Politics & Policy

At Summer’s End

Thoughts on our current war, an older war, and timeless prose.

The summer has blown through like a wind-driven prairie fire and is all but over–just as I’m finally settling down to rest a little. Here, at least, are a few fragments I’ve rescued from the flames.

We’ve just hit the 1,000 mark for American military deaths in Iraq, and, unsurprisingly, the press is headlining the number with something less than the truth. Even in peacetime, the U.S. military suffers hundreds of deaths each year. Most are from accidents; some are from illness and other non-hostile causes. Young men and women are quite prone, even in civilian life, to early death. But military training is much more hazardous than daily life: Pentagon statistical reports show that during the peacetime years from 1996 to 2000, the military suffered between 774 and 974 deaths per year–none from hostile fire.

Therefore, even in evaluating costs in the war in Iraq, one has to be careful to sort out those deaths that are not due to hostile fire from those that are. To the family of the great reporter Michael Kelly, of course, and to all other families in similar situations, the death of a son/husband/father is terribly bitter, no matter the cause. And war conditions generate, naturally, a higher percentage of non-hostile deaths than normal peacetime training conditions. Still, with something like 250,000 soldiers having been rotated through Iraq since March of 2003, we should expect something like 200 or more deaths to have occurred apart from hostile fire. In fact, as of August 27, 2004, the number of American troops who died from non-hostile causes was exactly 244.

May every single one of them rest in peace, and may their families bask forever in the memory of their service to liberty, and of their willingness to die for their fellow citizens. May God comfort them, every one.

As of August 27 this year, since war commenced in Iraq in mid-March 2003, 727 young Americans had fallen to hostile fire. These are already a great many young men and women to mourn–to mourn and to honor and to thank.

Still, as the press has started flashing the headline “One Thousand Americans Have Died in Iraq,” it is important to remember that some 250 of them have not died from hostile fire–and that that number equals the proportion of those in the military who died from non-hostile action outside of war zones.

Indeed, one reason we honor our troops is that military service is inherently hazardous, even independent of war. All who volunteer for it are putting their lives at risk for our sake, whether they see combat or not.


One of the most important of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth turns out to be a neighbor of mine, and so I’ve been lucky enough to have a few chats with him this summer. Captain George Elliott is a graduate of Annapolis, his back is still straight, and he deeply loves and honors the United States Navy. I want to keep what we talk about off the record, so as to not mix friendship with work. But there is one point I’ve learned from him that is so important to the ongoing debate, especially on the Kerry side (that is, the Big Media side), that I asked his permission to present it in public.

In recent days, I’ve heard at least three Kerry-supporting journalists say that the story of the Swift Boat Vets is crumbling. That certainly surprised me, so I listened carefully. One of the three or four instances they glancingly cited concerned Captain Elliott’s testimony on behalf of Kerry in the Senate campaign of 1996.

They have missed an absolutely crucial point. In 1996, Kerry was being accused by a journalist of having committed war crimes. Captain Elliott and others hated this charge with regard to anything that occurred under their command, and so, putting out of mind Kerry’s use of the same charge in 1971 against them and their fellows in Vietnam, these good men were willing to go to Boston “to defend the honor of the U.S. Navy,” this time in the person of John Kerry. Thus, Captain Elliott’s support of Kerry in 1996 does not contradict the criticism he makes now. And he is far from backing down in his support for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He is painfully truthful himself, and is scrupulous in choosing his words.

That much I quote from Captain Elliott. What comes next is my own.

Close followers of this debate will know that the paperwork describing the actions on which Kerry’s Silver and Bronze Stars were originally based came from Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry’s reports, passed up until they came to Captain Elliott. The Navy system is based on the honor code.

Only when they read the accounts published in the campaign biographies by Douglas Brinkley and a team from the Boston Globe did Kerry’s superiors and peers, including Captain Elliott, come to see how widely Kerry’s perception and self-serving descriptions differed from reality. Beginning then, they started to reevaluate everything they had heard from him back then. The man presented in those books was not the man they knew, and the events were not the events they knew. In wartime, one must trust one’s mates. After they saw those books, they saw what Kerry reported to them then in a new light.

I infer that Captain Elliott and others in 1969 took on trust some reports from Kerry, reports they can no longer consider as truthful as they thought them before.

In later years, Kerry said in Senate debate that he often sent up action reports whose exact words he later read in Stars & Stripes, except that some of the numbers he had given of enemy casualties had been inflated by higher-ups. He admitted to somewhat inflating his reports himself, but said his superiors inflated them further. To my ears, this sounds like a man without honor later projecting his own weaknesses on others.

Today it is not the Swift Boat Veterans’ story that is crumbling, but Kerry’s. Two of its five pillars have already collapsed. The story that he said publicly for years had been “seared–seared” into his memory never happened: that so-called “Christmas in Cambodia 1968,” when “President Nixon” was in the White House (in 1968, it was actually President Johnson).

Kerry’s campaign has also admitted that his first Purple Heart–from December 2, 1968–was probably not from action under hostile fire, but was from a self-inflicted wound caused by a small shred of shrapnel from a grenade Kerry himself launched at an unseen target. Both the attending doctor and Kerry’s commanding officer, separately, refused to recommend a Purple Heart for so minor a wound. To this point, it is not known how Kerry ended up finding someone to award it.

There is no real need to argue over the other disputed points. All could be resolved if Kerry released his entire Navy file. He swears publicly these days that he is telling the absolute honest truth. The records would therefore bear him out. He should release them. Why is the Kerry press afraid to insist on that?

It would be good for all of us if we could simply honor Kerry for his service to his country, as President Bush has already said he does. But it would be far better still to have evidence that Kerry’s word of honor is reliable. That evidence could be provided by the records.


I can’t let the summer end without saying how much I really have enjoyed dipping into Bill Buckley’s latest book. Most of us know Bill’s work mainly through his newspaper column, which has a distinctive style all its own. It is always a boundary-breaker for our existing vocabulary, often has a most indirect way of making a point (around the house and through the back door), not infrequently contains a sentence whose length and syntax require a second reading, and always has an undertone of sly amusement. Good writing, but not his best.

Mr. Buckley’s best writing, apart from his semi-historical spy novels (which I adore), lies in his longer magazine pieces. And many of these are featured in this new “autobiography,” being a collection of his best autobiographical writing over the years, and a marvelous glimpse of virtually every period of his very full life. I have enjoyed reading about his parents and his early school days, his time at Yale, his reminiscences about Whittaker Chambers, and his vignettes about other important figures and events in his life. I particularly enjoyed his reflections on how he came to imagine the main character in his spy novels, Blackford Oakes–the thinking, the rationale of the thing. I couldn’t resist dipping into some of his pages on sailing, not exactly my cup of sea, but done with such a marvelous sense of beauty and style.

William F. Buckley Jr. really is one of our great writers, especially when you catch him outside the polemical mode into which the exigencies of our time have thrown him. I do not mean to denigrate his talents as polemicist and debater; there are few better–perhaps none. I only mean to emphasize that his range is much larger than the habitat in which we are used to finding him. His capaciousness of imagination and sense of delight in the mysteries and beauties of life are extremely vivid in this and other books. His sheer artistry has not yet been paid the honor due it.

This summer he has brought me special delight in looking back over the years of his immensely active and diversified life. It has long been a joy to observe him “from outside,” and now to share this retrospective somewhat more “from inside” has given me much quiet pleasure. If you want to understand our time–and a most interesting man–a little better, you will want to dip often into this book, when you have just enough time to take in a chapter–and an era.

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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