35 Years Later
By BOB HERBERT
Boston -- Presidents and politicians may worry about losing face, or losing votes, or losing their legacy; it is time to think about young Americans and innocent civilians who are losing their lives. -- John Kerry on Iraq
Saturday was the 35th anniversary of John Kerry's appearance as a young Vietnam veteran before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During his testimony, Mr. Kerry called for an end to the war in Vietnam and famously inquired: ''How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?''
He marked the occasion Saturday with an important and moving speech before an audience crammed into historic Faneuil Hall. The speech took on even more poignancy as it became known over the weekend that at least eight more American G.I.'s had been killed in Iraq.
I've felt all along that Democratic politicians, including Senator Kerry, have hurt themselves with their muddled messages on Iraq. Most elected Democrats have been petrified almost to the point of paralysis by their fear of being seen as soft on national security. So they've acquiesced to one degree or another in a war that in their heads and in their hearts they knew was wrong.
In his speech on Saturday, Senator Kerry, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, gave the impression of a man who had found a voice he'd been seeking through trial and error for a long time, perhaps since that springtime day in Richard Nixon's Washington in 1971.
''I believed then,'' he said, ''just as I believe now, that the best way to support the troops is to oppose a course that squanders their lives, dishonors their sacrifice and disserves our people and our principles.''
He repeated his call for a complete withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year, and offered an uncompromising defense of the right of all Americans -- including retired generals -- to engage in ''untrammeled debate and open dissent'' on the war.
''I come here today,'' he said, ''to affirm that it is both a right and an obligation for Americans to disagree with a president who is wrong, a policy that is wrong and a war in Iraq that weakens the nation.''
He described the war as ''rooted in deceit and justified by continuing deception.'' And in a comparison with Vietnam, he said it is time now to get past ''the blindness and cynicism'' of political leaders who would continue to send ''brave young Americans to be killed or maimed'' in a war that the country had come to realize was a mistake.
By the time he testified in 1971, he said, ''it was clear to me that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen -- disproportionately poor and minority Americans -- were being sent into the valley of the shadow of death for an illusion privately abandoned by the very men who kept sending them there.''
(In a private discussion, Mr. Kerry and I talked about the many thousands of American G.I.'s who were killed in Vietnam after it had become widely known that victory would not be achieved. Barry Zorthian, the public information officer for U.S. forces in Vietnam in the mid-1960's, has noted that American losses nearly doubled between 1969 and the end of the war. He was never convinced, he said, that ''those last 25,000 casualties were justified.'')
Mr. Kerry also warned against allowing the war and the fear of terror to change the character of the United States. He received a standing ovation when he said, ''The most dangerous defeatists, the most dispiriting pessimists, are those who invoke September 11th to argue that our traditional values are a luxury we can no longer afford.''
In an interview after the speech, I asked Mr. Kerry about the secret prisons being run by the C.I.A. and the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which terror suspects are abducted by the U.S. and sent off to regimes skilled in the art of torture.
He said he believed these policies were violations of the Geneva Conventions, then added: ''But the more important thing is that they are violations of our values, violations of our principles. Who are we to run around the world saying protect the Falun Gong or somebody else's right to speak out, and then we're willing to take people without knowledge of [guilt or] innocence and throw them into torture situations. I think that's reprehensible.''