John Kerry, war crimes and the other Kerrey

Saturday, 23 May 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Former US Senator Bob Kerrey



US Secretary of State John Kerry


Kudos to the new Government in Sri Lanka for being pragmatic, but that should not mean its leaders should be blissfully ignorant about excesses committed by the only superpower in the world. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is widely respected as being well-informed, President Sirisena, and Foreign Minister Samaraweera should be aware that when he spoke in front of the Fulbright Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, he unequivocally and categorically stated that the US was responsible for war crimes. 

I noted with sadness and also relief when he corrected statements on the Tamil terrorists. Keep in mind, this sort of deliberate misstatement and later corrections are used to send messages. A busy man like Kerry who has to deal with Ukraine, Iran, Palestine, etc., has no time nor the intellect to derive his own policy assessments and he depends on his advisors. It is those advisors who are likely to have fed him the statements that went un-rebutted in Washington DC when the new Foreign Minister met him.

A complete picture of John Kerry

Please let me add key missing elements to give you a complete picture of the complex man known as John Kerry; he did two or three tours on what were then called Swift Boats. Coming from a rich privileged northern background, he was a rare volunteer to serve in Vietnam when he enlisted in the US Navy in 1966; volunteering to serve wasn’t seen as the norm for people from privileged backgrounds in the US at that time unless you have a long tradition of military service like Senator John McCain’s family did. 

Kerry was known to be an aggressive commander and earned two/three purple hearts (for combat related wounds sustained during war). During his doomed 2004 Presidential election campaign he regularly brought up his service record. Kerry bragged about his Vietnam War combat experience, which earned him the purple hearts, plus the silver and bronze stars. 

But the Massachusetts Democrat wasn’t forthcoming about becoming a main organiser for one of America’s most radical anti-war groups and rubbed shoulders with the likes of ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda (an actress who is still viewed by at least half of this nation with hostility for giving comfort and aid to the enemy) and former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Keep in mind that he came back and became a vocal opponent of the war and claimed to have thrown his medals away in protest at a rally in DC once. This was used by his opponents during his campaign and put paid to his ambitions to defeat the very popular George W. Bush in 2004.

A lot of conservatives condemned him for being a traitor and raised this issue during the elections in 2004. Many accused him of being a “glory hound” for actively seeking notoriety to gain fame. While those charges may never be proven or disproven the belief was that he was a little rich boy looking for adventure and glory. He did grow up fast when he came back after his tours. 

A group of rich Texan businessmen and angry veterans launched a blistering mudslinging campaign against him and that effectively put paid to his almost non-existent chance to beat the war monger Bush who had a very questionable military record (enjoying state side duties in relative ease in the Alabama National guard thanks to his Dad pulling strings) at a time “patriotism and military service and sacrifice” were key issues of the election. That campaign was called “Swiftboating” and brought into question his military record. 

While most of those attacks against Kerry were false they did their damage. He was also viewed as being too liberal even though he lost only by 35 electoral votes and had he managed to carry a couple of key swing states (Ohio and Florida for example) he could have dislodged Bush. It didn’t help that he had a disingenuous (later indicted for campaign finance fraud) John Edwards as his running mate who couldn’t even carry his state of North Carolina.

In 1971, Kerry made a name for himself by testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is still remembered for his statement “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry often painted his fellow GIs as so brutal, for instance, that they could easily be mistaken for Jihadi terrorists. In his testimony to Congress he told them that US soldiers had “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

The other war hero, Republican Senator McCain (Republican from Arizona) was tortured by North Vietnamese communists in the infamous Hanoi Hilton where the Vietnamese regularly used anti-war propaganda from inside the USA including images of Kerry testifying in front of Congress to taunt McCain and other POWs. 

The other Kerrey, the war criminal

Now follow that up with what the ‘Other Kerrey’ did and admitted to after he was no longer in the Senate. I am referring to Senator Bob Kerrey (Democrat from Nebraska and was a US Senator from 1989 to 2001; a big American war hero who lost a leg in combat and was a leader of a legendary Navy SEAL unit. They cold-bloodedly massacred about 25 babies, women and children in a hamlet known as Thanh Phong. This was in 1969 and he was an inexperienced Lieutenant. He failed to admit that until he retired. The cover ups of US excesses and massacres and abuse of women were massive Kerry the Secretary and Kerrey cannot admit to those even in 2015.

But in his lecture in Colombo, he failed to mention that millions of Vietnamese are still missing. If there is to be honest healing in the US, then people like him have to admit to the massacres and the innocent civilians they killed as well. Kerry and McCain later led the campaign to normalise relations with Vietnam and to “Bring back our boys” about MIAs in Vietnam. But he failed to admit to the world that US munitions killed millions and the Vietnamese are still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. There are far greater number of missing Vietnamese MIAs.

Not one American was ever tried for war crimes. MyLai massacre (March 1968) where over 500 innocents were raped, bayoneted and massacred, was exposed only due to the tireless efforts of Seymour Hersh. No war crimes trials; no one was hauled up to Geneva. Two men got away with light sentences and the man who ordered it was pardoned by President Gerald Ford.

Sri Lanka

Yes in the confusing fog of war, people commit crimes, and kill innocents. It was foolish for the Government of Sri Lanka to insist there were zero civilian casualties. That cannot be; by its very nature war is very devilish and it is meant to be evil and kill. Their propaganda was weak and they could not counter the relentless stretching of numbers and they lost credibility with the ludicrous stand of “zero casualties”. 

I agree with Senator Kerry on his US civil war analogy. Kerry’s civil war narration is a better analogy to have used than his really weak and farfetched linking Sri Lanka’s cruel internal war between a group labelled as terrorists and the legitimate forces of a democratically internationally-recognised government. 

Living and having worked in small towns across the Confederate south a couple of summers in the 1980s, I came to respect the Southern point of view on the war too. To this date countless Southerners will refer to the Civil war as the “northern war of aggression”. Most museums in the South give a very different account of battles and even slavery than in the North. 

To counter Mount Rushmore Wyoming, in Stone Mountain Georgia, Southerners carved the images of three significant Confederate leaders of the south: President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E Lee and General Stonewall Jackson, a legendary fearless military leader of the Confederate States. More than 150 years later, those divisions still exist and White Southerners venerate their leaders. There’s a lot of hostility towards Lincoln in the South. Cruelties of the civil war can be summed with one visit to Andersonville Confederate POW camp museum (or if the US wants; have an honest debate on Camp Bucca in Iraq and how it was the starting point for radical ISIS jihadi extremism). 

Some of the scars of the war in Sri Lanka will take a long time to heal. Some of the images of the heroes of terrorist movement will forever remain etched in the minds of LTTE supporters and combatants. Grieving Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim mothers will grieve until they die regardless of whether the dead son was a war hero or a terrorist suicide bomber or a child added to the body count in what is termed as “collateral damage”.

If Sri Lanka’s policy wonks were well informed about such issues, they will have a better understanding of how to cope with propaganda and also to deal with the healing process. There is no point in trying to insist there were zero civilian casualties. But that doesn’t mean you happily nod your head in obeisance every time a patronising white man who may have committed war crimes himself comes around making misstatements and wagging his finger. 

A brilliant man like Lakshman Kadirgamar (murdered by LTTE terrorists) would have known what to say at least in private to Kerry. Sri Lanka needs the US, and US interests in Sri Lanka are based on their long-term strategic needs and fears about China. That is why it sought to destabilise Maldives and for the first time in their diplomatic history created a special “Maldivian interests” section in the Embassy in Colombo in 2008. 

Open hostility has finally given way to realpolitik and Sri Lanka should work towards protecting its own national interests without picking fights it cannot win; it was foolish to take a hostile approach to the world’s biggest power with a long history of destabilising nations around the world. Morality is relative to whether you are a rich predominantly Christian nation pulling all the strings or not when killing and war is concerned. Vietnam and US war crimes that Kerry himself alluded to, remain to this date, a tragic tale of two conflicting worlds within the American psyche and soul. The Rajapaksa regime won the war and seems to have lost the peace.