In 1984, I stood with my then-13-year-old daughter at the center of the dark gash in the earth called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, weeping. She looked up and asked me why I was crying. “Because there are some 58,000 names on that wall that should not be there,” I answered.
Those men and women were betrayed, as were the hundreds of thousands of wounded left behind after America’s misadventure in Vietnam. They were not betrayed by John Kerry when he returned to oppose the war in which he had fought. Nor by me, who did not serve but argued and demonstrated against that war, seeking to bring Americans home before they became the casualties of arrogant and misguided political leadership.
I find I have more in common with the men who fought in Vietnam than with many other Americans who missed the war or did not care. We were all betrayed by political leaders who, from arrogance, ambition and “groupthink,” lied to the American people for 10 years, leading to slaughter in a country where we had minimal stakes and faced no threats to our security.
A small, embittered group of veterans who call themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have organized themselves today around that feeling of betrayal. Naive men in the big arena, they have formed a circular firing squad around the wrong target–Sen. John Kerry– the first presidential nominee who served in Vietnam and one of the few who understood that American soldiers had not been betrayed by the demonstrators, but by the politicians. The target for the swift-boat broadside should be former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara–the men who sent U.S. troops to Vietnam to fight a completely useless war.
Kerry had the courage to stand up and be heard about that betrayal. He did not do so perfectly; none of us in the heat of anger is perfect. But he decided to tell his truth, in the best way he could, and help lead the nation out of that misguided adventure before more men had gone mad, lost hope and died.
Moreover, the swift boat warriors are supporting political leadership that is betraying soldiers yet again. The number of Americans wounded and dying in Iraq may never surpass 58,000, but that distinction will give no comfort to the new generation of disabled soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Once again, American leaders were not forthcoming about getting us into that war. We have not found Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, nor evidence that he collaborated with Al Qaeda. As in Vietnam, once the lying started, it had to be amplified because political careers and credibility were at stake. So the lie grows: We are repeatedly being told that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror, as if it were true, and dissent from this version of truth is suppressed in the Bush administration. Everybody needs to be on message.
These betrayals are multiplying and sadly familiar: We were told we would be the welcome liberator in Iraq; today we cannot control the security situation outside of Baghdad. We were told we could make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, but put in power a Potemkin government, unrepresentative of the people. We were told the enemy would melt away, terrified by our dominant response, but hard combat continues, with Americans dying almost every day.
We were told the “mission” would be accomplished and the tunnel would at last have light, told not once, but over and over, as it has unraveled. Some U.S. soldiers, trapped in this hopeless situation, turn on the enemy in frustration, as we saw in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse case.
The wrath of the swift boat warriors should be directed not at John Kerry, but at the current political leadership, which has put American soldiers in harm’s way when there was no need and there was no certainty of success. Some of these leaders neither served in nor protested that last war.
I will weep at the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and for the names that will soon appear on another war memorial that is yet to come. But it makes no sense at all to attack the one candidate who saw combat up close and came home to make it right for the men and women with whom he served.
Gordon Adams is director of security policy studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
This article first appeared and is republished with the permission of the Chicago Tribune.