Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let Someone Other than Kerry Speak for Iraq Veterans

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 6/26/09

When Wesley Clark was brought out of the jungle with five bullets in his back and carried back home it was, as they said in those days, in a basket. My first sympathies went to him as I was more or less at the same time frame in a safe combat hospital just to the left; 150 miles away from the action and passion. Mine was only a bad case of jungle fever at one time and a collapsed lung at another, but pilots and fighters from the heat of war kept coming in through the night; one pilot, not five years older than us still without full beards in the enlisted ranks, had just had his leg blown off in the air – he screamed and cried all through the night without pause, clutching a framed picture of his wife.

What I came to admire about Clark was that when they brought him home and fixed him he forced himself to learn to walk straight again before he went into public life. There was no public trace of his injuries. He did not appear injured. He did not appear to have been broken. He had metabolized the experience and it had matured and wizened him.

And when I worked as a volunteer for him up here in New Hampshire when he ran for President in 2004 he was asked about the experience. It was a long time ago, he told an audience at Dartmouth. He’d rather the whole thing not have happened. Pretty much how I felt: Let’s go on to the next thing or it will wear us down. An attitude like that of the Chinese who suffered through the Cultural Revolution: It was cold and dark and we didn’t have much to eat. Let’s go on to the next thing.

And for someone born and reared Irish, Catholic and Democrat 150 years into the Massachusetts tradition, this is something else I liked about Wes Clark: He spoke for Democratic veterans from the Vietnam War period and he was not John Kerry.

Kerry has distinguished himself again this week in the league of the light by joining the ranks of the Lettermans; those to mock Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, whose son happens to be serving in active duty. Characteristically off karma, Kerry commented that Palin should get lost for a week like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. In fact, Palin was away visiting American troops overseas. It is like a cult of the aging here in the northeast. Why we don’t know. She is a dedicated and formidable woman with babies; her husband is a real man; she is beautiful and she is unafraid. Because of these things, perhaps. They love her in the heartland. They hate her in Kerry’s Boston and they hate her in Letterman’s New York. But one thing we do know: The enigma of the famous Edvard Munch painting of the twisted and screaming face running across a bridge from the foreign, ambiguous terror on the other side of the river has been solved. We know now what terror lies in wait on the other side of the river: A woman in a red dress.

At General Clark’s request I and a number of other veterans volunteered to work for Kerry after he received the nomination. I did not want to but I did. I had left the war in Asia behind. I had left the equally anguished age of John F. Kennedy behind. Kerry seemed like a shadow of Kennedy. And there was a problem here. That the Irish and others up here would vote for a man who looked a little like JFK. Because wow. They say in school that Kerry so identified, not only because he looks a little like JFK, but because he had the same initials, John Forbes Kerry, JFK. Woooooo.

But Kerry was always a mirage. He appeared to be the archetypal Irishman politician – the kind like my Boston uncles pre-war that Tom Wolfe wrote about; high collar and diamond pin in the silk tie gleaming in the smoky room of all white, all male, all Irish faces. But he was not really Irish as the rest of us were. That is, he was not poor on all sides and from the Old Sod and no other place. He was a Half-blood Prince. The other half was rich and Yankee.

The problem with Kerry is that he is too tall. The Democratic Underground says he is six foot seven and wears padding in his shoes to look taller, but like so many things with him – rumored cosmetic surgery in the old days and the botox rumors when he one day suddenly showed up looking like Spock in the midst of the 2004 campaign – nobody really knows for sure. He looks down at the joyful horde beneath and there is something in him that wants to take part; wants to join in the fun with the real people. So there he is with the hippies, dressed in his old army clothes on the Dick Cavett Show condemning the war in Vietnam, or throwing his medals back at the Pentagon, or up on stage with John Lennon in Lennon’s brief anti-war stage. But he looks frightened of Lennon and Lennon ignores him completely. Then there he is with his army colors, a military hero, marching in the parade. But certain veterans look askance. There is always ambiguity. He is never what he seems. He can never find himself.

Today he wants to be a movie producer. But on June 25, the Federal Election Commission failed to reach a decision on his request to use $300,000 from his campaign funds to invest in a documentary. Kerry wants to produce a movie tentatively titled Keeping Faith about injured Iraq war veterans.

Kerry’s own claims to heroism are also plagued with ambiguity. But the bigger problem here in how we remember war. We remember World War II in the Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Time’s Square on V-J Day, the photograph masterfully composed around the sailor’s huge hand in the center.

When we recall WW II in that picture we remember victory. We remember Vietnam in a picture of Tom Cruise sitting crippled in a wheel chair. When we recall the Vietnam War we remember breakage.

The truth is, we lost that second one, and that is why the black flags are flying from every flag pole in every town in America. I’d like to see them come down. Always charmed and pixilated by us Boston Irish, sympathetic to us Little People who willingly serve, Kerry’s documentary will have us waving another black flag from the flag pole. Victims again. Like in Vietnam. Another subset of the exploited to be patronized.

It is a kind of persona madness that leads one to believe that because he is clever at one thing like science, as Einstein was, then he must have good ideas about world politics as well. Or because he his well regarded as a politician in Boston then he must be a good film producer as well.

Kerry is not Tom Hanks, not Ron Howard, not a perfect master like Joel Schumacher or Steven Spielberg. I certainly cannot speak for Iraq combat veterans but I would not want Kerry divining memory of my war. Because such images give form to the future.

I would however, like to see maybe a commission, starting with Tammy Duckworth and including Jim Webb, the Senator from Virginia and a few others from both parties. Maybe Wes Clark and John McCain can do co-chair. For my part, I would like to see the Iraq veteran rise up and take the initiative, leave the wheel chair behind, and soldier forth on his own character and initiative as Clark did. Before she and he are exploited and manipulated for political purpose and gain by some politician.

Let the Iraq veterans chose their own Elders. Because although Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano sees them and has identified veterans as potential terrorists, it is they and possibly they alone who will bring us to the American future. ‘Twas ever thus.