When John Kerry Was the Soldier 'Breaking the Silence'

The storm over the veterans who expose misconduct by the Israeli army is reminiscent of Kerry's controversial testimony on the Vietnam War nearly 50 years ago.

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John Kerry, 27, former navy lieutenant who was wounded three times in Vietnam, speaks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the VietnamVeterans Against the War on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 22, 1971.
John Kerry, 27, former navy lieutenant who was wounded in Vietnam, speaks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the VietnamVeterans Against the War, Washington, D.C., April 22, 1971.Credit: AP

The backlash in Israel against the organization “Breaking the Silence” with its finger pointing, vilification and heated rhetoric flying fast and furious has a familiar ring to Americans who are old enough to remember the Vietnam War.

One American for whom it should touch an extremely familiar and personal chord is Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israelis as a whole picture Kerry as a gray-haired tireless statesman in a suit jetting around the world on peace missions - and before that, remember him as a senior senator and unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 2004, when he lost to George W. Bush.

They are unfamiliar with the young John Kerry who dramatically burst onto the national scene in the United States in 1971, as the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), speaking openly about the feelings of “anger and betrayal” and even “revulsion” he and his fellow veterans felt about their country’s mission in Vietnam.

It is all captured on video - the lanky 27-year-old man in uniform testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry’s was an anti-war voice that was hard to ignore. No scruffy hippie, he was well-born and one of the best and the brightest - a Yale graduate who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy as a gunboat officer, winning numerous medals during his service in Vietnam, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for three combat wounds.

Kerry’s devastating testimony took place in April 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as part of a series of hearings by Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright to discuss and debate various legislative proposals related to the already-controversial war.

Kerry’s remarks included accounts of behavior just as shocking - in many cases, more so - than anything coming out of the Israeli veterans of “Breaking the Silence." His stories were drawn from testimony given at a three-day media event organized by VVAW in Detroit several months earlier called the "Winter Soldier Investigation" which had been designed to draw attention to what the VVAW said were “war crimes” committed by the U.S. military and their allies in the war.

Kerry opened his remarks by explaining that the group’s name “Winter Soldier” - came from a Thomas Paine quote about the Revolutionary War, referring to “sunshine patriots” who were loyal fighters only when things were going well, their cause was just and their country’s behavior was praiseworthy.

"We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out," said Kerry.

At the Detroit gathering, Kerry recounted, "very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis” and “relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.”

He continued: "They told the stories at times they 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 fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

The powerful and most-quoted line of Kerry’s testimony is: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

To be sure, the political context of the struggle of Kerry and his organization was very different than the fight against the occupation that forms the background to “Breaking the Silence.”

The two political realities can’t be compared. Israelis certainly cannot relate to Kerry’s assertion that "there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America” which he used to delegitimize the U.S. presence in the Asian nation.

Whether or not one believes that they justify the occupation, the threats in the West Bank or Gaza Strip to Israel are very real, not to mention much closer to home.

But the emotional and political dynamic of elite soldiers decrying the military they served, airing their country’s dirty laundry for the world to see, and the subsequent accusations of betraying and endangering their nation is, indeed, similar to what “Breaking the Silence” is going through.

Kerry’s behavior and statements in 1971 cast a long shadow throughout the decades and followed, some would say haunted, him throughout his political career, establishing him as a hero on the American left and branding him as a traitor on the right, who charged that the Winter Soldier event and the Senate testimony were little more than a publicity stunt cynically manipulated by Kerry to advance his political aspirations.

Campaign ads sounding this theme - that Kerry dishonored his country - were used in Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign against Bush in tandem with charges that his war decorations were undeserved, in what ended up coining the phrase “Swiftboating” as a term for an unfair political smear campaign - Kerry’s service had been as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam.

Kerry has another thing in common with “Breaking the Silence” soldiers in that the country’s most powerful leader considered the young veteran a thorn in his side and ordered his staff to discredit him. The famous secret White House tapes have President Nixon and his advisors denigrating Kerry calling him a “phony” and an “opportunist.” The tapes record White House aide Charles Colson promise his boss, “We’ll keep hitting him, Mr. President.”

One can only imagine what the parallel conversations regarding “Breaking the Silence” are like in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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