The nation has yet to come to grips with what really happened in Vietnam, and Mr. Kerry's accusers are among those who simply cannot and never will. They are driven by more than a political desire to further the fortunes of George Bush. Their remarks make clear that what they really hold against Mr. Kerry are his antiwar activities after his return and his testimony then that atrocities were being committed in Vietnam. They regard these as undermining the war effort and casting aspersions on their service. "We won the battle,'' one of Mr. Kerry's accusers, former Navy commander Adrian Lonsdale, said. "Kerry went home and lost the war for us.'' The group's second television commercial focuses on this issue, running bits of old news film of Mr. Kerry's testimony in a 1971 Senate hearing, excerpting his remarks to twist their meaning.
The truth is that atrocities were committed in Vietnam. The worst and most horrendous atrocity was officially sanctioned. The American command coldbloodedly set about to deprive the Communists of the recruits and other assistance the peasantry could provide by emptying the countryside. Peasant hamlets in Communist-dominated areas were deliberately and relentlessly bombed and shelled. Free Fire Zones - anything that moved, human or animal, could be killed - were redlined on military maps.
By 1968, civilian deaths, the great majority from air strikes and artillery, were estimated at about 40,000 a year and seriously wounded at 85,000. The wholesale killing cheapened the value of Vietnamese life in American eyes. It created an atmosphere that fostered the massacre at My Lai hamlet on March 16, 1968, when 347 Vietnamese old men, women, boys, girls and babies were butchered. That same morning another 90 unarmed Vietnamese were slaughtered at a nearby hamlet by a second army unit.
In Vietnam, America the exceptional joined the rest of the human race and demonstrated that it could do evil as easily as it could do good. Mr. Kerry undoubtedly said some intemperate things in 1971. That is the way of youth. But he also showed the moral courage to try to persuade his fellow citizens to halt actions that were disgracing their nation.
There is a way to honestly confront the reality of Vietnam and yet still honor the men who fought there. One must learn to distinguish between the war and the warrior. It always galls me when I hear the generation of World War II referred to as the "greatest generation.'' They were a great generation, but so were the men who served in Vietnam. The soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen who fought there did so with just as much courage as anyone who fought in World War II. The generation of Vietnam had the ill luck to draw a bad war, an unnecessary and unwinnable war, a tragic, terrible mistake. But valor has a worth of its own, and theirs deserves to be honored and remembered.