One implication of the Kerrey revelations is so simple and obvious that it has somehow gone more or less unacknowledged in the controversy. It’s this: What Kerrey did in Vietnam (even in the least damning version of events) doesn’t just remind us what was wrong about the war. It gives retrospective moral support to the decision by most of Kerrey’s generational peers–myself included–to avoid combat service in Vietnam.
New York Times columnist William Safire anticipated this point when, a few days after the Kerrey story broke, he wrote a pre-emptive piece caricaturing and condemning the expected resurgence of anti-war sentiment: “The American elites that ducked the draft were right to refuse to get involved in somebody else’s civil war, goes this voice.” But it turned out Safire was trying to hoot down a voice that was never heard. I haven’t read all the Kerrey commentary, but I’ve read a lot of it–and I haven’t seen anyone claim that the incident at Thanh Phong shows why they were right to avoid fighting in the war.
It’s not hard to explain the absence of this particular I-told-you-so. There may well have been a period, during the ‘60s, when returning Viet vets were shunned as “baby-killers”–though I suspect that phenomenon has been exaggerated, and Kerrey’s example suggests that at least some of the vets may have been projecting their self-condemnation onto others. In any case, the tables turned very quickly. As early as 1975, the year the war ended, journalist James Fallows published an influential article in which he condemned his own draft-dodging, noting that while he was a student the boys of “Chelsea and the backwoods of West Virginia” were sent off to die. The moral course for those who opposed the Vietnam War, he argued, was to go to jail.
Fallows initially advocated such civil disobedience as the most effective way to stop the war (it would have produced a huge parental outcry). But that anti-war rationale soon fell away in the general desire to honor those who served and, implicitly, condemn people who avoid their duty to the nation. Millions of baby-boomers who ducked the war began to feel guilty, even envious of those who’d fought it. Bill Clinton’s escape from Vietnam-era service became a major liability, and not just because of the manipulative way he did it. In this atmosphere, who wants to risk being charged with dishonoring veterans (or scorned as a cowardly, elitist Boomer) by noting that Kerrey’s admission casts the actions of men like Clinton in a more favorable light?
Just because a course of conduct saves your ass doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. I passively avoided service in Vietnam (accepting a student deferment before escaping the draft in the lottery). I did it mainly because, like the 90-plus percent of my draft-age peers who also avoided service, I didn’t want to get killed. But I also did it because I didn’t want to kill women and children (or other men) without a better reason than I’d been given. Kerrey’s story reminds me that these qualms were justified, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my behavior. His description of the tacit rules of engagement in “free-fire zones”–in which “standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with,” even if they were entire peasant families whose main crime was failing to obey our order to move out of their villages–is enough. (See the discussion of this point here and here.)
To be sure: I’m not saying Kerrey wasn’t also a hero. I’m not saying it was wrong to go to Vietnam, or dishonorable, or that those who served weren’t obviously more courageous than those who avoided serving. I’m not saying dodging service was courageous at all, or in any way more honorable. I’m not judging Vietnam vets, including Kerrey (assuming his version holds up). I’m not saying the war wasn’t based on an honorable anti-communist goal, or that this wasn’t a goal worth fighting for. I’m not saying that many of us on the Left who opposed the war weren’t grievously mistaken about the nature of the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists. I’m not saying it was right that those who went to Vietnam tended to be poorer and less well-connected than those who avoided service. I’m not saying it was right that people like me escaped any form of national service, even civilian service. I’m not saying Fallows’ original point–that if I really opposed the war I should have gone to jail–doesn’t have merit.
I am saying that the Thanh Phong story reminds us that avoiding serving in Vietnam had an honorable and realistic ethical basis (in addition to its realistic selfish basis). Patriots like Kerrey himself, after all, quickly came to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was an unjustifiable moral hell. We listened to them.