The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, August 22, 2004

The military symbolism of Kerry gets blowback

When did the Democrats get a reputation for being weak on defence?

The first big military build-up came during World War 1 under Woodrow Wilson. Following the re-establishment of normalcy, US forces were run down, to the extent that MacArthur and Eisenhower against the Bonus marchers on Anacostia Flats was close to being an evenly matched contest.


But - as glossed over by the morons who droned on, pre-Iraq, about European appeasement of Hitler during the Thirties - not by much. And, throughout that decade, the politicians in the Western world least willing to stand up to Hitler had come from the Republican Party.

Again, World War 2 took place on the watch of a Democratic president. And, after that bizarre hiatus in which the US largely scuttled from Europe, in order to Bring Daddy Home for the earliest available election, the US geared up for the Cold War under a Democratic president, too.

So far, big military budgets have implied a Dem in the White House.

My hypothesis [1] is that it was the assumption of power by the CCP [2] that tipped the balance. The Republicans developed the meme that Truman lost China [3]; there was the stalemate in Korea; and the GOP man for the White House in 1952 just happened to be the guy who masterminded an invasion of an Europe, and got our boys out of Korea in fairly short order after coming into office.

Ever since, the Democrats have, in cricketing parlance, been on the back foot [4] on defence. Kennedy resorted to the fiction of the missile gap; Johnson reacted to the (fictional) second Tonkin Gulf Incident [5] to neutralise accusations from Goldwater of being soft on Communism. And so on.

Supposedly, Kerry's men identified national security as a weakness that needed to be covered. Hence the May Day march-past during the Convention, the generals, the saluting, the vet Ikettes popping up at every rally. He surrounded himself with neo-Scoop Jacksons like Rand Beers and, before Sockgate, Sandy Berger who would not shy from an offensive policy of US power projection (albeit a politer and more considered policy than Bush's - not a high hurdle!).

And, incessantly, he and his confederates bang on about him being a hero. When Kerry got a cool reception from the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference, I wonder how much of the lack of warmth came from revulsion at his bragging about his war exploits.

It's not a position I've ever been in ; but my impression is that, on both sides of the pond, the only correct attitude from a hero to the adulation of others is modesty. He sits through their encomia, boastful on his behalf (and, by association, theirs), he graciously accepts their medals and citations, and, when called to speak, he attributes his own deeds to the leadership and support of others. The less he says, the greater man he is rated.

Now, it's true that Kerry saw active service, and Bush, conspicuously, did not. But, in harping on about his service, Kerry is inviting much more arduous comparisons - with the still many thousands still alive from World War 2 who served much longer and much harder, received fewer medals, and, afterwards, did not weary a grateful nation about it.

The assault of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would have had no traction without Kerry's war boasting. If he had said throughout nothing more than he had done his duty as many other had, he would have placed his Vietnam activities off the board politically.

I realise that, in many things, there is a difference between perceptions on either side of the Atlantic: not even following the Oprah-fication of Britain following the death of Princess Diana would the King of Shmaltz, Tony Blair, have considered using Kerry's reporting for duty shtick in his Convention speech.

But I have a sense (based on no definite evidence at all) that, in the perception of a significant tranche of voters, Kerry has overdone it with the military stuff.
  1. None of this pretends to be original thinking - except that I don't happen to have the tomes to hand to cite those who thought of it first.

  2. One has, in English-language texts,

    • Chinese Communist Party - CCP; but

    • Communist Party of the Soviet Union - CPSU.

  3. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the relationship of the US with China is well worthy, and has received a good deal, of study. The US missionaries that went out there were almost representing their country; Pearl Buck's The Good Earth; the imbecilic faith placed in Chiang Kai-shek almost to the moment he jumped ship to Formosa.

    The South Sea Bubble and Tulipmania simply aren't in it: the US infatuation with China is arguably the most sustained national mania on record.

    (The British attitude to India was, I think, rather different. I don't think we ever thought we could change the Indians, beyond outlawing one or two of their more barbarous practices (like suttee). There was certainly an emotional investment - but the duration of British power in India, counting at least from Clive, meant, perhaps, that feelings were less intense. And the fact that the Americans never took power in any large part of China meant that the reality of imperial rule never obtruded into their fantasies.

  4. No cricketer me, I've never really understood the expression. Many batsman score a large proportion of their runs off the back foot, with cuts and hooks and pulls and leg-glances. But, colloquially, on the back foot means, on the defensive, reactive, not taking the initiative.

  5. The degree of fault here was recklessness - in the English law sense: not caring whether the reports of the incident were true or false, rather than knowing that they were false.

    The fact that the OPLAN-34A raids that had been going on for months were themselves designed to produce exactly the sort of reaction from the DRV that occurred in the first Tonkin Gulf Incident rather condemns to failure any claim to good faith of the Johnson administration.

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