EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the September 13, 2004, issue of National Review (the Kerry issue!).
Last May, when the newly formed group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth first spoke to the press about John Kerry, the men–mostly Kerry’s fellow officers from the four months he skippered a Navy Swift boat in Vietnam–seemed divided on the issue of Kerry’s war record. Some questioned the medals he was awarded. Others had no desire to cast doubt on his service. But all agreed on one thing: that Kerry had betrayed them when, upon returning from Vietnam, he characterized the American military–and, by extension, the Swift boat veterans themselves–as having committed widespread atrocities in Southeast Asia.
That was then. After their opening news conference, the veterans–most of whom had not seen one another in 35 years–began talking among themselves about their memories of Kerry. They read Douglas Brinkley’s hagiographic war biography, Tour of Duty, and found descriptions of events they didn’t recognize. They compared notes. And their point of view changed. They came to question what Kerry had done, not just after leaving Vietnam, but while he was serving alongside them. In particular, they came to question some of the cornerstones of Kerry’s Vietnam record, the engagements in which he won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. The result of that questioning was a book, Unfit for Command, written by the group’s main spokesman, John O’Neill.
Going public was, in some ways, an audacious decision. Kerry has citations for his medals that commend, among other qualities, his “gallantry and intrepidity” in battle, along with his “extraordinary daring and personal courage” (to quote the citation from his Silver Star). How could O’Neill and the Swift boat veterans challenge that?
Head on. Unfit for Command charges, for example, that the Silver Star was “arranged to boost the morale” of Kerry’s unit and was “based on false and incomplete information provided by Kerry himself.” The Bronze Star was “a complete fraud.” And two–perhaps even all three–of Kerry’s Purple Hearts resulted from minor, accidental, “self-inflicted” wounds that did not merit recognition.
The Swift boat vets also challenged other aspects of Kerry’s Vietnam history. They questioned his oft-repeated–and sometimes extravagantly detailed–accounts of spending Christmas 1968 in Cambodia, at a time when the U.S. government was denying there were any American forces in that country. And they focused an intense spotlight on Kerry’s anti-war activities, in particular his testimony before Congress in 1971.
Unfit for Command, and a series of television ads made from it, have scored some direct hits. But O’Neill and the Swift boat veterans have also missed their mark on occasion, giving the Kerry campaign an opening to claim that everything they say is untrue. In the end, however, when all the claims and counterclaims are balanced against one another, it seems clear that the veterans, relying mostly on their own eyewitness experiences, have raised some valid–and serious–questions about John Kerry’s four months in Vietnam.
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