Socialist Worker

Who is John Kerry?

Kerry’s Vietnam record exposes the great hope of the liberal left in the US presidential race as a thug, says Alexander Cockburn

Issue No. 1923

Tim cartoon

Tim cartoon

KERRY’S THE guy who made a fiery anti-war speech the day he left Yale, then promptly signed up to fight in Vietnam. He’s the guy who wouldn’t throw away his own combat medals at an anti-war demonstration, but borrowed some from a friend to toss over the fence.

These days his own are on display in his Senate office. He’s proud to be called a war hero.

How much of a “hero” was he? Kerry’s own diaries as well as the memories of others in his unit make it clear.

In Vietnam Kerry was an exceptionally trigger-happy killer during his three-month rampage to pile up enough Purple Heart medals to quit the field of battle and go back to carve out a political career.

Kerry got himself deployed to An Thoi, at Vietnam’s southern tip, one of the centres for the lethal Phoenix sweeps and the location of an infamous interrogation camp which held as many as 30,000 prisoners.

His first mission, as part of the CIA-organised Phoenix programme, was to ferry a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) of South Vietnamese soldiers.

After offloading the unit Kerry hid his boat in a backwater. Two hours later a red flare told them that the PRU wanted an emergency “extraction”. Kerry’s boat picked up the PRU team, plus two prisoners.

The leader of the PRU team told Kerry that while they were kidnapping the two villagers from their hut they’d seen four people in a sampan (a boat used by the Vietnamese) and promptly killed them.

The two prisoners were snatched as part of a regular schedule of such seizures. The victims would be taken to An Thoi for interrogation and torture.

On daylight missions the boats were accompanied by Cobra Attack helicopters that would strafe the river banks and the skeletal forest ravaged by napalm and Agent Orange.

Here’s an example of these Cobras in action. It’s daylight, so the population is not under curfew. Kerry’s boat is working its way up a canal, with a Cobra above it. They encounter a sampan with several people in it. The helicopter hovers right above the sampan, then empties its machine-guns into it, killing everyone and sinking the boat.

Kerry, in his war diary, doesn’t lament the deaths but does deplore the senselessness of the Cobra’s crew in using all of its ammunition, since the chopper pilot “requested permission to leave in order to rearm, an operation that left us uncovered for more than 45 minutes in an area where cover was essential”.

Christmas Eve 1968 finds Kerry leading a patrol up a canal along the Cambodian border. The Christmas ceasefire has just come into effect. So what the boat was doing there is a question in and of itself. They spot two sampans and chase them to a small fishing village. Kerry orders his machine-gunner, James Wasser, to open up a barrage.

At last there’s a note of contrition, but not from Kerry. Wasser describes how he saw that he’d killed an old man leading a water buffalo: “I’m haunted by that old man’s face. He was just doing his daily farming, hurting nobody.”

Stuff like that didn’t bother Kerry. And no matter how small the wound (he never lost an hour of combat time for any injury), he would put in for a medal, composing vainglorious accounts of his heroism that were used in citations for the medals that got him out of Vietnam.

Most of what passes for the left in America shuts its eyes to what Kerry is, and what he stands for.

He’s pledged a wider, longer, “better” war in Iraq, and has come within a hair’s breadth of declaring war on Iran, and North Korea.

Don’t even ask what he pledges for Israel. (Okay, you asked—unconditional support, financial and political, for anything and everything the government of Israel wants.)

“These weapons represent an unacceptable threat,” he bellowed last year. Not just nuclear weapons of mass destruction. “Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating agents, and is capable of quickly producing and weaponising a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery on a range of vehicles such as bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives which could bring them to the US homeland.”

Kerry’s bottom line? “The president laid out a strong, comprehensive and compelling argument why Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs are a threat.”

Kerry agrees with Bush about the Patriot Act. He agrees with him on trade. He agrees with him on the war. “Why change horses?” Bush will ask the American people. “I can manage things better,” Kerry will respond. What else can he say?

This is where the timid legions of the left, cowed by furious bluster about their treachery in deserting the Democratic standard back in 2000, might ask some serious questions, and maybe even threaten desertion again.

All Kerry can offer is superior management of the imperial bandwagon at home and abroad.

Alexander Cockburn is editor of the CounterPunch newsletter. Go to

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Wed 13 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1923
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