Kerry Fighting Swift Boat Vets Long After Loss

John Kerry is still haunted by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their campaign against him, which he feels cost him the presidency.

John Kerry starts by showing the entry in a log he kept from 1969: “Feb 12: 0800 run to Cambodia.” He moves on to the photographs: his boat leaving the base at Ha Tien, Vietnam; the harbor; the mountains fading frame by frame as the boat heads north; the special operations team the boat was ferrying across the border; the men reading maps and setting off flares. “They gave me a hat,” Mr. Kerry says. “I have the hat to this day,” he declares, rising to pull it from his briefcase. “I have the hat.”

John Kerry Evidence Cambodia NYT Graphic

Three decades after the Vietnam War and nearly two years after Mr. Kerry’s failed presidential bid, most Americans have probably forgotten why it ever mattered whether he went to Cambodia or that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused him of making it all up, saying he was dishonest and lacked patriotism. But among those who were on the front lines of the 2004 campaign, the battle over Mr. Kerry’s wartime service continues, out of the limelight but in some ways more heatedly — because unlike then, Mr. Kerry has fully engaged in the fight. Only those on Mr. Kerry’s side, however, have gathered new evidence to support their case.

Well, he’s the one who the public thought was lying about the Cambodia mission because he had made numerous public statements that, while “seared–seared into [his] brain,” were easily disproved. Further, how exactly are the Swifties to gather more evidence about something that, they assert, didn’t happen? “Here’s a photo taken in that village on the day in question? See, John Kerry’s not in it!”

Some of the principals behind the Swift boat group continue to press their claims. John O’Neill, the co-author of the group’s best-selling manifesto [A rather loaded word choice. And rather a stretch. -ed.], “Unfit for Command,” criticizes Mr. Kerry on television talk shows and solicits money for conservative causes and candidates. In a South Carolina newspaper, William Schachte recently reprised his allegation that he was aboard the small skimmer where Mr. Kerry received the injury that led to his first Purple Heart, and that Mr. Kerry actually wounded himself. Swift boat message boards and anti-Kerry Web sites still boil with accusations that Mr. Kerry fabricated the military reports that led to his military decorations.

Mr. Kerry, accused even by Democrats of failing to respond to the charges during the campaign, is now fighting back hard. “They lied and lied and lied about everything,” Mr. Kerry says in an interview in his Senate office. “How many lies do you get to tell before someone calls you a liar? How many times can you be exposed in America today?”

Indeed.

His supporters are compiling a dossier that they say will expose every one of the Swift boat group’s charges as a lie and put to rest any question about Mr. Kerry’s valor in combat. While it would be easy to see this as part of Mr. Kerry’s exploration of another presidential run, his friends say the Swift boat charges struck at an experience so central to his identity that he would want to correct the record even if he were retiring from public life.

[…]

Mr. Kerry has signed forms authorizing the Navy to release his record — something he resisted during the campaign — and hired a researcher to comb the naval archives in Washington for records that could pinpoint his whereabouts during dates of the incidents in dispute. Another former crew member has spent days at a time interviewing veterans to reconstruct every incident in question.

Yet, he lied during the campaign saying he had already done so.

Naval records and accounts from other sailors contradicted almost every claim [O’Neil and company] made, and some members of the group who had earlier praised Mr. Kerry’s heroism contradicted themselves. Still, the charges stuck.

[…]

Mr. Kerry’s supporters have also frozen frames from his amateur films of his time in Vietnam and have retrieved letters and military citations for other sailors to support his version of how he won the Silver Star — rebutting the Swift boat group’s most explosive charge, that he shot an unarmed teenager who was fleeing his fire.

Another photograph provides evidence for Mr. Kerry’s version of how he won the Bronze Star. And original reports pulled from the naval archives contradict the charge that he drafted his own accounts of various incidents — which left room, the Swift boat group had argued, to embellish them.

The problem with this is that it conflates several issues. The charge from the book that first hit circulation, via the Drudge Report, was that Kerry had shot an unarmed teenager. My take, and my guess that of most Americans, was to dismiss the Swifties as lunatics. The problem, though, is that they made a series of charges, most notably that Kerry lied about a mission to Cambodia when he was clearly somewhere else, that struck most of us–including many who nonetheless voted for him–as credible. Further, while I steadfastly defended his medals as earned, the fact that the award paperwork matched the award citation is hardly evidence of much of anything aside from bureaucratic efficiency.

Furthermore, I have always maintained that the main damage the Swifties did had nothing to do with any of the charges they made but rather in highlighting Kerry’s postwar activities and statements–about which there simply is no doubt, as we have excellent records of his testimony before Congress and other speeches and declarations–which disparaged Vietnam veterans and contrasting that with his newfound pride in his military service.

As I wrote for TCS in August 2004,

While my initial reaction to totally dismiss the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (SBVFT) as “nuts” may have been premature, I still don’t see them as having much direct impact on the campaign. The idea that Kerry’s war medals were unearned is rather dubious and almost impossible to prove. Furthermore, as Bush’s re-election team seems to grasp, the mere fact that Kerry went to Vietnam trumps Bush’s record of halfhearted service in the Air National Guard. And the business about Kerry killing “a lone, fleeing, teenage Viet Cong in a loincloth” is just unbelievable coming 35 years after the fact.

That said, Kerry’s actions after returning home from Vietnam will ultimately hurt him more than his Vietnam service helps him. We should expect to see several ads focusing on his outrageous accusations against his fellow veterans, including the Senate testimony where he put forth numerous documentable lies. As political scientist Steven Taylor has noted, most of the animus of the SBVFT was generated by Kerry’s actions as leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War rather than his actual conduct
in theater. It seems quite likely to me that this reaction will ultimately take place in other veterans and in the swing voters who have yet to make up their minds on Kerry’s character.

Even aside from the things he said about his fellow vets, Kerry has said some rather bizarre things about his own service. For example, he has repeatedly said that he participated in atrocities in Vietnam, which some have used to bolster the claims of SBVFT. In a 1971 Meet the Press appearance, he said: “There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages.”

If true, this alone would make him unfit to serve as president. It seems far more likely, however, that he is in fact not a war criminal but exaggerated his actions when it served a different political agenda than he’s now pursuing. Less seriously, he threw
his/someone else’s medals/ribbons over the White House fence in order to make a political point but then started proudly displaying them in his Senate office when being a war hero served his needs. The most recent such controversy is his
assertion that he participated in illegal raids in Cambodia, which is almost certainly false. The combination of these things will quite reasonably bring into question his overall trustworthiness.

Rather clearly, that proved to be the case.

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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.

Comments

  1. CC says:

    Less seriously, he threw his/someone else�s medals/ribbons over the White House fence in order to make a political point but then started proudly displaying them in his Senate office when being a war hero served his needs.

    This is all good stuff, but the above quote in my mind sums up the issue, aside from all the other dizzying, controversial and sometimes confusing points of fact being debated. When viewed from a deeper perspective, Kerry showed himself to be a policital and media manipulator, someone who uses historic events, patriotism and sometimes even people to further his own ends.

    I never really questioned the man’s patriotism. And I don’t hold it against him that he was anti-war and opposed to US policy in the 70s. My beef is that he wants us to pretend he never really felt that way or demonstrated against his own government in wartime.

    How and why he has been a senator this long is hard for me to fathom. Paired with Teddy Kennedy, in my book it shows Massachusettes voters to be the dumbest (or most liberal) electorate in the entire country.

    Kerry’s example is lesson to just be yourself and get elected on those merits. Don’t try to be something you’re not, just to get middle-American electoral votes. Nobody buys it.

    Hillary and the rest of the party should take the hint. But they won’t. A tiger is a tiger…

  2. AllenS says:

    Just for the record: As a Viet Nam vet, I believe the Swift Boat Veterans. Kerry gamed the system. My first Purple Heart, put me in the hospital for 3 months.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Allen: The Purple Heart is an odd award, in that you can get it for anything a posthumous recognition of mortal wounds to quite literally a scratch, so long as received from enemy engagement. Further, the downward end of that range depended largely on who you were with: Marine or Army Airborne Infantry is much stingier with this sort of awards than rearward units and the Navy and Air Force seem to be more generous than the Army and Marines.

    Being a Swift Boat captain engaging with the enemy, even on a minor basis, is incredibly impressive to Navy brass, since they haven’t been engaged in real combat–except SEALS and fighter pilots–since WWII.

  4. floyd says:

    the real argument from the beginning is whether military service is a qualifier for political office,where the real war for freedom is more often fought.

  5. AllenS says:

    Mr. Joyner, you said:

    “Being a Swift Boat captain engaging with the enemy, even on a minor basis, is incredibly impressive to Navy brass, …”

    What needs to be pointed out, is that he was denied his first Purple Heart, but went around the refusal and HE got someone to ok it. I was Army Airborne Infantry (173d Abn. Bde.), and even in our unit, if you had rank or access to the rear area, you had a better chance of getting medals. That happens in every war. Unfortunately for Kerry, people are still pissed about his actions after the war. He continues to make a fool out of himself, by bringing this obvious crap up.

  6. mike says:

    I can see it now…”John Kerry….the Broadway Musical”. First song on stage…”I have a hat, yes I have a hat, see I have the hat but I can’t read a map (even to the WHITE HOUSE!). My weekend in Cambodia was wonderfull! AND I HAVE A HAT! (sung in D minor (like I know what that is.)

    This CLOWN and He is one, is a loser.
    Nice Weekend to put your story out!

  7. ken says:

    I think the most interesting thing about all this is that it proves once again that combat veterans and patriots make for typically more liberal than conservative politician.

  8. Tom Maguire says:

    And the business about Kerry killing �a lone, fleeing, teenage Viet Cong in a loincloth� is just unbelievable coming 35 years after the fact.

    Just for the record – that is the version presented by Kerry to the Boston Globe for a 2003 series:

    On Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry’s boat received word that a swift boat was being ambushed. As Kerry raced to the scene, his boat became another target, as a Viet Cong B-40 rocket blast shattered a window. Kerry could have ordered his crew to hit the enemy and run. But the skipper had a more aggressive reaction in mind. Beach the boat, Kerry ordered, and the craft’s bow was quickly rammed upon the shoreline. Out of the bush appeared a teenager in a loin cloth, clutching a grenade launcher.

    An enemy was just feet away, holding a weapon with enough firepower to blow up the boat. Kerry’s forward gunner, Belodeau, shot and clipped the Viet Cong in the leg. Then Belodeau’s gun jammed, according to other crewmates (Belodeau died in 1997). Medeiros tried to fire at the Viet Cong, but he couldn’t get a shot off.

    In an interview, Kerry added a chilling detail.

    “This guy could have dispatched us in a second, but for … I’ll never be able to explain, we were literally face to face, he with his B-40 rocket and us in our boat, and he didn’t pull the trigger. I would not be here today talking to you if he had,” Kerry recalled. “And Tommy clipped him, and he started going [down.] I thought it was over.”

    Instead, the guerrilla got up and started running. “We’ve got to get him, make sure he doesn’t get behind the hut, and then we’re in trouble,” Kerry recalled.

    So Kerry shot and killed the guerrilla. “I don’t have a second’s question about that, nor does anybody who was with me,” he said. “He was running away with a live B-40, and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it.” Asked whether that meant Kerry shot the guerrilla in the back, Kerry said, “No, absolutely not. He was hurt, other guys were shooting from back, side, back. There is no, there is not a scintilla of question in any person’s mind who was there [that] this guy was dangerous, he was a combatant, he had an armed weapon.”

    The “unarmed” seems to have been an extrapolation by the Swiftees. A fleeing teenager in a loin cloth is all Kerry/Globe.

  9. LaurenceB says:

    Tom Maguire and his bunch are nothing if not conspiracy theorists when it comes to this topic. Kerry won three purple hearts, two bronze stars and a silver star – by any measure he is a war hero. Meanwhile these guys scour the documents for meaningless inconsistencies in some soldier’s thirty-year old memories. When one of their deeply troubling questions ™ about loincloths can’t be answered to their satisfaction, they pontificate at great length – as if the answer (should it ever come to light) would surely prove that Kerry was unworthy of his medals. This is just silly, of course. Yet when someone points out this obvious fact, they will quickly change the subject, claiming that what actually bothers them is Kerry’s postwar behavior, not the validity of his medals. Yeah, right.

    Kerry was a war hero. Republicans should just learn to deal with it.

  10. anjin-san says:

    It is possible that Kerry puffed up his war record a bit for political reasons.

    But he did go to Viet Nam and he did bleed there. A hell of a lot more then you can say for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Frist and the majority of the GOP leadership.

  11. ob1 says:

    anjin-san,

    Of course, you conveniently left out McCain.

    Your comment also applies to MOST of the Democrats. Very few Dems are Veterans, too.

    Of course, you would only apply the standard of wartime experience when it suits you.

    The fact of the matter is that Kerry betrayed his fellow Vets when he lied in his Senate testimony. I would not care if he had won the Medal of Honor…whatever honor he earned on the battlefield was lost when he publicly trashed and lied about his fellow Vets. It is almost impossible for him to recover from that betrayal.

    ob1
    Desert Storm Veteran

  12. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Ken, Being an X-druggie and having done almost every drug known to man, for some reason I still can’t figure out what your on? Oh and Kerry deserves every once of pain that the weight of the gigantic mountain of donkey poo( for donkey poo see Bullsh-t) that he has created and got caught under the landslide of smooshes out of him!

  13. Roger says:

    Odd1, read Kerry’s testimony before you continue to repeat the lie that Kerry “betrayed his fellow vets.” The guy didn’t get elected and he won’t be. The lies against him are no longer necessary.

  14. I still find it fascinating that Republican Veterans backed a draft dodger who used his name and family influence to avoid combat in Vietnam, while stabbing a real combat Veteran in the back.

    It just goes to show how corrosive modern Republicanism has become�there really are no values for this crowd; no honor.

  15. Eneils Bailey says:

    Hey Ghost,
    You mean a draft dodger like Clinton. To me, Clinton will always be remembered for blow jobs. Kerry for hyping boo-boos and scratches into purple hearts and betraying his fellow service members..

  16. To me this is a great example of the MSM missing an opportunity. We have had this out in the public for two years, so we aren’t suffering from a deadline here. My own review of the accounts is some of the claims by the Swift boat vets were shown not to hold water, some where questionable, some where persuasive but not provable and some showed Kerry clearly lied (or misrecalled or failed to remember or whatever you want to call it). Most of the claims are the he said/ she said type that you can never discover the real truth this late in the game.. More importantly to me, the way Kerry handled the questioning says volumes to me. To blame aides for not responding vigorously is not what most Americans are looking for in a president. To push the issue of his service forward as a qualification for president and then complain when people question him about it is not an endorsement.

    A truly objective piece would have brought all of this out. The question about his deserving a purple heart would ask why he wrote in his diary about never being shot at 9 days after the incident he claimed for his purple heart. There could be a good explanation (I was referring to the majority of the unit and not just to me) or something. It may be an example of one item where Kerry’s words at the time disprove his claim. But the article didn’t go down the path of providing a balanced look. And that is what will hurt Kerry or any other democrat in 2008. Just as you will discount arguments taken by those on the right or left if you think their political position is blinding them to inconvenient facts, so to with the MSM. When they can’t do a fair and objective article under these circumstance, acknowledging that there is truth on both sides and lots that we can never know, then why should anyone believe what they write during the heat of the campaign?

  17. anjin-san says:

    ob1,

    You are quite right, McCain is a decorated war hero. That did not stop the Bush machine from sliming him in 2000. And if you do your homework, you will see that quite a few well know Democrats did indeed serve.

  18. anjin-san says:

    btw, I never cared for Kerry. My vote for him was a clothespin vote. Does not change the fact that the sliming of vets for political purposes is reprehensible.

  19. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘But he did go to Viet Nam and he did bleed there.’

    Not unless he cut himself shaving.

  20. ob1 says:

    anjin-san,

    Actually, I have done my homework. Perhaps you should take your own advice. A quick google reveals the following links:

    http://grunt.space.swri.edu/senatevet.htm – Senators who are Veterans as of Dec 2004

    http://grunt.space.swri.edu/housevet.htm – Congressmen who are Vets as of Dec 2005

    House – 95 total – 57 R : 38 D
    Senate – 33 total – 18 R : 14 D : 1 I

    I’m sure the numbers have changed since the webpages were updated but probably not much considering most incumbents get re-elected.

    So as you can see, the R’s have more Vets. If you have another source that proves otherwise, please post it.

    As for “Does not change the fact that the sliming of vets for political purposes is reprehensible. ”

    I agree with you, which is why I despise Kerry. He personally slimed hundreds of thousands of Vietnam Vets by his statements to the Senate.