George Orwell once wrote a column about an anecdote concerning Sir Walter Raleigh which, as he put it, deserved to be true. While imprisoned in the Tower of London, Raleigh (as we know for sure) decided to beguile the weary detention by writing a History of the World. One day, his efforts were distracted by a commotion below his cell window. He looked out and saw a brawl in progress among the warders. It ended with a man lying dead on the ground and the others running away. Well-connected as he was in the jail, the learned eyewitness Raleigh could not find out what the quarrel had been about, or who had started it, or who had struck the fatal blow. At that moment, he abandoned his History of the World, and only a fragment of it has come down to us.
I have no idea whether John Kerry is or is not telling the unvarnished truth about his service in Vietnam. (I am pretty sure, though, that he was unwise to prompt the release of the photograph of himself with his latest long-silent defender, William Rood of the Chicago Tribune. The shot of Kerry awkwardly shouldering a rocket launcher for the camera makes him look like a complete poseur.) It’s obviously ridiculous for either side to accuse the other of using their recollections for “partisan” purposes. What else? Kerry himself didn’t make a fetish of this until he sought a party’s nomination (which is what “partisan” means) and his nemesis John O’Neill has been silent since the last time this all came up, which was in the Nixon era. Did Kerry imagine that if he dressed up in his old uniform again, his former critics would decide to keep quiet? What, if anything, was he thinking?
On that previous occasion, though, Kerry was using his service as a warrior to acquire credentials as an antiwarrior. Now, he is cashing in the same credentials to propose himself as alliance-builder and commander in chief. This is not a distinction without a difference.
A few years ago, the graduate students at the New School in New York (where I should say that I teach part-time) voted on whether another Democratic senator—Bob Kerrey of Nebraska—should lose his job as president of the university. * He had been accused of committing war crimes in Vietnam. Some of his squad said that he’d personally slaughtered some old people and children, others said he’d been there but not taken a direct part. Nobody disputed that an appalling atrocity had occurred under his command. Whatever the truth of the matter, I thought that Kerrey himself was not telling it. He had, for example, claimed that these cold-blooded murders took place on “a moonless night” when easily consulted records showed this not to be so. The grad students of the school for which I work voted for his resignation, but he sort of copped a pass by having lost part of a limb in a later engagement and having gone on to be anti-Nixon, and a general consensus emerged that one mustn’t pass judgment on actions committed in the fog of war. * (Incidentally, this was an absolutely astonishing proposition for the New School, which was home to a generation of anti-Nazi refugee scholars, to have accepted.)
John Kerry actually claims to have shot a fleeing Viet Cong soldier from the riverbank, something that I personally would have kept very quiet about. He used to claim that he was a witness to, and almost a participant in, much worse than that. So what if he has been telling the absolute truth all along? In what sense, in other words, does his participation in a shameful war qualify him to be president of the United States? This was a combat of more than 30 years ago, fought with a largely drafted army using indiscriminate tactics and weaponry against a deep-rooted and long-running domestic insurgency. (Agent Orange, for example, was employed to destroy the vegetation in the Mekong Delta and make life easier for the Swift boats.) The experience of having fought in such a war is absolutely useless to any American today and has no bearing on any thinkable fight in which the United States could now become engaged. Thus, only the “character” issues involved are of any weight, and these are extremely difficult and subjective matters. If Kerry doesn’t like people disputing his own version of his own gallantry, then it was highly incautious of him to have made it the centerpiece of his appeal.
Meanwhile, even odder things are happening to Kerry’s “left.” Michael Moore, whose film Kerry’s people have drawn upon in making cracks about the president and the My Pet Goat moment, repeatedly says that you can’t comment on the Iraq war—or at least not in favor of it—if you haven’t shown a willingness to send a son to die there. Comes the question—what if you haven’t got a son of military age? Comes the next question—should it only be veterans or potential veterans who have a voice in these matters? If so, then what’s so bad about American Legion types calling Kerry a traitor to his country? The Democrats have made a rod for their own backs in uncritically applauding their candidate’s ramrod-and-salute posture. They have also implicitly subverted one of the most important principles of the republic, which is civilian control over military decisions. And more than that, they have done something eye-rubbingly unprincipled, doing what Reagan and Kissinger could not do: rehabilitating the notion of the Vietnam horror as “a noble cause.”
Correction, Aug. 31, 2004: This article originally stated that the faculty of the New School voted to ask the school’s president, Bob Kerrey, to resign. It was actually the New School’s graduate students who voted for his resignation. (Return to the corrected sentences.)