Even in daytime fighters do not perceive anything; indeed, nobody knows anything more than what is going on right around himself.
So the fifth-century B.C. military historian Thucydides commented on the confusion of battle on the heights above Syracuse (413 B.C.), and, indirectly, on the inability of historians such as himself to sort out the conflicting accounts provided by veterans of all battles.
Fear, panic, noise, dust, motion, all the rare stimuli that so overwhelm the everyday senses, combine with the vagaries of memory both to inflate and to diminish what happens in those rare brief seconds when men’s lives are won or lost. Such are the usual burdens of military history, both ancient and modern. When investigating the death of my namesake on Okinawa, or reconstructing some of my father’s 39 B-29 missions, I was struck by the difficulty in reconciling all the oral remembrances of the combatants, both with one another and with supposedly “official” histories of the theater.
The commendable tact of Steven Ambrose’s popular oral histories of the American soldier lay in his diplomatic treatment of first-hand accounts that simply could not be reconciled with one another–or with other criteria, such as official histories and the unyielding facts of weather, machines, or topography.
The problem of reconstructing what happened at the battle of Salamis (480 B.C.) is not just the wide expanse of time that separates accounts in Aeschylus, Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus. Instead, the more fundamental problem is that the thousands of Athenians who rowed there and provided the primary sources of knowledge for these later chronicles almost immediately gave very different versions of what they saw and did.
The fog of memory does not mean that veterans intentionally fabricate or exaggerate–although at times, as humans, some do. Rather, as Thucydides pointed out, the pressures of battle are such that the senses, emotion, and logic are at odds with one another and so blur what actually happens. Men in battle do not take time out to sit in observation towers with binoculars and dispassionately jot down everything they see transpiring below.
Military historians, then, try to collate numerous stories in hopes that the general “truth” of what happened can be recovered through a likely consensus of what was possible or even probable. In fact, I don’t think that in John Kerry’s case we will ever know all of what happened in a now mostly forgotten river in the backwaters of Vietnam–other than that most involved at the time probably were under a great deal of stress and performed as well as they could under extreme conditions.
Both sides may allege “lies” as veterans come forth and recede to corroborate or refute some details of what John Kerry claims he did–even as we the public fail to appreciate that all sides may well be telling the truth as they saw and now remember it. But the veracity of that battle is hopelessly fragmented, and will remain an album of partial, blurry snapshots, wrinkled and warped over nearly 35 years of faulty remembrance.
What is the lesson of all this? That we should accept that Senator Kerry was a brave man who endured fire in service to his country, and leave it at that?
But can we? You see, there is another problem with Mr. Kerry’s current dilemma–and it is not his courage under fire, but rather something called Nemesis. Some of us in February of this year worried that Kerry’s subordinates and surrogates were making a strategic error in grandstanding his own Vietnam military service while denigrating George Bush’s controversial tenure in the National Guard. Moveon.org and its epigones had a field day slurring the president to Kerry’s mute delight, and only a fool would have believed that there would not be some sort of payback come summer.
In addition, it was not all that easy a thing either for a young man like George Bush to fly an obsolete jet with a record of mechanical problems. His qualification as a jet pilot gave him no immunity from being called at any time to combat duty in Vietnam. Indeed, sitting at the controls of an underpowered F-102 with a host of mechanical peculiarities was not the same as fleeing to Canada, burning a draft card, or harming the interests of soldiers in the field by giving emotional aid to the enemy. And unlike a few prominent public figures, George Bush never said he served in Vietnam when he did not.
Second, Senator Kerry long ago wisely understood that he himself had mixed perceptions about his past Vietnam experience and astutely had not really privileged it in most of his past campaigns. If John Kerry had once endured fire, his post facto exaggerations about war crimes–with lurid allusions to Genghis Khan–and slurs at veterans were aimed at advancing his own nascent political career at the expense of the reputations of thousands of anonymous, and mostly blameless, others.
Third, Vietnam service in the 1970s and 1980s quite unfairly was an albatross around veterans’ collective necks, in part because of the previous statements of John Kerry and others in the anti-war movement who offered a sort of moral equivalence between the United States and the North Vietnamese.
Indeed, one of the striking things about watching the old Dick Cavett-hosted debate between John Kerry and John O’Neill is how naïve the young, articulate Yalie sounds about the probable consequences of a unilateral American withdrawal. He seems to have had not a clue about the true nature of a totalitarian Communist regime with a past–and future–record of mass murder, gulags, refugees, and political re-education camps. And his suggestion of providing a deadline for withdrawal from Vietnam sounded as naïve then as it does now in promises to leave Iraq within a scheduled time frame.
However, after the Gulf War of 1991, past combat service in Vietnam no longer earned ignorant rebuke, but had evolved into patriotic fides. Yet for Kerry, who had jump-started his career by using his intimacy with the rice paddies to condemn the morality of fellow soldiers, it was hypocritical to return to Vietnam now to prove that he was a tough veteran, and a no-nonsense hawk on matters of national security.
Of course, given his past opposition to the acquisition of the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the Pershing-missile deployments, the anti-ballistic-missile system, and the first Gulf War, it was logical to reconfigure his Vietnam service, especially at the expense of a tough-talking president who had not served under fire. But Kerry again forgot Nemesis, especially the three-decade-long angst of hundreds of furious vets who felt that Kerry’s past virulent anti-war pronouncements–coupled with unauthorized visits to Paris to meet with the enemy North Vietnam delegation–were opportunistic affronts to their own service.
The Swift-boat vets were probably willing to grimace and bite their teeth throughout the present campaign, but not when Kerry paraded his service, saluted the Democratic delegates (“reporting for duty”), and posed as a time-honored proud warrior of the American military.
And so now we have the present mess that will go on for weeks and can only hurt Kerry. He is earning a reputation for once welcoming third-party hit ads, then (now) whining about them; for parading his service, then whining about scrutiny of it; for spouting braggadocio, then whining about hurtful speech. As the Greeks remind us, pride can lead to hubris and then to Nemesis–on its tragic and ultimate rendezvous with ruin.
So I have no reason to change what I wrote on February 20 about what this August would be like when Kerry was parading his military service and offering it as the antithesis of President Bush’s National Guard tenure:
Now the Democrats who thought up this low hit on the president will reap what they have sown–as Kerry’s entire (and ever-expanding) record of ancient slips and slurs will unnecessarily go under full scrutiny, the sometimes shameful words of a rash and mixed-up youth unfairly gaining as much attention as once-brave deeds. By August the American people will be sick to death of Kerry’s pandering to veterans–or perhaps as indifferent to his medals as they were to the equally stellar records of sometimes-failed candidates like Bob Dole, Bob Kerry, John McCain, or Gray Davis.
It is time to drop the mess and leave it at this: A veteran John Kerry, who easily could have been blown up on numerous occasions, came home mixed up and said and did things he probably now regrets, which over the last three decades have provided both rich political capital for him and ammunition for his enemies–depending on the ever-changing perception of Vietnam in the popular memory of a given decade.
So I conclude with empathy for John Kerry, whom I appreciate as a veteran who served his country–even if I would not now vote for him. He should have been aware of the god Nemesis. Still, in a spirit of magnanimity and appreciation for his months on a boat in a very inhospitable landscape, Americans perhaps should remember the words of Pericles, as recorded by Thucydides shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War: “For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.”
–Victor Davis Hanson is a visting professor for the month of September and a fellow of Hillsdale College.