John Kerry’s Two Vietnams: The Swift Vets and the Record

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2004

I must admit to being of two conflicting minds when it comes to the anti-Kerry activities of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. On the one hand, there is nothing that makes my blood boil more than a fraudulent Vietnam veteran. In their remarkable book Stolen Valor, “Jug”
Burkett and Glenna Whitley unmask some 1,500 Vietnam “wannabes,” not only the media’s favorite dysfunctional vets who, with the often all-too-eager cooperation of the press, attribute their problems with drugs, alcohol, crime, and poverty to their time in Vietnam, but also fixtures at local patriotic affairs who show up to give rousing speeches while wearing ribbons—and in some cases even uniforms—they didn’t earn.

The Swifties are not arguing that Kerry has embellished his record but that he has done so in a particularly cynical and calculated way. After all, soldiers have embellished their war records since the beginning of time. Anyone who has spent more than an hour in the military has heard a “war story” (or the Navy-Marine Corps variant, the “sea story”). The attitude of most vets to these sorts of tales is an old joke: What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war/sea story? The former begins, “once upon a time;” the latter begins “now this is no s**t!”

What seems to offend the Swifties, as well as other Vietnam veterans, is that after having made his political debut as an anti-Vietnam War activist, Kerry is now playing the hero, pointing to his Vietnam service is the reason he should be president, and campaigning with his “band of brothers.” This is hypocrisy of the highest order. As I said back in January.

If he believes his 1971 indictment of his country and his fellow veterans was true, then he couldn’t possibly be proud of his Vietnam service. Who can be proud of committing war crimes of the sort that Kerry recounted in his 1971 testimony? But if he is proud of his service today, perhaps it is because he always knew that his indictment in 1971 was a piece of political theater that he, an aspiring politician, exploited merely as a “good issue.” If the latter is true, he should apologize to every veteran of that war for slandering them to advance his political fortunes.

The Swifties, like most other Vietnam veterans, don’t care for the stench of Kerry’s hypocrisy.

They may also smell something fishy in his lack of reticence when it comes to talking about his experiences in Vietnam. Most of the veterans I know emulate their fathers after World War II—they are embarrassed when people ask them about what they experienced or what they did to receive their awards. They might finally reveal bits and pieces to family and close friends, and might share reminiscences with former comrades, but they would never talk about the war to strangers. It has been my own experience that those who talk the most about “the ’Nam” were farthest from the action. Stolen Valor vindicates my observation.

Although former Georgia Senator Max Cleland has become a Kerry surrogate of late, hammering those who question the candidate’s Vietnam record, it is instructive to compare Kerry’s willingness to remind everyone of his Vietnam service with Cleland’s own reticence about the subject, despite the fact that he lost three limbs in the conflict, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart, in addition to a Soldier’s Medal and Silver Star medal for valor.

However in his 1986 autobiography, Cleland downplayed his experience. He wrote that he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal “for allegedly shielding my men from the grenade blast and the Silver Star for allegedly coming to the aid of wounded troops…” But, he acknowledges, “there were no heroics on which to base the Soldier’s Medal. And it had been my men who took care of the wounded during the rocket attack, not me. Some compassionate military men had obviously recommended me for the Silver Star, but I didn’t deserve it.” He also writes that, “I was not entitled to the Purple Heart either, since I was not wounded by enemy action.”

On the other hand, I am concerned that the Swifties’ focus on Kerry’s record in Vietnam distracts us from the real story—his cynical, hypocritical, and yes, his dishonorable actions once he returned home. The Swifties’ second anti-Kerry ad now focuses on this aspect of Kerry’s career but because they have been portrayed in the press as vindictive, small-minded pawns of Karl Rove and the Republican Party who are attempting to tarnish the honor of a man who served his country, this ad may not have the impact it should.

In my own articles about Kerry’s slander of his comrades earlier this year, I was very careful to avoid any criticism of his record in Vietnam. Even so, when Kerry and his people responded to my articles and others like them (obliquely, of course), the standard dismissive retort was that such pieces constituted just another baseless, desperate attack on his heroic war record. This charge also constituted the bulk of the critical e-mails I received in the wake of my articles. Since the lazy press let the Kerry campaign get away with this, Kerry never really had to confront his post-Vietnam record.

Of course, by making Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign, Kerry invited the scrutiny his record is receiving. But by questioning his combat record rather than concentrating on his postwar behavior, the Swifties have made it possible for Kerry to resort to the tools of intimidation that he has used so successfully in the past against those who have raised questions about his Vietnam record. As Jim Geraghty pointed out in a recent Kerry Spot post on National Review Online, “Kerry referred to his Vietnam service again and again [during his earlier political campaigns] and prodded his opponents to talk about Vietnam. Then, when they made comments criticizing Kerry, he and his allies charged his opponent with attacking veterans.” That is exactly what Kerry and his minions are doing with the Swifties.

If they are successful—and the traditional press has sided with Kerry—the electorate will not understand how John Kerry 1) played a major role in helping to poison the attitude of the country toward those who fought in Vietnam and 2) laid the groundwork for the foreign and defense policy he embraced as a senator—a record he has not been forced to confront by the press.

Let me once more remind readers what Kerry said during his April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his comrades in Vietnam:

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command (emphasis added).

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

But also consider these revealing passages from his 1971 testimony:

In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America… I want to relate to you the feeling that many of the men who have returned to this country express because we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.

We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.

We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and they practiced the art of survival by siding With whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Vietcong, North Vietnamese, or American.

We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? But we are trying to do that, and we are doing it with thousands of rationalizations, and if you read carefully the President’s last speech to the people of this country, you can see that he says, and says clearly: “But the issue, gentlemen, the issue is communism, and the question is whether or not we will leave that country to the Communists or whether or not we will try to give it hope to be a free people.”

But the point is they are not a free people now under us. They are not a free people, and we cannot fight communism all over the World, and I think we should have learned that lesson by now.

Is this speech not an early manifestation of the worldview that would undergird Kerry’s record in the Senate of opposition to just about every weapon system or policy that contributed to the defeat of Communism?

Unfortunately, by raising the issue of Kerry’s record in Vietnam, the Swifties have given Kerry an excuse to ignore his sordid postwar record and the damage he did to his “band of brothers.” That’s too bad, because Kerry has much to explain regarding his dishonorable activities after the war. He slandered his comrades and he did it, as I wrote in the May 3 issue of National Review, by “Americanizing” Soviet propaganda. That is source of my own antipathy toward him, and it is an attitude that I have in common with many other Vietnam veterans, at least those who know the story.

As a correspondent pointed out to me in an e-mail, each episode of the HBO series Band of Brothers, begins with a voiceover in which the narrator says of the World War II soldiers portrayed in the program: “I was not a hero, but I was surrounded by heroes.” In contrast, what John Kerry is saying in essence about his “band of brothers” is that “in Vietnam, I was a hero, but I was surrounded by war criminals.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of
strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He
led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.