Politics & Policy

A Matter of Honor

Kerry made his war service an issue.

When John Kerry called the Swift Boat Vets for Truth “liars” on August 19, he ignored a point articulated afterwards by his spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter: “When somebody’s attacking your military record, you reach a boiling point, and he reached a boiling point last night,” Cutter explained. “When you go and fight in a war, when you spill blood for your country, your instinct is to fight back and defend your record.”

Cutter was looking at matters from Kerry’s angle, but her point works even more powerfully from the point of view of the Swift Boat Vets. That’s because even before Kerry got fully free of the Navy (he was in the Naval Reserves until 1978), he took away the honor of his Swift Boat brothers, who were then as young as he was, and mostly still in harm’s way. He said they and others like them had killed, burned, raped, and acted like the barbarian armies of Genghis Khan. He broadcast this message all around the world, until it echoed in the jungles and the prison camps and down the rivers of Vietnam–and these young men in uniform had no way to defend themselves.

Their instinct has also been “to fight back and defend” their record.

The Swift Boat Vets, of course, have been realists. They knew that very few Americans–and virtually no one in the press–cared that they had been dishonored or would do anything about it. So they got on with their lives. Then, during the past year, two things electrified them and gave them a renewed sense of duty. The first was the publication of Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty, with its many direct quotes from Kerry’s journals and its uncritical, full-tilt representation of Kerry’s version of events. The second was the possibility that a man they had learned to distrust because of the lies he told about them might become president, and then lie about the veterans of the war in Iraq.

The title of their book is to be taken seriously: Unfit for Command. Kerry’s revisionism about his own past and the meaning of the war in Vietnam cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. History hasn’t been kind to Kerry’s view that the Vietnamese did not care about the difference between democracy and Communism. More than a million and a half boat people gave the lie to that, as does the comparative misery of Vietnam today.

The Swift Boat Vets and hundreds of thousands of others came home from Vietnam and no one honored them; some insulted them, and even their children and families looked at them with questions in their eyes–questions induced by the public proclamations of John Kerry and others like him. Kerry’s testimony before the Senate called them–and the whole structure of command, indeed the whole country–hypocritical, self-interested, even criminal.

As one vet said recently, John Kerry gave the enemy the words it was torturing soldiers to sign their names to–that they were war criminals.

To this day, John Kerry has not said publicly that his friends among the Swift Boat Vets were not war criminals. He has not apologized. In his debate with the young John O’Neill on the Dick Cavett show in 1971, Kerry could not cite a single case of a war crime committed by the Swift Boat veterans. Yet Kerry has never attempted to give his band of brothers their honor back.

You can bet the Swift Boat Vets will “fight back and defend their record” until John Kerry writes to the Pentagon to release his own military files for all to see, and confesses to dishonoring his comrades in arms.

I’ve come to the conclusion, based on watching this debate closely, that if John Kerry had launched his campaign for the presidency by asking forgiveness for his unfounded accusations, and by paying the respect his fellow veterans deserve for being willing to lay down their lives for the Vietnamese, this book would never have appeared.


After John Kerry’s two campaign books came out–the more scholarly one by historian Douglas Brinkley and the more or less official one by writers from the Boston Globe–the Swift Boat Vets grasped for the first time John Kerry’s view of his four-months service with them (from November 17, 1968 to March 17, 1969). In Brinkley, they read for the first time Kerry’s contemporaneous (and also his recent) reports on that period–and they were shocked.

In previous political races, more than once, some of these vets had traveled long distances to defend Kerry against unfair accusations that he was a “war criminal.” They hated that charge, and putting aside what he had done to them, they defended him against it. They considered their service on his behalf to be a defense of all of them against the same charge.

Unfit for Command’s first five chapters concern Kerry’s accounts of the time they all spent together. When they weren’t on their six-man boats, the lot of them billeted together, ate together, and spent the majority of their time together. Their boats almost always went out in small packs–at least two, often five, together. They stayed close to each other for mutual support. They shared the same orders, and planned out jointly their tactical procedures for the day. Men were often shifted from one boat to another. Normally, one officer–in his groups, usually Kerry–wrote up the after-action reports.

Kerry had a typewriter and was always writing. He kept a private journal of his own. Some of the other officers didn’t like the task of writing daily reports, but Kerry did. Most of the Swift Boat Vets didn’t realize what Kerry had been filing in those reports, or recording in his journal, until the Brinkley and Globe books came out.

Backed up by many sworn affidavits from well-placed eyewitnesses, John O’Neill’s lawyer-like chapters tell a story of each major action very different from Kerry’s. This may not seem important to the rest of the world, but to the Swift Boat Vets it means a great deal. They feel an obligation to the truth as they saw it, felt it, and shared it among themselves at that time and for years afterwards. They want to cut clear from Kerry’s new version of events–and for the first time they see what his old version of events was, as recorded in Brinkley’s quotes from his journals.

One of the places at which their account is dramatically different from John Kerry’s concerns the famous “Christmas in Cambodia” trip that Kerry has publicly presented some 50 times as a turning point in his life. Although records show that Kerry was at least half-way across Vietnam from Cambodia at that point–55 miles–he has often said that that Christmas day was “seared–seared” into his memory. That’s because he remembers President Nixon saying there were not Americans in Cambodia at that time. But there Kerry was.

The Swift Boat Vets write that the trip didn’t happen–indeed, couldn’t have happened.

Reluctantly, the Kerry campaign has conceded that the Cambodia trip was not at Christmas (Nixon was not yet president). They have also had to back off from their first, second, third, and fourth accounts of how Kerry made that mistake. The Kerry campaign at this time refuses to give a date for that event–they now suggest it was sometime during February or the first few days of March. Brinkley quotes nearly two pages of an account from Kerry’s journal that seems to place him at least near Cambodia, but not until after mid-March. On this vivid point–the Globe biography calls it the turning point of Kerry’s life–the memories of the Swift Boat Vets have scored a direct hit against Kerry’s account. That event supposedly taught Kerry cynicism about the word of the highest government officials.

If Kerry had been more modest and truthful about the other most dramatic episodes he recounted to his biographers, it would be unseemly to question his right to his three purple hearts, silver star, and bronze star. But eyewitnesses saw these events very differently, and normal processes in awarding medals seem not to have been followed. (Shedding light on those unknowns is a major reason for the demand that Kerry allow the Navy to release his personal war records.) Kerry’s after-action reports–in some key instances, apparently the only ones the Navy received–as reflected in the citations, contain significant differences from the sworn memories of other participants. The official Navy records could settle these differences.


The first part of Unfit for Command is a gripping read. In the scheme of things, however, it’s not so important. One could say that any young man–whatever faults might have shown up in his youth–has in growing up had a chance to bloom into maturity, and have a dramatic inner transformation. What he did long ago doesn’t predict very well what he will do now.

Yet it is the Kerry of 2004 who asked us to judge him by what he did then, as recorded in his own accounts. And it is the same Kerry who has recently tried to blot out from public view what he did with the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) in the years following 1971. Those post-1971 years seem to be the years that have most deeply moved the Swift Boat Vets to action now.

The part of Unfit for Command that few reviewers have so far commented on is the second part, “The War Protester.” The Swift Boat Vets claim that John Kerry war protester not only stole their honor, but also stole their nation’s honor, undercut the free society in South Vietnam for which they were giving their blood, and forced the United States to settle for terms of peace far worse than their hard sacrifices had earned.

Younger people may not know that John Kerry was something like the Michael Moore of his time. But video and audio tapes contain the exact words he used and the cultivated Yalie tones in which he used them. The vets remember how–hearing them in Vietnam or soon after returning–those words mocked everything they had fought for. Reading them in this book will reawaken old memories and rekindle old angers in those who heard them when delivered.

Unfit for Command is less thorough, though still fairly devastating, about the high number of frauds uncovered among “witnesses” in the Detroit “winter soldier investigation” Kerry made so much of before the Senate in 1971. Newspapers and books have already thoroughly debunked those ballyhooed hearings (the authors refer to Guenther Lewy in America in Vietnam and Stolen Valor by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley).

The book will inform many readers of the little-known trip to Paris Kerry took to negotiate with our enemies while the United States was at war, and the connections in Hanoi his organization worked to establish. It also describes the book Kerry published with Macmillan Press in 1971, New Soldier, of which he is apparently now ashamed; and gives an account of the honors bestowed on Kerry for his contributions to the North Vietnamese war effort.

The book’s concluding chapters are without question the most revealing about the motivations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. It is therefore disappointing that chapters 7 through 10 are not entirely well done. They are slapdash, and characterized by the amateur anti-Communism of an earlier era. These chapters seem to be written by an entirely different hand than the first part, as if by an author who is not as careful about evidence as a serious reader might wish. The change of voice and tone is striking, which is too bad, because this part is clearly the emotional heart of the Swift Vets’ case.

Nevertheless, anyone who wishes to understand our era is going to have to read this book. Those who wrote it are honorable men, as are John Kerry and those who stand with him. But the issues on which the two sides are divided are vital. Some of these issues (like the Cambodia allegation) can be settled by checking objective records. Some may be due to the Rashomon effect among diverse witnesses to the same events.

What is most vital is to restore to the Swift Vets their honor. A magnanimous gesture in that direction by John Kerry might easily have done that, and might still.


For readers not accustomed to checking the main bloggers–who have rooted out reams of objective evidence and rigorously followed the logic of various claims for months now–I highly recommend reading Instapundit, The Corner on NRO, the Kerry Spot on NRO, and Captain’s Quarters, especially the latter’s August 7 posting. On that day, the Captain ran John O’Neill’s long affidavit presenting the evidence for the book’s claims. Interested readers should also check out the website maintained by the Swift Vets themselves. There are at least a dozen bloggers who have been covering aspects of the Swift Boat charges carefully and thoroughly, most of whom are cross-referenced at the above sites.

The Swift Boat debate is one of those cases that has persuaded me that if one seeks the truth of things, much more help is on the way from the best of the bloggers, liberal as well as conservative, than from the main organs of the national press.

Most of the bloggers seem to me to be lawyers, to think clearly, and to have a very sharp eye for conflicting evidence. Most of the mainstream press, perhaps because of their editors, seem hemmed in by blinkers. It frequently startles me to discover how far behind the story they really are. The mystique of the mainstream press has self-destructed.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.


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