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.”
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?”
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.