Politics & Policy

Commanding Attention

Vets take on Kerry.

When Senator John Kerry saluted and announced that he was “reporting for duty” at last month’s Democratic Convention in Boston, he made his military record a legitimate subject of political attack and journalistic investigation. That moment was the culmination of the powerful “Vietnam theme” that has distinguished the Kerry presidential campaign from almost all recent Democratic campaigns.

He had turned around a failing primary season in Iowa with the filmed testimony of the man whose life he saved when he pulled him back into the “Swift” boat in which they served. He had taken former swift-boat veterans along with him on the campaign trail. And in Boston he filled the podium with these veterans and retired senior military officers to hammer home the message that the Democrats under John Kerry are safe on defense.

All this makes excellent political sense. Some years ago the pundit Bill Schneider said that the ideal vice-presidential candidate for the Republicans was a woman–and for the Democrats a general. Kerry did not make Wesley Clark his running mate, but he has done everything else possible to reassure the voters–and thereby to neutralize a long-standing Republican advantage–on national security.

It was always, however, a risky strategy. After all, Kerry had first come to public prominence in America as a passionate antiwar protester who in congressional hearings and on television programs had accused the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam of regularly and habitually committing war crimes.

There was a serious clash of narratives here: How could he both maintain the truth of his charges and take pride in his war service–even citing it as a reason to vote for him? And if he did both, was he not asking the American people to elect a war criminal as their chief executive?

Earlier this year Kerry tried to finesse the issue by apologizing for possible exaggerations without quite withdrawing the accusations. But that plunged him deeper into difficulties–for a reason that in retrospect seems obvious but that none of the seasoned campaign professionals around Kerry apparently foresaw.

Many Vietnam veterans had long seethed at Kerry for profiting politically from his attacks on their service. Now that Kerry was in the running to become president–while maintaining his accusations, however half-heartedly–they were almost inevitably provoked into responding.

The results are the book, Unfit for Command, co-authored by John O’Neill, who succeeded Kerry as the swift-boat captain in Vietnam, and a television ad from “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” in which veterans who served with Kerry attack his record. More than 250 veterans who served in swift-oats give general support to the case against Kerry.

How significant is this politically? The allegations against Kerry in Unfit for Command and in supporting statements by the veterans are as numerous, specific, detailed, and shameful (well, almost as shameful) as the allegations he leveled against the U.S. armed forces in the early Seventies. They include that Kerry repeatedly but falsely claimed to have fought in Cambodia on Christmas Day 1968 (all his commanding officers deny the claim); that he received two medals for wounds accidentally self-inflicted, once when he threw a grenade into a rice pack; and that his boat sped off after a mine exploded, returning only when it became clear that the boats were not under fire, to save the veteran whose rescue earned him another medal. Some details verge on the comic–for instance, that the light shrapnel removed from his buttocks included rice from the pack into which he had thrown the grenade. Their general import, however, is to suggest that Kerry was showboating.

All in all, these allegations are both more serious and better supported by evidence than, say, the claim that George W. Bush shirked his duty in the National Guard. They are exactly the kind of charges that would set off a firestorm of controversy in normal circumstances–and only slightly less serious than the charges that did set off a firestorm of controversy when leveled against Senator Bob Kerrey a few years back. Yet a strange nervous silence, broken only by a handful of stories and commentaries, has settled over the controversy. Almost all the usual suspects favor its suppression.

The Kerry campaign, for very obvious reasons, is seeking to suppress the story, sending out lawyer’s letters to television stations warning them against running the ad. The Bush campaign, nervous that the story will backfire and the president get the blame, is quietly dissociating itself. Senator John McCain is running interference for Kerry, partly out of habit, and partly because some of the organizers of the SBV ad also supported a dubious campaign against him in the 2000 South Carolina primary. The public understandably does not like to be told that its heroes have feet of clay. And the media…ah, the media.

As a recent Pew poll demonstrated, there really is liberal media bias. Only seven percent of the national press describe themselves as conservative. This inevitably influences coverage. Establishment journalists would almost certainly prefer the swift-boat allegations simply to go away. But the matter is not that simple.

To begin with, the press has an obligation to follow its own rules. A major story needs two sources to justify publication. These stories have more than 250 sources in all; they include retired senior officers; and they are not skulking in the shadows but putting their names and reputations behind the allegations. They are hard to dismiss.

Even if the major media decided to bury this story, they would probably not succeed–and they know as much. The “blogosphere”–that voluntary society of unpaid freelance journalists–is following the story avidly, correcting errors, producing original documents, sifting through different accounts, and making the establishment journalists look lazy or biased if they miss something.

Some bloggers are for Kerry, some against, but all are together advancing the story by winnowing truth from falsehood. And what the bloggers discover is quickly disseminated not only by the internet and but also by talk radio and the conservative media that did not exist until a few years ago. Unless the bloggers conclusively acquit Kerry before the story migrates outwards in these ways, the mainstream media will eventually be forced to devote serious resources to it.

What will they find? Until some further digging is done, no one can be sure. Kerry may indeed be fully acquitted. Or in effect disgraced. Or the truth may turn out to be one of those “neither black nor white” stories in which Kerry behaves both well and badly in circumstance of moral ambiguity

For what it’s worth, my own view combines all three possibilities: Kerry went out to Vietnam hoping to get a warrior’s medals and credentials as the basis for a political career. He behaved bravely in some circumstances and exaggerated his bravery in others. He even took a film camera along to reenact his heroic exploits for later campaign commercials.

He returned home, however, to find that the war had become deeply unpopular in his absence. Nothing daunted, he reinvented himself as an antiwar veteran, damned the sailors and soldiers still fighting, and flourished like the green bay tree.

In 2004, however, he was running for president in a political climate that had changed yet again–one in which his Vietnam heroics might be usefully exploited to win patriotic marks.

Where were all those old medal he hadn’t thrown away….

John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through Benador Associates


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