Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement
by John Kerry
April 23, 1971
to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations
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 them from.
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
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
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 a
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.