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Echoes of Vietnam in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing Room

By Caitlin Webber at CQ

Exactly 38 years after he testified against the Vietnam War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry , now chairman of that panel, convened Afghanistan war veterans to offer opinions on the future of their generation’s conflict.

But while Kerry’s 1971 statement was unequivocally against the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war, in 2009 he finds himself in a more delicate position. He was an early and staunch supporter of President Obama, but has recently expressed skepticism about the administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan.

His proposal to triple non-military aid to Pakistan, backed by ranking Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, has been delayed over differences with the White House on conditions for that money.

On Thursday he tried to refine his position on Obama’s new strategy.

“Let me be clear: There is much still to be done in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but our new focus creates a sense of determined optimism for us and our coalition allies,” Kerry said. “Better defined objectives should lead to a better battle plan for our troops. But this remains an immensely complicated task.”

Kerry reiterated his belief that the United States should not provide “a blank check” to either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Lugar echoed the call from Kerry and many other members for more specifics on the administration’s plan.

“As the Obama administration devotes more resources and troops to Afghanistan, however, many details need to be fleshed out,” Lugar said.

Veterans’ Perspectives

Kerry was quick to resist analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan on Thursday, but said some commonalities between the conflicts exist.

“Once again, we are fighting an insurgency in a rural country with a weak central government. Our enemy blends in with the local population and easily crosses a long border to find sanctuary in a neighboring country. We ignore these similarities at our peril,” he said.

The importance of veterans’ perspective is another lesson from the Vietnam War, Kerry said.

Three of the four veterans at the witness table spoke in support of a continuing combat presence in Afghanistan – although they also stressed the need for an expansion of its civilian commitment, in line with the Kerry-Lugar proposal.

However, one corporal from California called U.S. operations in the country an “occupation” and opposed Obama’s decision to boost troop levels by 17,000.

“Sending more troops will not make the U.S. safer, it will only build more opposition against us,” said Rick Reyes, who served with the Marines in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Reyes’ statements were most similar to Kerry’s when he spoke on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War as a 27-year-old recently returned soldier.

Boston University professor and a retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich observed that the starkest difference between the hearing Thursday and the one in 1971 is public disengagement.

“When the young John Kerry spoke, many of his contemporaries had angrily turned against their generation’s war. Today, most of the contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply tuned out the Long War,” Bacevich said. “The predominant mood of the country is not one of anger or anxiety, but of dull acceptance.”

Kerry’s 1971 statement catapulted his early career, but would harm his 2004 presidential campaign when a group of Vietnam veterans accused him of exaggerating his war record.

Antiwar protestors were conspicuously quiet on Thursday. Even Code Pink was subdued.

One pink-shirted protestor quietly held up a placard during the hearing with Kerry’s most famous line from his first congressional appearance —“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Kerry never mentioned the sign during the hearing.