Medals Don’t Make a President

So says Charles Krauthammer.

For 2 1/2 years since 9/11, the Democrats have been adrift on national security. With Kerry, they have finally stumbled their way onto an answer: “We still have no answer, but we have a man with an unimpeachable military record. What have you got?”

The Democrats want to make the issue one of biography. It is, after all, no contest. Kerry has his Vietnam medals; Bush can barely produce his National Guard pay stubs.

Two years ago, biography was not enough. The Democrats got slaughtered in that election campaign because the President had a plan for the post-Sept. 11 world — a forward strategy of war abroad and homeland-security reorganization at home — and the Democrats had nothing.

Democratic Senator Max Cleland, another genuine war hero, was defeated in Georgia after he and other Senate Democrats had held up the establishment of the Homeland Security Department because of union rules. Democrats bitterly complained that Cleland’s patriotism had been questioned. But it was not a matter of patriotism; it was a matter of seriousness: when crazed jihadists are flying airplanes into American buildings, the usual rules — including union rules — are suspended.

The Democrats simply did not understand that. They lost big. In 2002, past heroism was not enough. In 2004, it might just be. Why? Because Sept. 11 is fading.


The issue of our time is the war on terrorism. Bush’s strategy throws out the old playbook on terrorism — the cops-and-robbers, law-and-order strategy of arrest and trial followed by complacency — and takes the war to the enemy. Kerry says terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation” — precisely the misconception that had us waking up on Sept. 12 realizing that while the enemy was preparing for war, we were preparing legal briefs for grand juries.

And where did Kerry stand on the most critical national-security questions of the past two decades? In 1991 he voted against the Gulf War, which he now says he was in favor of. Twelve years later, he voted in favor of the Iraq war, which he now tells us he was against. Then he voted against the $87 billion for reconstruction and troop support while telling us that of course he supports both the reconstruction and the troops.

War hero he is. But a man of so many pirouettes hardly inspires confidence as a resolute President.

True. But it might not matter. President Bush made a calculation early on that the war on terrorists would be fought by the professionals and that ordinary citizens should just go about their daily lives as if nothing had happened, albeit with a bit more vigilance. The sense that we are “at war” has faded. If Kerry can make the case that we’re not really fighting a war on terrorism but merely trying to arrest Osama bin Laden, the issue could indeed be largely neutralized.

Steven Taylor and Robert Tagorda have more on this theme.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Paul says:

    What I find interesting is how the Republicans are falling all over themselves to call Kerry a war hero.

    Yes, he went to Vietnam and served his country but his service was far from extraordinary. Terry McGoofball says he has “a chest full of metals” which is a grand overstatement.

    The Republicans are hyping his war record more than the Dems. Odd.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Kerry has the Silver Star, which is the third highest medal for valor, behind only the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.

  3. Paul says:

    You are correct. He has a single silver star. He got it for jumping behind a hut to “finish a guy off” after his gunner already laid 50 rounds of 50 cal machine gun fire into the hut.

    Hardly “Saving Private Ryan” stuff.

    The other 3 metals he has were for getting “wounded.”

    He was “wounded” so badly in 2 of the episodes he never missed any time to “recover.”

    In the 3rd he missed 2 days.

    [I’m reminded of the episode of M*A*S*H where Frank Burns gets a purple heart or “shell fragments in his eye” then it turns out it was an egg shell fragments from the mess tent.]

    Kerry then parlayed those 3 purple hearts into an early release from Vietnam so he could come home and protest. He never completed a single tour of duty.

    Yes, he served his country but if we are going to award the Presidency of the United States to someone based on their service in Vietnam there are many more deserving folks out there.

    If that were a Republican running on Kerry’s record, the Dems would be questioning his deserving his purple hearts and disparaging him for leaving Vietnam early.

    Republicans on the other hand never miss an opportunity to call him a hero. As I said earlier…


  4. James Joyner says:

    I wouldn’t award him the presidency based on his medals; indeed, that was the point of the post. But we typically refer to a Silver Star recepient–and, indeed, Bronze Star recepients–as “heroes.” That doesn’t make them the same as people with a chestful of valor awards or a Medal of Honor. But so what?

    He also has a Bronze Star, although I don’t know if it’s for valor or service. The Navy is notorious for giving out “V” devices rather freely.

    Purple Hearts aren’t valor awards; they’re given for wounds received from enemy action. You get it if you’re killed, have a leg blown off, on just need a band aid. It’s the oldest award in the U.S., going back to George Washington’s time.

  5. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    The Navy is notorious for giving out “V” devices rather freely.

    Wow, almost ten years after retiring from a 20-year Naval career, and I’m just now finding out that all I had to do was pick up one of those silver Vs at the Exchange?

    In all seriousness, James, I’ve never heard that. In fact, one of those Vs was the reason that Admiral Mike Boorda, then Chief of Naval Operations, committed suicide. If the Navy passed them out like candy, it seems likely that a guy like Boorda would have been “legitimately” awarded the V.

    Unless you’re talking about the Navy over the past ten years, so I wouldn’t be familiar with the circumstances.

    But hey, if we want to talk about passing out lots of medals, let’s just pick on the Air Farce. They’d be an easy target, and neither your nor my ox would get gored.

  6. James Joyner says:

    The Air Force awards medals like the Cub Scouts. The Marine Corps is on the other end of the scale.

    Boorda’s boss (Zumwalt?) claimed that he was indeed entitled to the “V” device, even though Boorda never left the ship and never heard a shot fired in anger. In the Army, you would never get a “V” under those circumstances. In the Marines, you’d likely get a Navy Commendation Medal rather than a Bronze Star to begin with.