Modern History Sourcebook:
Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement, 1971
Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement by John Kerry, 1971
to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations April 23, 1971 I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that
several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which
over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated,
veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.
These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day
basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in
Detroit - the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men
who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the
absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.
They told stories that 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 Ghengis 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.
We call this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation. The
term Winter Soldier is a play on words of Thomas Paine's in 1776
when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriots and summertime soldiers
who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.
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, not the reds, but the crimes which
we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out....
In our opinion and from our experience, there is nothing in South
Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United
States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American
life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the
preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse,
is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind
of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.
We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people
who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial
influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom
we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put
to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving
We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism
and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without
helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their
villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything
to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of
the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and
they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military
force was present at a particular time, be it Viet Cong, North
Vietnamese or American.
We found also that all too often American men were dying in those
rice paddies for want of support from their allies. We saw first
hand how monies from American taxes were used for a corrupt dictatorial
regime. We saw that many people in this country had a one-sided
idea of who was kept free by the flag, and blacks provided the
highest percentage of casualties. We saw Vietnam ravaged equally
by American bombs and search and destroy missions, as well as
by Viet Cong terrorism - and yet we listened while this country
tried to blame all of the havoc on the Viet Cong.
We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We
saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly
a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers
who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.
We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that
moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the
lives of orientals.
We watched the United States falsification of body counts, in
fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month
after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break.
We fought using weapons against "oriental human beings."
We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe
this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European
theater. We watched while men charged up hills because a general
said that hill has to be taken, and after losing one platoon or
two platoons they marched away to leave the hill for reoccupation
by the North Vietnamese. We watched pride allow the most unimportant
battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because we couldn't lose,
and we couldn't retreat, and because it didn't matter how many
American bodies were lost to prove that point, and so there were
Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 81s and Fire Base 6s, and
so many others.
Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly
while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible
arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States
washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so
that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the
entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have
made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't
be, and these are his words, "the first President to lose
We are asking Americans to think about that because 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?....We are here
in Washington to say that the problem of this war is not just
a question of war and diplomacy. It is part and parcel of everything
that we are trying as human beings to communicate to people in
this country - the question of racism which is rampant in the
military, and so many other questions such as the use of weapons;
the hypocrisy in our taking umbrage at the Geneva Conventions
and using that as justification for a continuation of this war
when we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those
Geneva Conventions; in the use of free fire zones, harassment
interdiction fire, search and destroy missions, the bombings,
the torture of prisoners, all accepted policy by many units in
South Vietnam. That is what we are trying to say. It is part and
parcel of everything.
An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation
of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a
boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he
used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians,
and then suddenly one day he stopped in Vietnam and he said, "my
God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done
to my people," and he stopped. And that is what we are trying
to say, that we think this thing has to end.
We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are
the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? We're here
to ask where are McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatrick, and so many
others? Where are they now that we, the men they sent off to war,
have returned? These are the commanders who have deserted their
troops. And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war.
The Army says they never leave their wounded. The marines say
they never even leave their dead. These men have left all the
casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude.
They've left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind
them in the sun in this country....
We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of
that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their
memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they
can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own
determination to undertake one last mission - to search out and
destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own
hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country
these last ten years and more. And more. And so when thirty years
from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without
an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to
say "Vietnam" and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene
memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where
soldiers like us helped it in the turning.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997