Friday, February 15, 2008

America's Heroes

One of Hillary Clinton’s supporters is Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska (not to be confused with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts). Several years ago Kerrey published a memoir, in which he gave his, not entirely frank, account of his role in the Thanh Phong massacre in Vietnam in February 1969. Soldiers under his command entered a house, cut the throat of an elderly man, then proceeded to do the same to a woman and three small children. They then went into the village itself and rounded up and slaughtered a lot more women, children and elderly men. For this Kerrey was given the Bronze Star (after filing a false report claiming the victims were “VC” – “Vietcong” – who were “killed in action”). According to The New York Times (16/12/07) following his endorsement Hillary Clinton described Kerrey as “the embodiment of patriotism in action”. The Vietnamese government have, by contrast, called him a war criminal; which seems spot-on to me.

It is Bob Kerrey who sparked controversy by saying things like this about Barack Obama:

“Look I - I look at Barack Obama. I think he does have substantial experience in areas that matter to me, personally. For example, he's addicted to nicotine. He's trying to kick the habit. You got a million adolescents every year in America who take up smoking. So he’s gonna be able to lead in the area. Second he's black. And you know, some black leaders are saying he's not, but he's black. And he can speak to youth in America, as he did in Selma, and tell them, that look, I'm for civil rights, I'm for more money in health and education, but if you don't work harder, if you aren't a good parent, if you choose self-destructive behavior there is nothing I can do to help you. And finally, I love that his name is Barack Hussein Obama; that he was educated for a while in a secular madrassa. I know the right wingers are saying that he's, you know, a sort of an Islamic Manchurian candidate, but he can speak like no other candidate to a billion Muslims on this earth and say we're not your enemy unless you make us so”.

Clinton’s supporters say: (a) what Kerrey said is actually complimentary, and (b) in any case the Republicans will say the same things if Obama gets the Democratic nomination, and without the kid gloves. Obama’s supporters point out that what Kerrey said may sound complimentary; but that it is really a disingenuous attempt to gently remind voters that Obama is black, his father was born a Muslim, that his middle name is Hussein. What is said and its intended effect are different. I suspect Obama supporters are right about this; but it is certainly true that if Obama gets the Democratic nomination we can expect a lot more of this sort of thing from Republicans between now and November.

On the other hand, Obama has his own Vietnam Vets on board. He is endorsed by Colin Powell – who played a key role in the attempt to cover-up the Mai Lai massacre (not in the massacre itself). Powell is also the man sent by Bush to lie to the UN in February 2003. And Obama is also endorsed by John Kerry, another vet ready “to report for duty”.

And John McCain, who will certainly get the Republican nomination, is a man who can stand unembarrassed while he is described (repeatedly) as a “hero” (so was Kerry, of course; none of these guys seem to have heard of “self-effacing modesty”). I am willing to believe that McCain showed courage while a guest of the Vietnamese; but let’s not forget his job was to drop napalm on them. I am not sure how “heroic” that really is.

Still, I have to say that of all these, Kerrey does strike one as a deeply unpleasant character. Questioned about his role in Thanh Phong he typically oozes self-pity, as though he were the bloody victim and all that matters is his “trauma”. But then that is America to the core, is it not?


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