Kerry's Military Service is Unimpressive
Kerry Service Unimpressive
By Neal Thompson
John Kerry is running for president on the Democratic ticket, and nothing is more crucial to his carefully crafted image than his status as a "Vietnam veteran." Kerry himself tells us time and again that his Vietnam experience, from fighting sailor to anti-war activist, factors greatly in who he is and how he will act as president. And on this I believe him, which is why, as a veteran, I will not support him.
Kerry arrived in Vietnam in November 1968 and remained only four months. He saw a little action, was decorated for conduct during a firefight or two and left at the first opportunity, more than six moths before his tour of duty was to end, because three shrapnel nicks qualified him for transfer to stateside duty as an admiral's aide.
Roy Hoffmann, Kerry's squadron commander, described Kerry's departure contemptuously: "He just simply bugged out, and any military man knows what I'm talking about." At no time, Kerry says now, did he, anyone in his unit or anyone to his knowledge, rape, torture or murder anyone. He was never involved in nor did he witness a war crime.
Lifelong civilians seem impressed with tales of Kerry's derring-do. But as a combat veteran, I see nothing remarkable in Kerry's "Vietnam experience." I flew gunships for a year and saw more action in a week than Kerry saw during his entire, abbreviated tour of duty.
From any perspective, it was fairly typical and, given its duration, particularly unimpressive, at least until Kerry arrived home and began his scorched-earth campaign for publicity and political office.
Before the ink on his discharge was dry, Kerry assumed the role of anti-war radical and traveled the country denouncing the rest of us as war criminals, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, that we "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 range of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
These were "not isolated incidents," he emphasized, "but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
Kerry appeared on "Meet the Press," called his commanders --"the men who ordered us"--"war criminals" and claimed to have committed "the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers." So Kerry, according to Kerry, was a typical "Vietnam veteran" who committed war crimes like Genghis Khan "on a day-to-day basis."
And he stood by his claims for more than 30 years, advancing easily through the political system while his newly discovered "band of brothers," who, according to Kerry's current version of events, served "with equal courage, equal commitment and an equal sense of contribution as anybody else in any other war and in any other time in American history," paid the price.
I remember when it was open season on those who served in Vietnam. To those who deny or forget, I recommend Bob Greene's "Homecoming," in which veterans recount being spat on, cursed, denounced as fascists and baby killers, and assaulted for nothing more than wearing a uniform in public.
These are not urban legends; each veteran is identified and tells his story in his own words. This treatment did not end when the shooting stopped.
It continued in one form or another for decades, as veterans were portrayed as losers, morons, alcoholics, addicts and criminals in everything from books, movies and TV to what passes for serious historical and social commentary, such as Myra MacPherson's wretched and yet highly acclaimed book, "Long Time Passing."
Now most veterans harbor a righteous anger over all this, as well they should, but they focus too often on people like Jane Fonda, which I find silly. It was not, after all, Fonda and her divisive, childish antics but serious, supposedly knowledgeable, impressive people like Kerry who made the atrocity-story industry respectable and credible, knowing all along, as Kerry himself has finally admitted, that the claims were false.
And this is what the veterans, along with their wives, children, parents and siblings, should keep in mind as Kerry speaks of them today, when he wants their votes, the way he should have spoken of them when it really mattered.
But this is not just about payback. It is about Kerry's fitness for office. For his "Vietnam experience" demonstrates clearly that he is unencumbered by anything resembling honesty, loyalty or common decency and will do whatever it takes to get elected. And we have seen such men, to our eternal regret, before.
John Kennedy, whom Kerry idolizes, wrote "Profiles in Courage" in 1955.
The book is a tribute to public officials who, in Kennedy's view, had the courage and integrity to act in the public interest knowing they would forfeit their office for so doing, people like Sen. Edmund G. Ross, whose vote against impeachment saved Andrew Johnson's presidency at the cost of his own political career.
Within a few short years, Kennedy, in his own mind, would face just such a test, and he would fail miserably.
According to aide Kenny O'Donnell, Kennedy had concluded by spring 1963 that American involvement in Vietnam was pointless and had to end, telling Sen. Mike Mansfield that he "agreed with Mansfield's thinking on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam. But I can't do it until 1965--after I'm re-elected."
"President Kennedy explained, and Mansfield agreed with him, that if he announced a withdrawal of American military personnel from Vietnam before the 1964 election, there would be a wild conservative outcry against returning him to the presidency for a second term."
So the historical record is clear: When the time came to choose between his re-election and his country, Kennedy, unlike Edmund Ross, chose the former, ultimately sending 16,000 men to Vietnam, to fight not communists in Asia but Republicans in Washington. And he intended to continue, in the face of mounting casualties, as long as needed to ensure his re-election.
Whatever John Kennedy might have been, he was certainly, by his own standards, no profile in courage.
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon followed suit.
As Johnson's recently released White House tapes and other historical materials reveal, domestic politics both drove and limited his conduct of the war. He needed just enough commitment to avoid losing but not so much as to alarm the electorate, lest the Republicans gain in Congress or limit his Great Society programs.
Nixon represents the flip side. He genuinely believed that an independent, non-communist South Vietnam was important but removed troops by the hundreds of thousands whenever the next election cycle demanded further reductions. Clark Clifford, a former secretary of defense, described it all in his autobiography as "a cauldron in which good and able men of high integrity, acting out of solid and well-reasoned motives, went terribly wrong."
"We made an honest mistake," he said.
There were no "good and able men of high integrity," there were "no solid and well-reasoned motives" and there were no "mistakes."
What we had instead were conscious, carefully considered choices made by dishonest, ambitious men who put their interests first at every crucial juncture. And from everything I've seen, John Kerry is just such a man.
So while I might not be happy with much of what I see today, Kerry is not a man I will trust in the White House. I've seen his kind before and, knowing history, I am determined not to repeat it.
Neal Thompson was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his year of service as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. After 13 years as a DuPage County prosecutor, he is now in private practice.