VIETNAM: He earned his right to protest the war

Lately, I have been deluged with e-mailings from fellow Vietnam veterans intent on making sure that I know of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's past as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. What these well-meaning veterans don't know is that I, too, belonged to VVAW.

I was never in a position to take part in any of their public protests. I didn't help occupy the Statue of Liberty. I couldn't be there when VVAW members threw their ribbons and medals onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I never consorted with "Hanoi Jane" (although, truth be told, I would have liked to).

But, for one year at least, I paid the group's dues and lent my name to the cause of stopping a war I still consider to have been senseless and wrongheaded. Granted, a lot of VVAW's rhetoric was overheated and the charges overblown. The organization probably did contribute to a tendency to tar all Vietnam veterans with Lt. William Calley's brush.

But as I recall my war years, it was not the VVAW that first started casting all of us who went to Vietnam as victims or villains. In that polarized era of moral absolutism, too many people on the left - most of whom had nothing to lose - considered us to be aiding and abetting a great evil if we were not willing to flee to Canada or go to jail.

Easy for them to say.

But just as uncompromising, it seems to me, are the Vietnam veterans who cannot forgive Kerry's participation in the Winter Soldier Investigation, a VVAW-sponsored series of meetings held in 1971 in Detroit. Many of the veterans at this gathering claimed to have taken part in or witnessed atrocities in Vietnam.

It is, of course, true that the majority of us who went to Vietnam never committed an atrocity or abused the Vietnamese people in any way. But it is also true that My Lai happened. The horrible crime recreated in the film "Casualties of War" actually happened. And too many lesser atrocities are too well-documented to justify President Ronald Reagan's revisionist view that "ours was a noble cause."

In my own case, I wound up serving in the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program. We were sent out to live and work with Vietnamese Popular Forces in their home villages. Ours was not to search and destroy; ours was to win hearts and minds. The problem was that the people whose hearts and minds we were risking our lives to win were just not interested.

That same group of villagers harbored the Viet Cong who twice attacked our unit in force before I got there. During my tour of duty, we were ambushed. One Marine was killed; two were wounded. The villagers whose sores and minor ailments we tried to treat had to have known the ambush was coming. Long before that, the Popular Force soldiers we were charged with training and inspiring had stopped patrolling with us.

Having had that kind of experience, I know why some young soldiers and Marines - "too damned young," as one writer puts it - lost control and took out their frustrations on the people. I have never condoned it, but I have always understood it.

My own view of those who felt compelled to confess their guilt before the Winter Soldier assembly is a cliche but heartfelt nonetheless: "There but for the grace of God go I."

While I was bitterly against the war and still believe it to have been unjust and even immoral in its indiscriminate use of overwhelming firepower, I eventually came full circle. I did something I never thought I would do when I first left the Corps in 1969: I went back in, this time as an officer.

What I would tell all the veterans earnestly digging up dirt against Kerry is this: Vote for George W. Bush if you believe he is the better man and that the current war is just and necessary. But don't vote against Kerry just because he protested the war. He earned the right.

Our war is over. Time to come home.

Edward F. Palm is dean and professor at the School of Liberal Arts and Professional Programs, Maryville University of St. Louis.