Coulter on Cleland, Part II

John Hawkins revisits the Ann Coulter-Max Cleland controversy and argues that Coulter was “as per usual, dead-on accurate and she had the quotes to prove it.”

Here’s what she said:

Maybe Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman — or what Cleland sneeringly calls “weekend warriors.” Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.


The good people of Georgia — who do not need lectures on admiring military service — gave Cleland one pass for being a Vietnam veteran. He didn’t get a lifetime pass.

Indeed, if Cleland had dropped a grenade on himself at Fort Dix rather than in Vietnam, he would never have been a U.S. senator in the first place. Maybe he’d be the best pharmacist in Atlanta, but not a U.S. senator. He got into office on the basis of serving in Vietnam and was thrown out for his performance as a senator.

Cleland wore the uniform, he was in Vietnam, and he has shown courage by going on to lead a productive life. But he didn’t “give his limbs for his country,” or leave them “on the battlefield.” There was no bravery involved in dropping a grenade on himself with no enemy troops in sight. That could have happened in the Texas National Guard — which Cleland denigrates while demanding his own sanctification.

I looked into it a few days ago in this post and was somewhat less impressed with Coulter’s accuracy.

The details seem to be rather consistent.

  • In his own words: “The Power of Character” book excerpt: “Strong at the Broken Places”:

    On April 8, 1968, I volunteered for one last mission. The helicopter moved in low. The troops jumped out with M16 rifles in hand as we crouched low to the ground to avoid the helicopter blades. Then I saw the grenade. It was where the chopper had lifted off. It must be mine, I thought. Grenades had fallen off my web gear before. Shifting the M16 to my left hand and holding it behind me, I bent down to pick up the grenade.

    A blinding explosion threw me backwards.

  • Emory Magazine, Summer 1997

    After finishing his course work at Emory, Cleland volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Promoted to the rank of captain in the Army, he worked as a Signal Corps officer helping set up and maintain communications systems in the field and saw action in the bloody battle for control of Khe Sanh. Toward the end of his one-year tour of duty, Cleland was getting off a helicopter when he noticed a grenade had fallen off his vest. Thinking that the pin was still in, he instinctively bent down to pick it up and was rocked by a tremendous explosion.

    “The blast jammed my eyeballs back into my skull, temporarily blinding me . . . ,” he writes in Strong at the Broken Places. “When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone. . . . Then I tried to stand but couldn’t. I looked down. My right leg and knee were gone. My left leg was a soggy mass of bloody flesh mixed with green fatigue cloth.”

  • Savannah Morning News, November 2000:

    For nearly 32 years, Cleland lived with the belief that it was his grenade that almost took his life. He put his struggle into words in 1980 when he wrote “Strong at the Broken Places,” then followed it up with “Going for the Max! 12 Principles for Living Life to the Fullest.” Then, in the summer of 1999, Cleland got a telephone call that changed his life: David Lloyd, a fellow Marine who helped save his life on the battlefield, told him it was someone else’s grenade that caused the accident.

  • Macon Telegraph, November 2002:

    A month before his Vietnam tour was up in 1968, Cleland stooped to pick up a grenade he thought had fallen off his belt as he jumped from a helicopter. It detonated, and he was left with one arm and no legs.

It’s true that Cleland didn’t receive the wounds in combat with the enemy, but the insinuation that Cleland was on his way to have a beer when this tragedy struck is unfounded [Actually, no. See Update below.]and the idea that one would be as likely to find a live grenade laying around Fort Dix as Vietnam is rather absurd.

Hawkins raises a new argument:

It’s also worth nothing that while Cleland earned a silver star, according to Cleland himself, he didn’t deserve it. After being clued in by an email from Mark Steyn to a Crooked Timber reader, I managed to find the following…

“(In) Mr. Cleland’s autobiography, Strong at the Broken Places (1986 edition), in which he writes on Page 87 regarding his having been 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…”

“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.”

And later, on Page 89: “I was not entitled to the Purple Heart either, since I was not wounded by enemy action.”

Now, I don’t bring all this up to denigrate Max Cleland. To the contrary, I have a lot of respect for anyone who serves our military. Above and beyond that, Cleland deserves credit for volunteering to go to Vietnam and for his injuries in service to our country.

If true, this is interesting indeed. The Silver Star is the third highest medal for bravery, behind only the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service/Navy/Air Force Cross. It would be unusual to get one as a sympathy award. As a captain, Cleland would almost certainly have gotten a Bronze Star (Meritorous Service, rather than Valor) as an end-of-tour award. I’m less clear on the protocols for the Purple Heart. My understanding is that anyone wounded in combat action would get it, regardless of whether it was from enemy fire.

Update: Actually, here is the regulation on the Purple Heart:

Criteria: a. The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed Force who, while serving with the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died or may hereafter die after being wounded;

(1) In any action against an enemy of the United States;

(2) In any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged; [emphasis added]

(3) While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party;

(4) As a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces;

(5) As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force;

(6) After 28 March 1973, as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of the department concerned, or jointly by the Secretaries of the departments concerned if persons from more than one department are wounded in the attack; or,

(7) After 28 March 1973, as a result of military operations, while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force.

(8) After 7 December 1941, by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, regardless of the fire causing the wound.

(9) While held as a prisoner of war or while being taken captive.

b. A wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer.

Update: Since Coulter’s sources aren’t linked, I was unable to check them out. But the “have a beer” part checks out. From a very favorable source–a floor speech by Senator Jack Reed defending Cleland from Coulter’s attacks–we get confirmation: This is what happened.

In Max’s book: <***> That is not routine anytime. This was a combat mission in a combat area.

“With two men, I pulled together some antennas and a generator and some radios and loaded them on a chopper. The three of us climbed in and the helicopter lifted off. Within minutes, we had settled down by the radio relay station. The men and equipment were unloaded, and I climbed back into the chopper intending to go down to battalion rear headquarters.

Then two ideas crossed my mind. First, it would be better to work personally with my team in setting up the radio relay. Second, I had a lot of friends at this relay station and now was a good time to have a cold beer with them.”

First: I want my men to do the job. I am going to be there with them. By the way, I have comrades that I have served with and, you know, if I have a chance to be with them, and, oh, by the way–in his characteristic honesty–have a beer with them, I was going to do that.

“I called to the pilot that I was getting out. He nodded and held the ship steady. I jumped to the ground, ran in a crouch until I got clear of the spinning helicopter blades, turned around and watched the chopper lift.

Then I saw the grenade. It was where the chopper had lifted off.”

So, Coulter gets the story right. I still think the idea that this situation was just as likely at Fort Dix shows an amazing lack of understanding of the dangers of combat. But her argument that the Democrats should quit portraying Cleland as the second coming of Audie Murphy whose patriotism was smeared in the name of winning back a Senate seat is right.

And she gets this right, too:

Cleland’s true heroism came after the war, when he went on to build a productive life for himself. That is a story of inspiration and courage. He shouldn’t let the Democrats tarnish an admirable life by “sexing up” his record in order to better attack George Bush.

Update: Brian Carnell has an interesting take on the Vietnam/Ft Dix angle:

Fort Dix was a major training area for soldiers headed for Vietnam. The military constructed a mock Vietnamese village there and trained American soldiers to assault it in live fire exercises featuring small arms and explosives. People can get killed during such exercises (in fact the military generally has an extremely high accidental death rate even during peace time precisely because training for combat is itself extremely dangerous).

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Hawkins says:

    “(Cleland) told the pilot he was going to stay awhile. Maybe have a few beers with friends. … Then Cleland looked down and saw a grenade. Where’d that come from? He walked toward it, bent down, and crossed the line between before and after.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 5, 1999)

  2. James Joyner says:

    I’m not sure a quotation from an unlinked report in a minor newspaper is that reliable.

  3. Tom says:

    It is amazing how the press manipulates the truth. In Georgia, we have know this since he entered public office. I am by no means a fan of the old Democratic Machine, however, Max did a great job as Secretary of State. His efforts as SOS were the main reason that he won his Senate Seat. His votes on the Senate floor are what lost him the election.

  4. RicK DeMent says:

    Yeah but come on this is a parsing of words here. The Coulter piece was written to give the impression that Cleland was out partying or generally out of harms way and was somehow foolishly responsible for his injury. Also the admission by Cleland that he, “didn’t deserve” his silver star was clearly a statement of his humility in an “Aw Shucks,” kind of way. To talk about him in the way she did might have been “technically” accurate but just so and the context in which she offered the precisely technically accurate information was obviously intended to give people the wrong impression. Since that piece came out I have heard from more then on person that Cleland jumped on a grenade while getting drunk. So the effect of the piece is to misrepresent the story to a Fare-the-well.

    I agree that Max is not the second coming of Audi Murphy but why smear his record with a hack piece to make the point? And why does anyone even read Coulter? God, between her, and people like Michael Moore the Blogosphere has become the battle of the partisan hacks.

  5. GP says:

    The reason all of this is an issue is that the Republicans are pissed that the Democrats have been making hay of Bush’s less-than-stellar Guard service. Not because of the details in and of themselves (although Bush’s response in many ways made the details look worse). It’s pretty well established that Bush used his family connections to get out of going to war (not a bad idea), and then didn’t take his Guard requirements as seriously as he should have (but he complied more so than not with what he had to do). He was not AWOL (aka a deserter), but even he admits that he didn’t show up for all of his scheduled training. And his flying privileges were taken away for unexplained reasons. And then he used his connections to get out of his Guard service requirements months early (the “I worked it out with the military” nonesense). Does any of this mean he shouldn’t be president? No, these are details that are ancient history, and I doubt most voters care.

    What the Bush people are nervous about on this issue is the fact that prior to Clinton, military service was an unwaivable prerequisite to the presidency. Clinton and Bush II were elected in times of forseeable peace. The big question is whether this will change now that we are on a war footing. Kerry has decorated military service during war time (aka HERO) on his resume, and Bush’s resume is weak on this point (and looking weaker, partly from the way Bush responded). The white house doesn’t want military service to re-appear on the presidency application checklist.

    Further, genuine questions exist about whether Bush pushed the war button in Iraq too soon without exhausting all non-military options and without making sure his evidence of the need to go to war was sound.

    Voters may conclude that someone who has experienced the horrors of war firsthand (Kerry) is going to wait until the point of imminent harm before pushing the button. The Kerry folks are going to be pushing this point hard.

    The White House and its supporters need to accept these facts. They aren’t going to out-hero Kerry on military service record. Further, they aren’t going to de-hero Kerry by denigrating what Kerry and his supporters (Cleland) did for this country. The country is very sensitive about honoring military heros, and the white house and its supporters are riding a fine line of turning off voters if they keep flashing pictures of Jane Fonda, debating whether Cleland was just as likely to get hurt in Alabama, and trying to say that this country owes nothing short of enthusiastic gratitude to Kerry and Cleland for choosing to sacrifice for their country.

  6. WyldBill says:

    For that rat-faced sex-sex starved wanker of a wench Coulter to insinuate that Khe Sanh in ’68 was the equivalent of Ft. Dix is ludicrous.

    Just more vicious horse manure from the brownshirts in the Repugnant Party.

  7. Jon H says:

    Re: the silver star, I also suspect that humility has something to do with what Cleland wrote, giving credit to his men is classy, and not unusual.

    I’d guess that the truth is probably somewhere between Cleland’s own account and the official account for which he received the medal. If the official account is slightly exaggerated in his favor, that’d be another incentive for Cleland to play down his role, possibly overcompensating.

    I’d like to hear a third party account.