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Doonesbury and the Winter Soldier


"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" reads a Doonesbury character aloud.

"Who said that?" asks the reader’s roommate.

"John Kerry. To the Senate Foreign Relations Committee..."

"Too little, too late," replies the roommate; thinking the quote refers to Iraq.

" 1971," finishes the reader.

The message from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau is obvious enough: America's military action in Iraq is a mistake, like our failed effort in Vietnam. Our soldiers there are dying for nothing. The decent thing to do is bring them home immediately. And John Kerry, a fellow Yale alumnus who happens to be the probable Democratic nominee for the Presidency, was a visionary, a man ahead of his time. It's just one more installment of Trudeau’s daily political sales pitch.

But there’s a story connected to this particular cartoon that will never appear in Doonesbury.


In February of 1971, an event billed as "The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes" was held in Detroit by the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. More than one hundred veterans gave testimony about their experiences in Vietnam during the three-day meeting, as video cameras rolled. The men described being trained and ordered to murder civilians, to torture and kill prisoners, and gave eyewitness accounts of hundreds of atrocities, including group rapes and the burning of entire villages.

In early April, Senator Mark Hatfield asked for the Winter Soldier transcripts to be entered into the Congressional Record and called for an official investigation into American war crimes in Vietnam.

From April 18 - 23, more than a thousand VVAW members staged an "invasion" of Washington D.C. Members of the group held memorial ceremonies, met with sympathetic members of Congress, camped on the Mall, performed "guerilla theater" -- re-enactments of atrocities against civilians, complete with fake blood -- on the Capitol steps and in front of the Justice Department, and held a candlelight march around the White House carrying an upside-down American flag. A number of the veterans threw military medals and ribbons over a fence in front of the Capitol in a gesture of contempt. One of them was John Kerry.

On April 22, Kerry represented the VVAW protestors before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. It was there that he delivered the "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" quote used by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury. That was not all John Kerry had to say to the Committee, however.

Echoing the talking points of the North Vietnamese leadership, Kerry labeled the Vietnam conflict "a civil war" and called the South Vietnamese government "a corrupt dictatorial regime." He said that the besieged South Vietnamese “only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages.“ Kerry called racism "rampant in the military," claimed that "blacks provided the highest percentage of casualties," and accused America of placing "a cheapness on the lives of Orientals."

Kerry described the Winter Soldier event in Detroit as “an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” The veterans, said Kerry, “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.” He accused America of being "more guilty than any other body of violations of [the] Geneva Conventions; in the use of free-fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search-and-destroy missions, the bombings, the torture of prisoners, the killing of prisoners, all accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam." Kerry referred to war criminal Lt. William Calley as "a man who followed orders and who interpreted those orders no differently than hundreds of other men in Vietnam," and concluded by calling on his fellow veterans to "conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more."

Most of Kerry's remarks before the committee were published later in 1971 in the book "The New Soldier," credited to “John Kerry and Vietnam Veterans Against The War.” The book also included a timeline and photographs of the march on D.C. and excerpts from the Winter Soldier testimony. A documentary of the Detroit event was later released as "Winter Soldier," winning awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals.

Whether in print, on film, before microphones or on the street, the efforts of Kerry and the VVAW focused on a single objective: to convince the public that America’s military was committing vast numbers of atrocities in Vietnam; that they did so casually and routinely, as a matter of policy.

And they succeeded. Many American soldiers returned home from the war to find they were spat upon in the streets, reviled as baby-killers, and treated as pariahs by former friends. For decades the standard media image of a Vietnam veteran -- murderous, addicted, and too damaged psychologically to cope with civilian life -- was taken directly from the dark canvas painted by John Kerry and the VVAW in 1971.

But strangely, all those horrific accounts of rape, torture, arson and slaughter that the VVAW had recorded in Detroit seemed to evaporate once the real investigation demanded by Senator Hatfield began. As recounted in Guenter Lewy's 1978 book “America in Vietnam,” few witnesses agreed to talk with military investigators, even after being assured that they would not be asked about their own crimes. Many of those who did permit interviews turned out never to have been in combat. Some of the most gruesome claims came from men who were imposters using the names of real Vietnam veterans. One Marine who had been in combat eventually told investigators that a member of the Nation of Islam had helped prepare his statement, and admitted that he had never witnessed any of the atrocities he had testified to in Detroit. In the end, the Navy was unable to verify any of the hundreds of war crimes alleged by the Winter Soldier Investigation. Neither has anyone else during the 33 years since, including journalists, historians, and military and Congressional investigators.

In fact, the entire Winter Soldier Investigation that John Kerry represented so memorably before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a fraud; a propaganda effort designed to horrify America into abandoning the war in Vietnam by poisoning public opinion against a generation of American soldiers.

The anti-war movement intensified rapidly during the months following the VVAW march on Washington. By January 1973, Congress had voted to eliminate funding for military operations in Indochina. The Nixon Administration signed the Treaty of Paris a few days later, and the first American prisoners of war were released by North Vietnam in February. They had been starved, beaten and tortured by their captors, in an effort to make them sign documents in which they admitted to committing war crimes and atrocities.

All American military personnel left Vietnam by April 1973. North Vietnam initiated minor probing attacks into South Vietnam during the fall of 1974, in violation of the Paris treaty. There was no military response by the United States. In early 1975, North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam. Saigon fell on April 30. The victorious communist regimes, which did in fact commit atrocities and mass murder as a matter of policy, celebrated with a killing spree throughout Southeast Asia. Over the next several years, an estimated two million Cambodians were slaughtered, as were tens of thousands of South Vietnamese. One million South Vietnamese were imprisoned in “re-education camps,” and two million more fled the country.

There is no record that John Kerry spoke out, then or ever, against these war crimes.

In his 1998 book “Stolen Valor,” which documented in detail the results of 10 years of research, B.G. Burkett finally laid the false stereotype to rest. He discovered that Vietnam veterans were actually more successful and psychologically healthy than their civilian contemporaries, and showed that black and white soldiers suffered casualties in about the same proportion as their relative populations in America. Burkett has also used service records from the National Archives to expose thousands of phony Vietnam vets. One was Al Hubbard, executive secretary of the VVAW in 1971 and a primary organizer of the Winter Soldier event who had claimed a heroic combat record as an Air Force pilot wounded in Vietnam. Burkett found that Hubbard was neither a pilot nor an officer, was never wounded, and was in fact never assigned to Vietnam at all.

Court martial records show that American war crimes did occur in Vietnam but were quite rare. The U.S. Army convicted 201 soldiers of serious offenses against Vietnamese, 95 of them homicides. Seventy-seven Marines were convicted, 27 for homicide. About one quarter of the total homicides occurred during combat operations. From 1965 through 1973 about 2,600,000 Americans troops served in Vietnam. In 1971, the year of the Winter Soldier Investigation, there were 690 homicides in Detroit, Michigan, population 1,500,000.


Today America faces a familiar choice: to continue our military operations overseas, or give up and bring the troops home. Does this country have the will to fight a protracted war against the terrorist networks and regimes that planned the mass murder of our citizens, even at the cost of ongoing casualties? Around the world, many people await the answer to that question with keen interest. Not all of them are our friends.

Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury tells us that John Kerry's words from 1971 are more relevant now than ever; that the War on Terror, like our struggle in Vietnam more than 30 years ago, is immoral and doomed to fail. But history does not always repeat itself, as Saddam Hussein has discovered. It’s not nearly as easy to smear America’s military with false atrocity charges – or to hide a politician’s ugly past -- in the Age of the Internet.

This time, let’s make our choice from the facts.

Not from bloodstained lies.


Scott Swett

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