Kerry’s War Dilemma

In the Bush administration’s worst month, Kerry still seems to be running scared.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

By Tom Engelhardt

Ours may be a couch-potato rather than a warrior society, but it’s certainly a war society, which remains a simple but hard-to-grasp fact for Americans. We have been subjected to a kind of militarization that is so widespread as to be — strangely — unnoticeable because, until very recently, it involved none of the normal signs of militarism in what we have now come to call “the homeland.” No parades, no martial music, few uniforms in sight. Yet we pony up just over $400 billion a year for the Pentagon — and that’s just the official figure. Once you throw in all the extras (including the multibillions in supplemental appropriations going to the Iraq and Afghan wars), the actual figure probably lies in the range of $650-$750 billion (and that’s without even including the budgets of the CIA and most of our other intelligence agencies).

Our legions are now “forward deployed” to so many places on Earth that “forward” itself has lost all directional meaning and so yearly find themselves in harm’s way or engaging in skirmishes, police actions, invasions, or actual wars. You can probably list many of these little wars, incursions, and incidents (including those where we just let the missiles fly) yourself, starting with our 1983 invasion of that pathetic dot of a Caribbean island, Grenada (and I’m not even speaking here of our more covert activities during these same decades).

Throughout my lifetime, our presidents have been thought of in terms of wars: first, there was the World War II generation; then the Vietnam generation; soon, undoubtedly, there will be the Gulf Wars generation. Nobody talks about environmental generations or social-legislation generations or even commercial generations of presidents. Our bookmarks, our yardsticks, so many of our measurements for leading the country have to do with war and the military experience.

And yet our form of militarization only gets “curiouser and curiouser” as it deepens. Now we have a self-proclaimed “war president” and his supporters who, like our besuited corporate militarists at home, have fought their “battles” with multimillions of dollars, lobbyists, and strong-arm tactics in Congress, the corridors of the White House, and the media, not to speak of the restaurants, law firms, and think tanks of Washington (and Texas). When George Bush actually “went to war,” he whiled away part of his time working for an Alabama congressional race, while the Air National Guard continued to carry him on its rolls. Like his vice president and the rest of his administration — with the sole exception of Colin Powell — he had better things to do than fight a war himself but thinks there’s nothing better than to send others to fight one (or two, or three) for him. War, in his case, has proved the least dangerous activity on Earth with the greatest payoff. Glory! Jutted jaws! Honor! Resolve! Putting your (domestic) enemies in a hole (if not a spiderhole)! It’s given him a reason to be alive — and so far it works.

Since 9/11, our society has been militarized, tightened, and locked down in countless ways. We are now a vast, gated, over-armed country where opposition is often not looked on in a kindly fashion. After all, we are in “wartime” – as if even our watches had little weapons hands wheeling around inside them. At a recent news conference, when asked whether any comparisons could be made between our present experience in Iraq and our previous one in Vietnam, our President said, ominously enough: “I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It’s hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation’s interest.”

That very phrase, “stay the course,” is the most Vietnamish of expressions — but who cares, really? The President’s was yet another suggestion that an all-war-all-the-time world was just hunky-dory with him and a reasonable excuse for threatening to enforce a no-opposition-none-of-the-time environment on the nation. (One way in which Vietnam did not resemble the present moment was that President Lyndon Johnson tried desperately to pretend we were a land in peacetime, not wartime, even as the war bore down on his presidency.) It is in this upside-down and bizarre environment that former Vietnam Vet John Kerry, who actually fought in a war and came home to oppose it, finds himself running for — or is it running from — president. Put another way, in the worst month the Bush administration has experienced thus far, Kerry still seems to be running scared. His war experience, his very identification with Vietnam which, at this moment, one might imagine to be a strength, seems to have sent him reeling. In these same weeks, Kerry has managed to lay out a position so close to Bush’s on Iraq — stay the course, put an international “face” on the occupation, keep the troops in place, and so on — that the two are nearly indistinguishable; and, on the Bush-Sharon position on the Middle East — keep the West Bank settlements, conduct extrajudicial assassinations of enemies, build the wall, and so on — just announced to an astounded world, he has, if anything, gone the president one better.

Only the other day, he could be found stumping Florida with Senator Joe Lieberman, whose hawkish Iraq position didn’t raise even a seismic hiccup among Democratic voters anywhere in America in the primary season. Recent polls show that against Kerry’s less than challenging campaign so far, the president seems to be at least holding his own, despite the Clarke revelations, his 9/11 Commission problems, and the disintegrating position of the American occupation forces in Iraq. In the case of recent CNN-USA TODAY and Washington Post-ABC polls, he’s doing better than that, beating Kerry in each (with Ralph Nader in the latter pulling in a hefty 6% of the prospective vote).

This is the “war world” John Kerry finds himself in. Perhaps someone should remind Senator Kerry, before he loses his compass entirely in the wilderness of George’s planet of global insecurity, that Al Gore (despite a somewhat similar performance) actually won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election; that energizing the Democratic (and democratic) base in America, bringing increased numbers of people outraged or unnerved or disturbed by the Bush administration to the polls may be more important than becoming a War President Lite. After all, if that’s what Americans truly want, they can vote for the real thing, our genuine, mission-accomplished, war-is-the-life-of-the-planet catastrophe of a President.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.