I am writing this as I ride a train from Philadelphia to Boston, on my way to witness what, to me, is a momentous anniversary in our national history, even if it will be barely noticed in our national media, let alone by the circus-captivated American public.
35 years ago this Saturday, April 22nd, a young former Naval officer appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, to tell the truth as he had seen it in the American War – known to Americans, of course, as the Vietnam War.
On this 35th anniversary that young man, now a Senator himself, will reach out once more to cast forth the truth, as he sees it, for another generation, of another war that America wages for dubious goals as it wreaks havoc and bloodshed in the lives of brown-skinned people in a distant land, at a terrible cost of American lives and credibility.
35 years and what did we learn?
I’ll tell you what I have learned in just the last two years. Too many Americans cannot handle the truth. In 1971 our culture was reeling with the consequences of a war that stole away our youth and our promise, for reasons that were dissatisfying and / or disbelieved by a large segment of the population. During the young veteran’s testimony he was commended by the committee for his act of coming forward to speak the truth as he saw it, for his maturity and leadership in leading thousands of others in a hugely emotionally charged demonstration without serious incidents.
Yet down through the years instead of heralding him for his effort and courage, many – some of whom complain of being spat on themselves by a close-minded public – target their angst and anger at this one who at the young age of 27 did his best to simply tell the truth as he saw it.
In 2004, Americans had the choice for their president, of a man with a record of failure, who spoke of his own youth as “irresponsible”, vs. a man with a record of courageous leadership that began in his youth. Americans chose failure.
Instead of learning from our history, many Americans have obstinately rejected the truths of that history, lest they be forced to relinquish or alter some sacrosanct notion of their own honor, or the justification for their own behavior or the behavior of a loved one. They wrap themselves in a flag of false patriotism as if it will protect them, while they fail to exercise what true patriotism demands: honest and open reflection on the facts of history – all facts presented by all sides, not just the cherry-picked evidence that supports their own views or reflects their own experiences; a real desire and effort to understand the consequences of the actions of our government and our people on others; and finally the vigorous participation of truly patriotic citizens in guiding their governmental representatives to choose the courses that will truly make us proud to be Americans.
Or in short: honestly seek out the truth and then have the courage to tell that truth, as you see it; as John Kerry did in 1971.
I just listened to an audio file of Kerry’s full opening statement from 1971. It breaks my heart to hear how much of it rings true today, if only the names “Vietnam” and “Vietnamese” are replaced by “Iraq” and “Iraqis.” Sure there are many differences…and the one most glaring to me – yet one point on which I hope that I will be mercifully proven completely wrong – is that while John Kerry could say in 1971 that there was no rational argument to support any notion of real threat from the North Vietnamese if we withdrew our troops from Vietnam, I cannot see such a statement about Iraq today. It seems to me that by removing Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran, Bush has created a huge strategic problem for the non-Islamofascist world; simply withdrawing our troops risks leaving the entire region to “religious” extremists, who among other things will treat women as property, and respect no notion of religious toleration or freedom of expression. Yet if we don’t withdraw now, we will only be faced with the same choice later – only after more death and destruction and fertilization of hatred. In other words, it will only be worse if we do it later, and we most surely will do it later if we don’t do it now.
I believe we truly have no good options in Iraq. In fact we don’t even have lousy options. We only have horrible choices and really, really, horrible choices.
My only hope comes from the assurance that John Kerry knows far more than I do – perhaps he can detect a decent option among the ruins of Bush’s Iraq Debacle. Or at least a merely lousy one.
I cannot imagine what must cross John Kerry’s mind as he reflects back on that passage of time, and the parallels between that era and today’s. Perhaps tomorrow he will grant us some glimpse. In any case I am sure of one thing … he will not express it in the tone of despair and anger that I feel as I write this. I think that he will speak of the past as a guide for the future; where we’ve been and how it informs our choices for going forward from here. As desperate as the situation is, I look forward to tomorrow knowing that I will hear a message of hope and guidance.
35 years – where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership?
Tomorrow, I go to hear one of the true leaders of our country speak. How I wish that sane, decent, hopeful, and guiding leader were our President.