Tuesday, August 24, 2004


Swift Boat Lies Re-Fight The French Revolution

With the attacks on John Kerry’s service record by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" (SBVT), some people have lamented the fact that we’re debating a war that ended nearly 30 years ago, instead of talking about today’s issues, instead of talking about the future. Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is, this isn’t really about the Vietnam War. The bad news is, it’s about the French Revolution.

The French Revolution?

Yup! And I’m not talking about their refusal to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I’m talking about the real, original French Revolution.

The slanderous Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry provide a striking illustration of the large-scale structure of lies that dominate our era—a structure much deeper than superficial tangle of false and unsubstantiated accusations aimed at Kerry, even deeper than the tangled web of associations between those attacking him, going back decades into the early 20th Century. This large-scale structure has two main elements—the reactionary claim that liberals are traitors, and centrist claim that equates left and right as symmetrical distortions of the neutral truth, which have to be balanced off one another.

The first lie softens the ground, giving unwarranted credence to attacks on the patriotism of veterans—even war heroes—as unpatriotic, even traitorous, if they are critical of wars they have been sent to fight. The second lie creates a false equivalence between groundless, scurrilous attacks and solidly-supported facts, allowing the nation’s political discourse to be mired in fantasy accusations—which are, in a way, the essence of the conservative agenda.

The first lie—that liberals are traitors—lies at the heart of the attacks on Kerry. Attacking his heroism is the necessary prelude to attack him for his role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War—which conservative ideologues equate with disloyalty and treason.

The lie that liberals are traitors goes back at least to ancient Greece, but it got its definitive modern shape in response to the French Revolution. It hinges on the belief that authority is not to be questioned—an almost universal belief before the advent of democracy. Liberals, in contrast, believe it is patriotic to question authority, because authority is only legitimate if it arises out of being able to answer the questions put to it—and thus gaining our consent.

When Marie Antoinette was told that the people lacked bread, and she replied, "Let them eat cake," the reactionary defenders of the monarchy had no clue how this sounded to parents whose children had died of starvation. Instead, they convinced themselves that the Revolution was nothing more than a nefarious plot, a palace intrigue carried on by upstarts who had never even seen the inside of a palace. (In a sense this was quite understandable, Palace intrigues were the only sort of politics they knew—much like the Beltway politicos and cable talking heads of today.) To feed this conviction, there arose the myth of the Bavarian Illuminati as the hidden manipulators behind the Revolution, bent on world domination. Originally propagated by Augustin de Barruel, this myth became the prototype for modern conspiracy theories. Barruel had a strong but fleeting impact on American politics, helping to fuel one of the earliest anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner panics.

The real Bavarian Illuminati had been disbanded a decade before the Revolution—but no matter. It was based in Bavaria, not France—but no matter. It had never possessed any sort of mass political influence—but no matter. It was a convenient scapegoat, a way for monarchists to convince themselves that the people still loved their King and Queen, despite having cut off their heads, a way to convince themselves that democracy was nothing but a sham for would-be royal usurpers. The Bavarian Illuminati was the first example of the hated "liberal elite." It was only fitting that it did not exist.

If one believes that (sanctioned by divine will) King and France were one and the same, then indeed, the revolutionaries were traitors. But if we one believes that France and her people are one, then they were patriots instead—unless one believes the myth of the non-existent Bavarian Illuminati, a sinister, unseen force that lead the people astray.

Thus, two close-knit lies stand behind the claim that liberals are traitors. First, the reactionary lie that the king and the country are one. We see this lie today in those who claim that criticizing the President is tantamount to disloyalty, or even treason. Second, is the lie that people oppose the king (or President) not because of what he does wrong (impossible!), but because they’re under the spell of a shadowy liberal elite, that pretends to care about liberty and justice, but really only cares about power.

This lie is deeply embedded in the current attacks on John Kerry. Those attacks are focused on him because of his role as a one-time prominent spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Indeed, one of the SBVT members, John O’Neill, was selected by Nixon specifically to go after Kerry at the time of Kerry’s highest visibility. Vietnam was a deeply unpopular war—as unpopular with the troops who fought it as it was with the American people. Because of this, a direct attack on Kerry’s role in VVAW would not be as effective as an attack on his stature as a decorated veteran. (Kerry himself has pointed declined to call himself a war hero. The real heroes didn’t come back, he has said.) Thus, there is no way to separate the two attacks, they are inextricably linked.

No doubt the Bush campaign machine would have had "independent" surrogates attack Kerry, just as it attacked McCain in 2000, regardless of Kerry’s involvement in VVAW. But this only reflects Bush’s vulnerability and lack of substance. The attack on Kerry taps into forces that go much deeper. And so we turn to VVAW, and the anti-war resistance within the military that it was part of.

As we do, you should note how the issues raised by the French Revolution live on. French reactionaries identified King, country and people—without, of course, caring what the people had to say—and portrayed the revolutionaries as unwitting tools of a shadowy foreign power: the Bavarian Illuminati. American reactionaries (they call themselves "conservatives," which is open to debate) identified President, country and people as well—again, without caring what the people had to say, and portraying anti-war protesters as unwitting tools of a shadowy foreign power: the "international Communist conspiracy."

Two things were different, though. First, the "international Communist conspiracy" actually existed, though not at all in the form that reactionaries—such as J. Edgar Hoover—imagined it. Second, America’s fighting men were part of the equation as well, symbolically fusing President, country and people. And, of course, loyally not asking questions. But that was a lie. They were Americans. They asked questions.

VVAW was crucially important. Its very existence challenged the lie that protesters hated or opposed the troops, as opposed to the war they were sent to fight, and the men who sent them to fight it. This lie was but another manifestation of the lie that liberals are traitors. The troops here represented the people, and the protester’s alleged opposition to them was supposed to prove their enmity to the American people. But the members of VVAW were openly and visibly both soldiers and protesters. Their very existence disproved the lie of liberal treachery.

VVAW was relatively small—perhaps one percent of those who served in combat in Vietnam—but it represented a much larger body of opinion in the ranks. Indeed, it’s one of the great hidden stories of our time that the Vietnam War ended in large part because the men sent to fight it turned against the war. There are numerous indications of this resistance. There was a nationwide network of GI coffeehouses just off-base where anti-war disaffected soldiers could get anti-war literature, and talk freely with one another about the war. There was also a network of GI anti-war newspapers, which were passed around within the military.

In A People’s History of the United States [excerpt], Howard Zinn writes, "Underground newspapers sprang up at military bases across the country; by 1970 more than fifty were circulating. Among them: About Face! in Los Angeles; Fed Up! in Tacoma, Washington; Short Times at Fort Jackson; Vietnam Gl in Chicago; Graffiti in Heidelberg, Germany; Bragg Briefs in North Carolina; Last Harass at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Helping Hand at Mountain Home Air Base, Idaho. These newspapers printed antiwar articles, gave news about the harassment of GIs and practical advice on the legal rights of servicemen, told how to resist military domination."

Over time, massive resistance developed to going to Vietnam, along with massive resistance to fighting, once there. Zinn notes, "As early as June 1965, Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate in Vietnam, refused to board an aircraft taking him to a remote Vietnamese village…. In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, refused to teach Green Berets, a Special Forces elite in the military."

Resistance increased in step with major protests, such as on Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969. Some troops wore black armbands—the symbol of the anti-war movement’s resistance activities that day. Zinn writes,"A news photographer reported that in a platoon on patrol near Da Nang, about half of the men were wearing black armbands. One soldier stationed at Cu Chi wrote to a friend on October 26, 1970, that separate companies had been set up for men refusing to go into the field to fight. ‘It's no big thing here anymore to refuse to go.’ The French newspaper Le Monde reported that in four months, 109 soldiers of the first air cavalry division were charged with refusal to fight. ‘A common sight,’ the correspondent for Le Monde wrote, ‘is the black soldier, with his left fist clenched in defiance of a war he has never considered his own.’"

As time went on, this resistance grew even stiffer. Officers who insisted on taking resistant units into the field were often attacked by the troops under their command—what was called "fragging," after a common method—the use of a fragmentation grenade. The Pentagon reported 96 fraggings in 1969 and 209 in 1970—but these were almost certainly low-ball figures.

Resistance spread to the officer corps as well. Zinn writes, "In the summer of 1970, twenty-eight commissioned officers of the military, including some veterans of Vietnam, saying they represented about 250 other officers, announced formation of the Concerned Officers Movement against the war."

One motivation for Nixon’s shift from ground troops to air war was to get around this increasing stiff resistance to fighting a war that the troops increasingly opposed. But eventually, with the Christmas Bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, even the elite B-52 pilots—men with ranks of captain and more—refused to fly some missions, which they regarded as illegally-ordered war crimes.

Naturally, the level of resistance within the military was always hidden from the American people. VVAW were the tip of an enormous iceberg, and so suppressing and discrediting them became a high-priority item for the Nixon Administration, just as discrediting them remains a high-priority item for the Bush Administration and other reactionary forces today.

On January 31 through February 2, 1971, VVAW convened what they called the Winter Soldier Investigation—an investigation into war crimes committed in Vietnam, based on direct testimony over 100 men. The term came was a reference, in contrast to those Tom Paine describe who deserted Valley Forge because the going was rough. "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman," Paine wrote. The Winter Soldier was conceived as the exact opposite—those who serve when it is most difficult.

"The Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) grew out of the moral outrage of American soldiers who had committed acts in response to official orders and policies that were criminal in nature," wrote William F. Crandell, who wrote and presented the opening statement.

In April, 1971, VVAW came to Washington, DC for a "limited incursion into the country of Congress," in what was known as Dewey Canyon III—so named after Dewy Canyons I and II—secret, code-named invasions of Laos. As apart of this action, John Kerry, then a VVAW spokesman, was called to testify before Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator William Fulbright.

Kerry’s testimony that day is the core reason for the SBVT attacks on him. It is presented out of context as if Kerry himself was personally attacking all those who served, making sweeping accusations about actions he could not possible have known first hand. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Four points from Kerry’s testimony deserve notice here. First, the "accusations" Kerry reported were not accusations at all. They were first-hand testimony he had heard—his report on others confessing to what they had seen first hand, and often taken part in. The war crimes these men confessed to were terrible deeds. But they were not terrible men. They were good men, which is precisely why they came forward when no one but their own consciences told them to do so. Because they were good men, those acts troubled them so deeply that they could not remain silent, even though it meant publicly confessing to horrendous acts.

Here are Kerry’s own words:

"I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago, in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit--the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

"They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

Such acts of public confession require enormous bravery—as anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by something they have done can readily attest. When Kerry summarized this testimony, he was honoring the courage of these men, by furthering the purpose that their testimony served—to give the American people a truthful, accurate picture of the nature of the war being waged in their name.

Second, Kerry told the Senators, "We are angry because we feel we have been used it the worst fashion by the Administration of this country." Thus, he explicitly denied the Administration’s attempt to identify itself with the troops under fire, and set the troops in opposition to the Administration instead.

No sooner did he do this, than he went on a third point—refuting attempts by the Administration to pit protesters—whom Vice President Agnew had called "misfits"—against the troops. "[T]hose he calls misfits were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to," Kerry said.

Finally, Kerry concluded his testimony with the hope that those he spoke for would be able to salvage some meaning and purpose from their ordeal—to change the course of America, to admit our tragic mistakes, to learn from them, and never to repeat them again.

Thus, Kerry’s testimony went to the very heart of challenging the reactionary worldview. Authority did not descend from the President and some special secret knowledge ha alone possessed, it arose from the people, including specifically those who saw and participated in the horrors of war, who had those horrors seared into their memories forever.

Now, clearly, one does not have to agree with everything Kerry said—or indeed with anything Kerry said—in order to conclude that (1) He was sincere. (2) He made a principled argument. (3) He and those he spoke for had risked death and made sacrifices in service to our country that demanded a certain special respectful hearing for what they had to say. One could disagree with everything he said, and still respect his intentions, his arguments and his right to be heard.

However, such respect is incompatible with the fundamental lie that liberals are traitors. If one believes that lie as an article of faith, then any evidence to the contrary must be phony. And that is the essence of the attack on John Kerry, which easily bleeds over from attacking his testimony to attacking his military service as well—because it is not based on evidence, but on the need to prove what is already believed.

The Bush Administration today would have us believe that the torture at Abu Graihb prison was a series of isolated events, for which no higher-ups bear any responsibility. But Kerry’s testimony from 1971 helps to unmasks that lie. It provides us with an historical precedent. And it strongly suggests that those who engaged in torture were themselves also victims, "have been used it the worst fashion by the Administration of this country."

Such thoughts cannot be. They must be a lie. The King can do no wrong.

This is the reactionary mindset, given modern form in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Vietnam was just a replay, 30 years ago. Iraq is a replay today.

The attacks on Kerry are quite similar to the Bush Administration’s case for going to war with Iraq. A predetermined belief in what must be so works to twist and spin whatever evidence can be found, presumed, or even just imagined.

This leads us directly back to the second fundamental lie, which is reflected in the way the press systematically misjudges and misrepresents the issues at hand, elevating lies, supposition, speculation, and even hallucination, while denigrating cold, hard facts. For in fact, left and right are not mirror-images of one another. The Right stands for unquestioning loyalty. The Left asks, "Why?"

And when the Left asks "Why?" the Right screams, "Treason!"

Well, if this be treason, let us make the most of it.

Never stop asking "Why?"

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