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Monday, April 19, 2004
More Nuance?

By Steven Taylor @ 11:20 am

Via this NYT story, Kerry Backs Off Statements on Vietnam War, we have the following from Kerry’s MTP interview.:

Senator John Kerry on Sunday distanced himself from contentious statements he made three decades ago after returning from the Vietnam War, saying his long-ago use of the word “atrocities” to describe his and others’ actions was inappropriate and “a little bit excessive.”

“If you wanted to ask me, `Have you ever made mistakes in your life?’ sure,” Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in an hourlong interview on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger.”

OK, so he’s backing off his statements, right?

Well, perhaps not:

“The words were honest,” Mr. Kerry said Sunday, “but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top.”

So, which is it: did troops commit atrocities and break the laws of war or not?

What is he backing off of? His delivery?

As usual, it is difficult to figure out what the Senator’s position is. I am more than willing to give him something of a pass on things he said over 30 years ago-indeed, I have written very little about about the things he said then-but I think he does have to explain whether he holds the same positions now or not. He made some rather dramatic accusations at the time, and he does have to explain himself, I would argue-especially since he said, at the time, that he himself had engaged in acts that could be defined as war crimes.

Indeed, the following from the MTP Transcript for April 18 is rather interesting, given the way that Kerry does not directly answer Russert’s questions.

First, there is videotape of Kerry on MTP in 1971, with some rather dramatic accusations:

(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):

MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End videotape)

Then comes the interchange between Kerry and Russert. Note the rather direct question (indeed, statement) by Russert and note Kerry’s attempt at humor, but more importantly the fact that he never answers the question:

MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.

SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me. You know, I
thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it’s an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

MR. RUSSERT: You used the word “war criminals.”

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don’t like it when I hear it today. I don’t like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier-I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I’m not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

So “atrocities” and “war criminals” are honest, but just over the top. Pardon?

It continues:

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony…

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

SEN. KERRY: A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure, they have, Tim. The problem is that’s not where the focus should have been. And, you know, when you’re angry about something and you’re young, you know, you’re perfectly capable of not-I mean, if I had the kind of experience and time behind me that I have today, I’d have framed some of that differently. Needless to say, I’m proud that I stood up. I don’t want anybody to think twice about it. I’m proud that I took the position that I took to oppose it. I think we saved lives, and I’m proud that I stood up at a time when it was important to stand up, but I’m not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times.

He essentially wants to have it both ways: yes, I was right in 1971, but I am right now to say that I was too angry in 1971. Indeed he seems to be saying that the words “war crime” and “atrocity” simply shouldn’t be used, even though he believes that war crimes and atrocities wer committed,

This kind of inability to stake out clear ground on issues, let alone his own past, is going to be a major problem for Kerry. He knows that being perceived as overly nuanced, a flip-flopper, a waffler, etc.., is one of his key weaknesses (or, at least, you’d think he would) and yet he seems incapable of overcoming his tendency to speak in the grammar of non-commitment.

Filed under: 2004 Campaign
  • The American Mind linked with Kerry's House of Ketchup #8
  • Fringe linked with Nuanced Kerry

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  1. This is a good point. Kerry really blew the chance to look strong here. The recent Toledo Blade stories on Vietnam murders by soldiers was phenomenal reporting and a great look into acts that can only be called atrocities. Kerry is so swept up in trying not to lose the rah-rah military vote that he can’t even stand on the thing that made him famous in the first place. Good observation. And could there be a worse time to make a hair joke?

    Comment by Stephen — Monday, April 19, 2004 @ 12:54 pm

  2. Wow! This was such a long post that I didn’t read it. …but that didn’t stop me from commenting.

    Comment by John Lemon — Monday, April 19, 2004 @ 7:42 pm

  3. You criticize Kerry for avoiding taking a position because you feel he is missing opportunities to get away from the “waffle” problemn, but that is because you are coming at it from a different perspective entirely.

    This appearance - using these types of conversational evasions - are -precisely- what Kerry and his advisors want on this type of issue.

    Kerry wants to stay vague enough that people on both sides of the issues can -think- that his position is theirs. He desparately wants to avoid taking a position, because a position can be criticized. This “nuanced” type of answer can be defended when attacked by the typical response
    (and we’ve seen this from him) “That is not what I meant’That is not what I said/You misunderstood/You are taking that out of context.”

    You believe it to ultimately be a mistake in strategy, and I personally agree. But it is not that Kerry does not see the problem or people’s perception, its that he has chosen to accept that possible problem ("waffler") to avoid the clearer problems associated with actually taking a position. He feels that if he nuances (hey, it could be a verb) well enough, he can avoid more problems than he creates. And, if the press never holds his feet to the fire, maybe he’ll ultimately be right.

    Comment by Steven L — Wednesday, April 21, 2004 @ 9:06 am

  4. Point taken-and it likely is the strategy. However, like you, I simply think that ultimately won’t work to his favor. Now, of course, that is fine by me, but I think that it ultimately creates far more problems for him than it solves.

    Comment by Steven — Wednesday, April 21, 2004 @ 9:53 am

  5. Think simple. Learn different.

    Comment by Phillipa — Monday, July 5, 2004 @ 5:21 pm

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