April 29, 2009
The year 1971 was wonderful for paranoia, fear, division, distrust.
Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was driving a daily
wedge between Americans who thought it was a criminal mistake and
those who thought it a cause worth fighting for.
And for a few highly charged hours, late-night television was ground
zero in the debate.
You had to be there, locked on the box to see two guys argue smartly
and sharply about the war in which both had fought. It was on Dick
Cavett's show. He brought together John O'Neill of Vietnam Veterans
For A Just Peace and John Kerry of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
The audience seemed about equally divided. There was no winner. But
there were a lot of morning-after reviews that this, at last, was
what was needed. This was the Vietnam War worked over by two men who
knew it personally.
It was also part of John Kerry's rise to stardom. In that same year,
he claimed the national spotlight when he testified before the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee about the war and asked the now-famous
question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Kerry was hot. He wasn't quite hot enough to win election to Congress
the following year. His campaign suffered a serious setback when his
brother was discovered in the basement of an opponent's headquarters
in Lowell. But he moved on to become Massachusetts attorney general,
then U.S. senator, then a candidate for president who never seemed
quite sure what he wanted to do without checking with 6 focus groups
and 14 consultants.
So he's still a senator, and a powerful one. He's now chairman of the
very committee that he appeared before in 1971. And last week he held
hearings on the war in Afghanistan.
Obviously this is where we cue The Iraq Veterans Against The War to
have a seat and testify before Kerry as Kerry testified on behalf of
his own band of angry, alienated veterans 38 years ago. There is a
wonderful symmetry about it one generation of veterans giving voice
But it didn't happen. The Iraq Veterans Against The War, which
includes veterans of Afghanistan, were not invited to testify. The
group that mirrors the group that provided Kerry his boost onto the
national stage was shut out.
It's too bad. It's our loss. The Vietnam Veterans Against The War had
the one unassailable credential of having been there. They could not
be easily dismissed. The Iraq Veterans Against The War have that same
credential. They try very hard to tell us things about the Iraq and
Afghan wars that we have not heard. They try to teach lessons learned
the hard way.
And the one guy who seemed their ticket to that table in the hearing
room stiffed them. He seemed to forget where he came from.
It is not exactly shocking. For Kerry, the Vietnam Veterans Against
The War always seemed more an opportunity than a cause. When the
group had done all it could for his national profile, he moved on,
leaving few warm feelings behind.
So now we just have to wait for the kind of information that might
have come out at last week's hearings. The Iraq Veterans Against The
War will still be out there trying to tell us about wars we know far
too little about. But it could be years before we have a real
understanding, years before we learn what really happened in the
And someday way down the road, people will inevitably ask why we
didn't know all this stuff back when it might have made a difference.