October 27, 2004
What's Behind the Swift Boat Vets--The Scars of Vietnam
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
The "Swift Boat Vets for Truth" (SBVT) have produced a number of attack ads aimed at undermining John Kerry's military record. The first ads attempted to depict Kerry as a medal-grubbing fraud.
As it turns out, however, none of the veterans in these ads directly witnessed Kerry's actions leading to his medals. The veterans who actually did, whole-heartedly endorse the events as they are recounted in the official documentation of the medals.
Jim Russell, for example, who was aboard the only other swift boat present when Kerry earned one of his Purple Hearts, stated in a letter to the Telluride Gateway (8/20/04):
So what could bring these SBVT to slur the honor and integrity of fellow vets? Russell believes that the SBVT attacks are actually motivated by a long-smoldering rage at Kerry's stance against the Vietnam War after coming home. This is confirmed by the recent SBVT ads which depict Kerry's testimony before congress in 1971, as calling our soldiers war criminals and aiding the enemy.
If one reads the transcript of this testimony (and I urge the reader to do so), it is clearly an impassioned defense on behalf of our soldiers. It is the Vietnam War, and those who continued to prolong it, that he denigrates.
He goes on to describe the war itself as morally degrading both for our society and most especially for our soldiers fighting it. The carpet bombings, search and destroy missions, free fire zones (where one is told to shoot anything that moves), the glorification of body counts, coupled with strange-looking people with an alien culture, and the blurring of the line between civilians and enemy combatants: all led inevitably to the de-humanization of the Vietnamese people. And this led inevitably to atrocities, "not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command...."
But this is different than saying our soldiers, themselves, were sadistic criminals. On the contrary, Kerry is saying they were wholesome, dedicated young men who were caught up in a toxic, morally-inverted world--what Robert J. Lifton calls "an atrocity-producing situation," that monstrously scarred them afterward.
I experienced the truth of this terrible aftermath. From 1969-71, I was a psychiatrist in the Army and interviewed hundreds of soldiers following their return from Vietnam. It was as if their moral compass had been set askew and now that they were back home it was being re-set to its normal bearings. Things which they had seen or done in the normal course of events were now coming back to haunt them.
I remember one young man who had grown up on a farm in the Bible Belt and was quite religious. He came into the clinic because his wife was starting to press him to have a child. He said children made him nervous; he couldn't even stay in the same room with them for very long. He used to love children, so right away I wondered about his Vietnam experiences. With much shame and reluctance, he began to tell me about an experience in the field.
Toward the end of his tour, his unit approached what they were told was a Viet Cong friendly village. They were told, or so he and the others perceived it, to shoot everything that moved and then burn the hooches. They went in shooting. Much was a blur, but he remembers shooting a woman and then seeing all her young children around her. He felt like he had just killed a dog and all her puppies were now doomed to a slow, agonizing death. So he shot them, too. It wasn't until he was back for several months that he began to have the recurrent nightmare of the faces of those children.
Kerry had the guts both to go to Vietnam and to tell the truth upon his return. The truth hurts--especially when the signs and symptoms of an atrocity-producing situation are starting to appear in our occupation of Iraq.
But hiding under the banner of "Truth," a small batch of old soldiers, brimming with three decades of venom, have suddenly been bankrolled to let it all spill out on national TV. Not a pretty sight. Or as Jim Russell has said: Unbelievable.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
"Conditions of Atrocity," by Robert Jay Lifton (The Nation)
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