitimately suffering and in desperate need of comfort - people who have lost loved ones, lost the use of their own bodies, lost their innocence and their youth and their chance at peace and happiness and a sound night's sleep to the wars that our government has in its wisdom elected to fight. It's the lie that Kerry went right after in the sound bite that keeps getting replayed over and over as this controversy drags on: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

It's the word "mistake" that is causing all this trouble. Because after we let go of the other lies - that the people we send to fight our foreign wars will neither commit atrocities nor suffer them - we still hold onto the big one. Pushed far enough, we can admit that war is ugly; we can admit that war is painful. But it is much harder to let go of the big lie, which is that war is necessary. Because if the war in which you lost your loved ones or your limbs or your peace of mind was not necessary, then you the people you loved and the people you hurt went through all of that hell for nothing.

God knows how painful it has to be for those who have suffered in a war to face the fact that it did not have to happen. God knows how much we all want to believe that nobody dies in vain, that every sacrifice we are asked to make is made for a worthy cause. God knows how much we love that lie, and how willing we are to embrace it.

Whether war is ever necessary is a philosophical and political problem that nobody will ever resolve. But you don't have to go too far out on a limb to see that at least two of the wars we've fought since World War II were not necessary. They were elective wars - wars that we got into for ideological reasons or for political reasons that later turned out to be bogus.

It was not necessary to send tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to die in southeast Asia in order to prevent Communism from taking hold in one small country. It was not necessary to send 150,000 U.S. soldiers into a country that had not threatened us, had no involvement in the most recent attack on U.S. soil, and did not, as it turned out, possess any operable weapons of mass destruction; it was not necessary to get those same soldiers mired in the moral and tactical morass of an unplanned, haphazard, ill-conceived and poorly executed occupation that shows no signs of ending any time soon. And to start a war that you don't have to start is a mistake. It's the worst mistake a President can make.

It's not an easy mistake to acknowledge. But we can't afford not to acknowledge it. We can't afford these lies any more - the small ones or the big ones. We have to face the truth before the old lies crack the world wide open again, and we are back in the throes of a worldwide war that will finally and brutally wrest them from our grasp and teach us the same lesson that Wilfred Owen learned ninety years ago as he watched one of his fellow-soldiers convulsing during a nerve gas attack:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

- "Dulce et Decorum est"

Saddam Hussein didn't have anything in his arsenal that could have done this to us. The only weapons of mass destruction involved in the Iraq war were the lies that the Bush administration told to get us into it. These are the weapons we have to destroy; they are the people we have to disarm. We could make a start by rejecting this latest smear campaign - not just to protect Kerry's chances in November, but to protect the truth he told thirty years ago. We've never needed it more.

The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.

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