Senator's panel to call Afghanistan veterans
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
WASHINGTON - Thirty-eight years ago today, a soldier fresh from
Vietnam riveted the nation by recounting the horrors of a far-away
war, famously asking the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "How do
you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
The speech by 27-year-old John Kerry launched his rise from antiwar
protester to presidential nominee to chairman of that very same
Tomorrow Senator Kerry will listen as veterans of the war in
Afghanistan shine a spotlight on a conflict that a small but growing
number of Americans are beginning to question, even as President
Obama increases troops. But in a sign of how much Kerry - and the
country - has changed since 1971, tomorrow's hearings will feature
few - if any - dramatic calls for withdrawal.
Kerry's committee did not invite any witness from the Iraq Veterans
Against the War, the modern-day analog of the antiwar group he
represented when he testified in 1971. That group, which includes
Afghanistan war veterans, has called for an end to the Afghan war. At
least three out of the four Afghan war veterans who will testify
tomorrow oppose a US withdrawal.
Kerry himself, now an elder statesman and key ally of the president,
has resisted drawing parallels with Vietnam.
"In Vietnam, there was no threat to the United States in any direct
form whatsoever," Kerry said in a recent telephone interview. "The
consequence of not being in Vietnam was in no way to increase the
danger to America. The exact opposite is true in Afghanistan with Al
Qaeda. The threat is very real."
Still, the witness list has frustrated those who believe Afghanistan
is on its way to becoming the next Vietnam.
"I was a little disappointed that there wasn't any outreach made to
hear from veterans who are against the war in Afghanistan, given that
he played a similar role in Vietnam," said Perry O'Brien, a medic who
served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and belongs to Iraq Veterans
Against the War.
Back in the '60s, veterans who opposed the Vietnam war tried for more
than four years to testify about their experiences, but the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee called "everybody except soldiers,"
recalled Jan Barry, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
In January 1971, the group conducted their own hearings, interviewing
over 100 soldiers about alleged crimes against Vietnamese civilians
and other dark aspects of the war. But the hearings, known as the
Winter Soldier investigation, got little media coverage. So Kerry, an
articulate Yale graduate who had recently returned from combat,
suggested the group take its message to Washington. Weeks later, they
camped on the national mall and began contacting members of Congress.
It worked. The State Department invited Kerry and Barry to brief
officials and, at the last minute, the Foreign Relations Committee
asked Kerry, whom Barry considered the veterans' most articulate
spokesman, to testify.
Kerry stayed up all night writing what would become the most famous
speech of his life.
"It was a moment to crystallize a lot of thoughts," Kerry recalled.
"I was shocked to walk in there and see that I was going to be only witness."
Before television cameras, Kerry accused senior US officials of
forcing soldiers to continue an unwinnable war. He said it was the
height of "criminal hypocrisy" to say that America's freedom was
threatened by what happened in the rice paddies of Vietnam. He
recounted testimony from the Winter Soldier investigation, saying
that crimes such as rape, beheadings, and random shootings at
civilians occurred "on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of
officers at all levels of command."
The televised hearings changed the way many Americans saw the war.
"My grandfather, after seeing John Kerry on television, said he
finally understood what I was talking about," Barry said.
The speech launched Kerry's career, but also may have planted the
seeds of political defeat.
His antiwar stance made him an enemy of President Richard M. Nixon,
who undermined Kerry by boosting another Vietnam veteran who accused
Kerry of embellishing his war record. That man, John O'Neill, later
appeared in the so-called "Swift Boat" ads that helped bring down
Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.
The ads stirred the anger of some veterans who felt betrayed by
Kerry's antiwar stance, but Kerry said he has never regretted giving
"A few phrases might have been more artfully expressed, and there
were a few things I left unsaid," he said. "But for an all-night
effort, and the passion of the moment, and the honesty of the moment,
I'm proud of what I said. I think it had an impact and it helped to
save lives and end the war."
Kerry did not become the president in 2004 or secretary of state in
2008, a post many believe that he wanted. But today, he finds himself
at the helm of some of the president's greatest foreign policy
challenges: marshalling support for a climate change treaty, a ban on
nuclear testing, and more funding for Afghanistan.
"He is at a very special moment in his career of public service,"
said Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat. "If one
could write the history of his career trajectory, it is as if he was
destined to be where he is now."
But much has changed since Kerry delivered his call to conscience
four decades ago.
Anger over the Iraq war has been muted by Obama's pledge to withdraw
most combat troops by the middle of next year. Afghanistan remains an
escalating conflict, but many still support it as a necessary
response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
With military deaths in the thousands, rather than tens of thousands,
the two wars have not generated the same public clamor that consumed
the country in 1971.
Tomorrow, at least three of the four Afghan war veterans invited to
testify will say that the United States should stay in Afghanistan,
even though there is no guarantee of success.
Westley Moore, a former Army captain, will call not for withdrawal
but for "a smart victory," he said. Genevieve Chase, a reservist,
will call for longer stints for soldiers so they can learn the
culture and language, while Chris McGurk, a retired US army staff
sergeant, believes that humanitarian assistance must be greatly
improved. A fourth Afghan war vet could not be reached for comment.
But Kerry did not invite O'Brien, who opposes both the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars, even though Kerry invited O'Brien to stay at his
Nantucket home in 2006 during a film festival featuring an antiwar
documentary that O'Brien was in.
Last year, O'Brien organized his own Winter Soldier hearings
featuring testimony from soldiers about how "extremely loose rules of
engagement" and air strikes in Afghanistan kill civilians and
alienate the population.
"I think we presented clear evidence that soldiers were being ordered
to do terrible things," he said. "But there wasn't much of a response."
Members of the group testified before the Congressional Progressive
Caucus, but have never been invited to an official hearing.
A spokesman for Kerry's office said he is "looking for perspectives
from troops who have spent time on the ground, without regard to
their opinions about the war overall."
In an interview, Kerry said it is important "to let democracy work,
in terms of airing differences and options."
Kerry is calling one witness who will urge a dramatic policy shift:
Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran
who lost a son in Iraq.
"The significance of young John Kerry's testimony at that time was
that it seemed to capture something very essential about the Vietnam
war," said Bacevich. "I do believe that today, there is a fairly
urgent need to pose the same essential questions."