Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking Wednesday evening at a conference in Austin on the Vietnam War, said he has “deep reservations” about the nation’s all-volunteer military.
“I think there should be shared responsibility,” said Kerry, who received three Purple Hearts and other medals for his service in Vietnam and returned home to oppose the war. “I think that is one of the best ways where you don’t have wars. Everybody ought to give back something,” even if it’s not direct military service.
He stopped short of calling for a draft or saying specifically whether women should be included. Currently, men — but not women — are required to sign up when they turn 18 with the Selective Service, which exists in case of an emergency that would require a draft.
The nation’s chief diplomatic officer made the remarks at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit, which concludes Thursday. In addition to delivering a speech, he was interviewed on stage by Ken Burns, who is working on a 10-part film series scheduled to be aired next year on PBS.
Kerry said an important lesson of the Vietnam War — one that also applies to bloody conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other hot spots — is that Americans must put themselves in the shoes of people in those lands “and see their country as they see their country.” In other words, he said, “We cannot look at other countries and see them only through an American lens.”
“We’ve got about six wars going on in Syria,” he said, including conflicts between Muslim groups and fighting between “a whole bunch of people” and the Islamic State group. “It’s not easy to find a way to go forward,” but understanding foreign cultures is essential.
At one point, Kerry choked up as he recalled his longstanding hope that the Vietnam War would not remain “a bitter memory.” But it certainly has been an emotional one for him.
Kerry enlisted in the Navy shortly before graduating from Yale University and wound up serving as a swift boat skipper patrolling the waters of the Mekong Delta. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after returning home, Kerry said: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
He would go on to become a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state in February 2013.
Kerry’s Vietnam service and his anti-war stance emerged as an issue in 2004 when he was the Democratic nominee for president, running against the Republican incumbent, George W. Bush. Kerry often cited his military record in the course of his campaign. A group known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which received millions of dollars from Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, ran ads seeking to discredit his war-time heroism and his medals, which also included the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
Kerry summed up Lesson No. 1 from the Vietnam War this way: “Don’t ever confuse the war with the warriors.”
Unlike in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, returning service members are now welcomed home. “We do say thank you,” Kerry said, and veterans enjoy preferential hiring and first-class seats on planes when available. “But there are more meaningful things to veterans coming home from war.”
For example, he said, waiting times for medical appointments with the Veterans Health Administration have been reduced but are still too long. “For mental health particularly, we need greater intervention and activity,” Kerry said, adding that families also need help and that women need specialized assistance for health and abuse problems.
“I’ll probably get in trouble for this,” but veterans should be able to go anywhere, not just to government hospitals, for health care, the secretary said.
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