In its 65-year history, the Defense Department has been led by people of various political stripes. But never has the nomination of any Secretary of Defense been a direct insult to the men and women who served our nation in uniform. That will no longer be true if, as is rumored, President Obama nominates Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
White House trial balloons indicate that Kerry is under consideration for two big jobs: secretary of state and secretary of defense. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is apparently also in consideration for the state position.
What makes Kerry different, especially for defense, is that he built his entire political career on his anti-war activities, including his leadership of the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry served in Vietnam, but he gained notoriety with his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In his opening statement to the committee, Kerry described an activist event he had recently attended, known as the "Winter Soldier Investigation," in which young men stepped forward to denounce themselves and others (though never by name) for war crimes they had supposedly witnessed or committed in Vietnam.
"These were not isolated incidents," Kerry said of the denunciations, "but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command ... 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 Genghis 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."
To Kerry, American soldiers were war criminals. When Kerry ran for president in 2004, I interviewed several former POWs who were in North Vietnamese captivity when Kerry's activities were at their height. These men were regularly tortured, beaten and starved. Their feelings toward Kerry are unforgiving.
Air Force pilot Tom Collins, shot down in 1965 and held for eight years, told me that the Vietnamese used speeches by Jane Fonda and Kerry's VVAW group in coercive interrogations as a "constant barrage ... for the purpose of demoralizing me ... [and] as a tool of coercion." Collins said, "I was in the POW camp a year longer than I would have been but for this activity."
Naval aviator Jack Ensch was severely injured when shot down in 1972, and refused medical help. He was held in a group of about twenty POWs. Ensch said, "Everybody in my group ... had feelings that ranged from disgust and contempt to anger to demoralization about what people like Jane Fonda and Kerry and, you know, everybody that was back here in our opinion helping the enemy cause."
Dick Vaughn, another Air Force pilot, was shot down in December 1971. He told me, "Kerry gave aid and comfort to the enemy by his actions after leaving the Navy. He said things that prolonged the war, caused more American servicemen to be killed, and in doing such he got POWs tortured even more than they were already. ... Kerry was a traitor."
There is a bond of trust that has to exist between every president and every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. If Obama nominates Kerry to be the next Secretary of Defense, that bond will have been broken.
Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."