Heroes Don’t Shout

The title of Ralph Peters' New York Post column today says it all: HEROES DON'T SHOUT.

The title of Ralph Peters‘ New York Post column today says it all: HEROES DON’T SHOUT.

John Kerry went to Vietnam. Voluntarily. Given that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and every chicken-hawk in the coop did all they could to avoid getting the mud of Indochina on their loafers, his service should make Kerry the election-year choice of those who serve, or once served, in our country’s uniform.

Well, no. I agree that it would naturally make vets consider Kerry seriously but we’re not single issue voters. For that matter, it’s entirely possible for the guy with lesser military experience to be “stronger” on defense issues. See, for example, war hero George McGovern versus staff weenie Richard Nixon in 1972. Or, for that matter, Naval Academy grad and nuke boat vet Jimmy Carter versus actor-in-uniform Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Instead, military men and women are overwhelmingly suspicious of Kerry. Many despise him so intensely that their emotions verge on hatred. What went wrong?

There are three big problems with Kerry from the standpoint of those who are proud of their military service. And one of those reservations has been overlooked entirely by the parade of talking heads, so few of whom have served in uniform themselves.

As far as the swift-boat controversy goes, it’s likely to remain a he-said-she-said issue through Election Day. The red flag to military men and women is that so many swift-boat veterans have come out against John Kerry. Not just one. Not 10. Dozens upon dozens. This is as rare as humility in the Hamptons. Vets stick together. Kerry likes to play up his “band of brothers” image, but if he’s got a band, his opponents have a symphony. And even if the first violinist turns out to be a “Republican stooge,” it’s nonetheless stunning for so many vets to denounce a former comrade publicly. It just doesn’t happen unless something’s really wrong.

As for Kerry’s support from his own crew, that’s normal military psychology. You get the most objective view of a junior leader from his peers — the other swift-boat commanders (and their crews) who had to fear a weak link in the chain.

I think this is correct. Regardless of their partisan beliefs, you’re simply not going to get dozens upon dozens of a guy’s comrades to come out like this unless there’s something seriously wrong. They might come out and endorse George W. Bush, saying that in spite of Kerry’s courageous service, they think Bush would be a better wartime leader for a variety of reasons. But they wouldn’t slander a guy they thought was a hero.

Peters then discusses the well-trod issues of Kerry’s slanders of his fellow vets upon his arrival back home after the war and other reasons why his integrity might be reasonably questioned. And then he hits on the titular theme:

Finally—and this is the one the pundits have trouble grasping, given the self-promoting nature of today’s culture—real heroes don’t call themselves heroes. Honorable soldiers or sailors don’t brag. They let their deeds speak for themselves. Some of the most off-putting words any veteran can utter are “I’m a war hero.”

Real heroes (and I’ve been honored to know some) never portray their service in grandiose terms, telling TV cameras that they’re reporting for duty. Real heroes may be proud of the sacrifices they offered, but they don’t shout for attention.

This is so profoundly a part of the military code of behavior that it cannot be over-emphasized. The rule is that those who brag about being heroes usually aren’t heroes at all. Bragging is for drunks at the end of the bar, not for real vets. And certainly not for anyone who wishes to trade on his service to become our commander-in-chief.

I’m too young to remember the 1972 campaign but I’m reasonably confident that McGovern didn’t make a fuss over his wartime exploits. George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole didn’t, either. John McCain, who certainly earned the right, generally avoided it although he made far more references to it than I’d have liked. Kerry would have been far better off to let others mention his Vietnam service and to otherwise be stoic about it. It would have been more effective and less absurd. I laughed out loud when he rendered his sloppy hand salute and announced that he was “reporting for duty” at the Democratic convention. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2004 Election, Best of OTB, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    So Ralph thinks we deserve four more years of the Bush Cheney corporate gravy train? Better the devil you know? I’ll take my chances with Kerry.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I remember every presidential campaign since 1960 vividly. Mr. Kerry is the only candidate in that period to make his military service the lynchpin of his campaign.

  3. DC Loser says:


    Since we’re in a long term war, is that a bad thing?

  4. vdibart says:

    “real heroes don’t call themselves heroes”

    This begs for the corrollary for one who consistently proclaims himself to be a “wartime president”.

  5. DC Loser says:

    I would be careful about calling attention to the fact that the war began when the sneak attack was launched under your watch.

  6. legion says:

    Very thought-provoking post, James. While a lot of people do consider complexities when making a decision like this, there are far too many people out there who _are_ just one-issue voters right now. Just yesterday, I read where Ed Koch said that despite disagreeing with 95% of everything Bush says & does, he’s the Big Man on fighting terror, and that one reason is why Ed will vote for Bush this fall. I’ve heard a disturbing number of people voice this same opinion; they’re just too scared to even consider any change in leadership, consequences be damned.

    As for the vitriol of Kerry’s former comrades, I believe (and this is just my gut feeling here) that the vast majority of vets who’ve come out against Kerry do so mainly because of how he protested after he got back, not because of anything he said or did while he was in Nam. Politically, however, that just won’t affect the opinions of a lot of people who weren’t in Nam as well. I think the whole Swift Boat hash is just an excuse to publicly hate on Kerry, one that seems to generate more traction with non-vet voters. But as Dennis Miller says, that’s just my opinion…

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Since we’re in a long term war, is that a bad thing?

    IIRC Dwight Eisenhower (the last president whose status as war hero was the lynchpin of his campaign) was a five-star general and the first Supreme Commander of NATO. Is you point that a Navy lieutenant has all the credentials needed to be president?

  8. McGovern appeared on one of the network news shows (CBS?) a month or so ago. When asked about the Kerry campaign, he said that, in hindsight, perhaps he should have told the public about his military service. At the same time, he noted that it would have been unbecoming.

  9. DC Loser says:

    A Navy Lt with a Silver Star trumps a ANG 1Lt anyday. Bush is running as the War President so what’s his qualification? Oh, excuse me, 9/11 didn’t count because it’s the CIA’s fault.

  10. FTA says:

    Sure Mr. court appointed President, I’ll watch your drive, so sorry to interrupt…..WOW! Nice one, you’ve been working out haven’t you?…..Oh yes, I am here to inform you that the nation is under attack sir……Yes sir, I would use the 3 wood.