"During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current President, the Vice President and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going, too. But instead he said, 'Send me.'
"When they sent those Swift Boats up the river in Vietnam... John Kerry said, 'Send me.'
"And then when America needed to extricate itself from that misbegotten and disastrous war, Kerry donned his uniform once again, and said, 'Send me'; and he led veterans to an encampment on the Washington Mall, where, in defiance of the Nixon Justice Department, they conducted the most stirring and effective of the protests, that forced an end to the war.
"And then, on my watch, when it was time to heal the wounds of war and normalize relations with Vietnam...John Kerry said, 'Send me.'"
So spoke President Clinton at the Democratic Convention--except that he did not deliver the third paragraph about Kerry's protest; I made that up. The speech cries out for the inclusion of Kerry's glorious moment of antiwar leadership; and its absence is as palpable as one of those erasures from photographs of high Soviet officials after Stalin had sent them to the gulag. Clinton's message was plain.
Military courage in war is honored; civil courage in opposing a disastrous war is not honored. Even thirty years later, it cannot be mentioned by a former President who himself opposed the Vietnam War. The political rule, as Clinton once put it in one of the few pithy things he has ever said, "We [Democrats] have got to be strong.... When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."
And now the United States is engaged in a war fully as wrong as the one in Vietnam. The boiling core of American politics today is the war in Iraq and all its horrors: the continuing air strikes on populated cities; the dogs loosed by American guards on naked, bound Iraqi prisoners; the kidnappings and the beheadings; the American casualties nearing a thousand; the 10,000 or more Iraqi casualties; the occupation hidden behind the mask of an entirely fictitious Iraqi "sovereignty"; the growing scrapheap of discredited justifications for the war. But little of that is mentioned these days by the Democrats. The great majority of Democratic voters, according to polls, ardently oppose the war, yet by embracing the candidacy of John Kerry, who voted for the Congressional resolution authorizing the war and now wants to increase the number of American troops in Iraq, the party has made what appears to be a tactical decision to hide its faith.
The strong and wrong position won out in the Democratic Party when its voters chose Kerry over Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. An antiwar party rallied around a prowar candidate. The result has been one of the most peculiar political atmospheres within a party in recent memory. The Democrats are united but have concealed the cause that unites them. The party champions free speech that it does not practice.
As a Dennis Kucinich delegate at the convention said to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, "Peace" is "off-message." A haze of vagueness and generality hangs over party pronouncements. In his convention speech, President Carter, who is on record opposing the war, spoke against "pre-emptive war" but did not specify which pre-emptive war he had in mind. Al Gore, who has been wonderfully eloquent in his opposition to the war, was tame for the occasion. "Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war," he said, "isn't it now abundantly obvious that the way this war has been managed by the Administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?"
What of the antiwar sentiment that is still in truth at the heart of most Democrats' anger? It has been displaced downward and outward, into the outlying precincts of American politics. The political class as a whole has proved incapable of taking responsibility for the future of the nation, and the education of the American public has been left to those without hope of office. Like a balloon that squeezed at the top expands at the base, opposition to the war increases the farther you get from John Kerry. Carter and Gore can express a little more of it. Howard Dean, who infused the party with its now-muffled antiwar passion, can express more still. Representative Kucinich, a full-throated peace candidate, has endorsed Kerry and has kind words to say about him but holds fast to his antiwar position. On the Internet, Tomdispatch.com, AlterNet.org, commondreams.org, antiwar.com, MoveOn.org and many others are buzzing and bubbling with honest and inspired reporting and commentary. Michael Moore is packing audiences into 2,000 theaters to see Fahrenheit 9/11.
I know, I know: It's essential to remove George W. Bush from the White House, and Kerry is the instrument at hand. I fully share this sentiment. But I am not running for anything, and my job is not to carry water for any party but to stand as far apart from the magnetic field of power as I can and tell the truth as I see it. And it's not too early to worry about the dangers posed by the Democrats' strategy. In the first place, they have staked their future and the country's on a political calculation, but it may be wrong. By suffocating their own passion, they may lose the energy that has brought them this far. They have confronted Bush's policy of denial with a politics of avoidance. Bush is adamant in error; they are feeble in dedication to truth.
If strong and wrong is really the winning formula, Bush may be the public's choice. In the second place, if Kerry does win, he will inherit the war wedded to a potentially disastrous strategy. If he tries to change course, Republicans -- and hawkish Democrats (Senator Joe Lieberman has just joined in a revival of the Committee on the Present Danger) -- will not fail to remind him of his commitment to stay the course and renew the charge of flip-flopping. But the course, as retired Gen. Anthony Zinni has commented, may take the country over Niagara Falls. Then Kerry may wish that he and his admirers at this year's convention had thought to place a higher value on his service to his country when he opposed the Vietnam War.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of A Hole in the World, a compilation of his "Letter From Ground Zero" columns, and of The Unconquerable World (just out in paperback). Courtesy, Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing. This article will appear in the latest issue of The Nation magazine.
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell