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The Ghost of Saigon

Thirty years after the fact, Vietnam is still an open wound. If you listen to the pundits on conservative talk radio, you might come to the conclusion that it’s only those who served in ‘Nam, or those who supported the war, who continue to be bothered over our collective adventure in Southeast Asia. Nothing could be further from the truth, and John Kerry should wake-up to this fact if he wishes to save his failing campaign.

Thirty years after the fact, most of us who opposed Johnson’s war, which became Nixon’s war, still feel disenfranchised. Although we equated our antiwar activism with patriotism, we are to this day called traitors and communist sympathizers. We are blamed for our country’s loss in Vietnam, even though historians pretty much agree that this conflict was not winnable.

Thirty years after the fact, we still don’t feel that we can trust our government. We were told, and many of us believed, that we were fighting for the freedom of democracy. In fact, we were fighting to support a puppet regime, put in power by us in a “free election” in which nearly 90% of potential voters were disqualified for political reasons. We watched our friends come home in body bags, knowing that although they did not die in vain, they did die for a lie.

Thirty years after the fact, the once courageous John Kerry, now candidate Kerry, thinks it wise to forget that he once told the truth about atrocities he witnessed while serving in this now ancient conflict. To appease the hawks, he now claims that his testimony against the war in 1971 contained only the words of a brash, young 27 year old and that he regrets having ever said them.

The truth is, the John Kerry who returned from the war to oppose it, the John Kerry who was on Nixon’s “enemies list,” was John Kerry at his best. But now, his advisors are telling him that if he identifies with this past he will alienate too many voters. They tell him that he must be all things to all people.

However, trying to please everybody is the surest way to loose an election. Two qualities that are essential in a national leader are honesty and courage, and any candidate who goes for too much universal appeal exhibits neither. A successful candidate cannot worry about alienating voters who are already in the other candidate’s camp.

The noise from the far right about Kerry’s involvement with the Vietnam Veterans Against The War has offered the senator from Massachusetts an opportunity to exhibit both honesty and courage, by again telling the truth about Vietnam. He really has nothing to lose, because anyone who was old enough to read the newspapers during the Nixon era remembers what it was like in our society back then. All Kerry would have to do is say, “Yes, I came home from Vietnam opposed to the war, as did many of my brothers who served there.”

Instead, he distances himself from his activist past, which seems to us old lefties, his hard-core supporters, as if he’s deserting us, even though it was us who supported him when he was a young, brash, newly returned vet. This seems to fly in the face of reason, for it’s certainly not helping him win any votes from the entrenched Bush camp, and the fence sitters are not likely to be impressed by this obvious evasiveness.

It’s not only those of us who are old enough to remember Vietnam who are paying attention to the way he’s turning his back on his past. Political cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall, who was still in grade school when Saigon fell, recently observed that, “John Kerry has made a career out of trying to have things both ways. Now it’s catching up with him.”

Rall goes on to note: “Not only did the guys in black pajamas beat us fair and square, we deserved it. We were wrong. We deserved to lose. Service in the wars against Vietnam and Iraq are nothing to be proud of. If John Kerry can’t admit now what he knew in 1971, at least he can stop bragging about his medals.”

Thirty years after the fact, the ghost of Saigon still haunts us. The conservatives are right; there is still a gaping wound in the fabric of America that centers on our involvement in the Vietnamese civil war. With honesty and courage, John Kerry could have opened a national debate to begin, at long last, the healing process. Instead, he’s thrown salt onto the wound to remind us that it’s still festering.

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