Swift Boat Vets: Trying to Divert Attention from Iraq?

So says Eleanor Clift in “Fighting a Phony War,” a piece Newsweek didn’t think fit for print Web exclusive.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth stopped by NEWSWEEK̢۪s Washington bureau this week to explain their version of what happened in Vietnam 35 years ago and why John Kerry doesn̢۪t deserve three Purple Hearts. None were on the Swift Boat Kerry commanded,

Damn it: They were officers. Kerry was the only officer on the boat. It’s a SMALL BOAT. He was about as low ranking as a Navy officer could be and still be in charge of something.

but they had charts to illustrate their contention that Kerry̢۪s boat did not come under fire and that two of his wounds were self-inflicted, one when he hurled a grenade at a rice bin too close to his position.

A generation of reporters far removed from any war experience listened respectfully to their story. Between the fog of war and the passage of time, telling the truth has more to do with politics than memory.

Well, no. It’s hard to forget that one is being fired upon. Either they are lying or Kerry is lying; there is no middle ground on most of the charges.

These men fought; they didn̢۪t come home to a hero̢۪s welcome, and they̢۪ll never forgive Kerry for protesting the war and branding them as war criminals.

Nor should they.

One member of the group recalled how each of them had been issued a 90-pound sea bag, and Kerry sacrificed 10 pounds of socks and clean underwear to pack a typewriter. At the end of a long day of patrols, Kerry would sit hunched over his typewriter plugging away at who-knows-what, the fellow said, so secretive it seemed subversive.

It is pretty damned peculiar, you must admit.

They never understood this aloof figure, and the day that he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—April 22, 1971—is as powerful a date to these veterans as the Kennedy assassination. They can tell you exactly where they were when they heard Kerry say he had witnessed war crimes sanctioned by commanders in Vietnam.

I thought their memories were bad?

The fact that Kerry attributed the breakdown in military discipline to the policymakers in Washington is lost on these men, who take Kerry̢۪s words personally.

It wasn’t policymakers in Washington he was charging with rape and murder.

This is not about Kerry̢۪s performance in Vietnam; it̢۪s what he said when he came home.

I agree that this is the main impetus behind their anger. But many of their charges have to do with his conduct in theater.

Kerry has never made extravagant claims about his heroism in Vietnam. He never said his wounds were serious, and he never said he didn̢۪t want to get out of Vietnam.

He sure as hell didn’t try to discourage contrary notions, though. When most people think of Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, they’re thinking something pretty nasty was going on.

After three wounds, under military rules, he was entitled to ship out, which he did after a combat tour of four months and 12 days.

Fair enough. Although a lot of officers with the level of injuries Kerry suffered–and much higher–decided against leaving their men behind.

Nothing these so-called Veterans for Truth have come up with contradicts what Kerry has said, but that̢۪s not the point.

Have you paid any attention at all to what these guys are saying? They pretty much contradict everything Kerry has said. Kerry is going nuts and trying to sue to stop the ads.

The Swift Boat veterans have become the Campaign 2004 version of the Scott Peterson trial, trading charges and regularly appearing on the cable-news networks.

Well, Peterson is quite possibly a double murderer. Kerry is vying to be the next President of the United States. Of the two, which do you think is the more important?

The book that lays out the charges against Kerry, “Unfit for Command,†has been No. 1 on Amazon.com for over a week. Never mind that almost daily there’s a retraction or a new story to discredit what these veterans are saying. On Thursday, The Washington Post revealed that the military records of Larry Thurlow, who commanded a boat alongside Kerry, contain several references to enemy fire directed at all five boats in the flotilla, sharply contradicting what Thurlow is saying as a leading member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group. The Post got the affidavit through the Freedom of Information Act.

Most of which the blogosphere shot down within a couple hours of the story hitting. It’s largely overtaken by events now.

The Kerry campaign was curiously passive as the veterans gathered force in the media—as though responding would dignify the scurrilous charges. Kerry finally broke his silence this week, perhaps mindful that a lie unanswered becomes a lie that is believed. Flanked by firefighters in Boston, Kerry stripped the mask of patriotic valor from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by pointing out the source of their funding: a Texas Republican who wrote two checks for $100,000 to the group. Its sudden emergence is reminiscent of the “Republicans for Clean Air,†which emerged during the 2000 campaign with a television spot attacking John McCain’s environmental record. Long after the ad did its damage to McCain in the New York primary, it was revealed that the Wylie brothers in Texas, who backed Bush, had paid for the advertising. The group itself was a sham, and the Wylie brothers no environmentalists.

As noted here and elsewhere, it’s not surprising that some Republicans support the group. It doesn’t make their claims untrue.

If the November election is a plebiscite on who better and more courageously served their country in a time of war, Kerry would win.

None of this is about that. It’s about whether Kerry is an honorable man.

“Kerry gets a bye on this anyway—he was there and Bush wasn’t,†says John Zogby, an independent pollster who is not aligned with either campaign. He sees the battle over who’s telling whose truth in Vietnam as another symptom of the great divide in the country. “We are two warring nations and neither nation is listening to the other,†he says. “This is essentially a net zero politically. It’s great kindling wood for the Republicans. It’s the kind of stuff they need to hear just as Dems need to hear from Michael Moore.â€

Questioning Kerry’s heroism fires up the GOP base, but it leaves “solid undecideds†cold. They’re not paying attention. Zogby says among this very narrow 5 percent of the electorate, 16 percent say Bush deserves to be re-elected; 39 percent say it’s time for somebody new. “You can’t help but look at those numbers and conclude they’ve made up their mind about one side,†says Zogby. But Kerry hasn’t been able to close the deal. Zogby has him stuck at 47 percent, which isn’t good. But Bush is stuck at 43 percent, which is worse. “It’s still the phony war period,†says Zogby. For an incumbent president in as much trouble as Bush, fighting a war that’s been over for nearly 30 years takes voters’ minds off Iraq.

Bush isn’t fighting the war. He’s almost totally ignoring all of this. As you yourself note, this is personal for the Swifties.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Mike Adamson says:

    John Zogby’s comments sum up the issue in my mind. The Kerry vs. Swifties battle is partisan politics plain and simple. The difference this time is that there are a gazillion blogs, give or take a few, to highlight, dissect and analyse every new utterance. The issue matters to the hard core on both sides of the spectrum but is essentially irrelevant to the decision to be taken in November.

  2. Les Nessman says:

    I bet Kerry’s crewmates appreciated the fact that he “…sacrificed 10 pounds of socks and clean underwear to pack a typewriter.” Especially after being cooped up in 100 degree, humid weather. But hey, anything for a future political career.

  3. Mike,

    If the issue of the swifties only mattered to core Dems and Reps, then Kerry would be be ignoring it. He clearly thinks that they are affecting his election chances–which means his polling is showing him that it is influencing swing voters.


  4. CNChristy says:

    Mike Adamson,

    “essentially irrelevant to the decision to be taken in November”??

    The Kerry vs. Swifties issue has made up my mind and at least two others that I know. The character of a candidate (including silly little things like honesty, humility) is most certainly VERY relevant to some of us voters.

  5. McGehee says:

    The issue matters to the hard core on both sides of the spectrum but is essentially irrelevant to the decision to be taken in November.

    Unfortunately, “Kerry-leaning” independents aren’t cooperating with your spin.

  6. McGehee says:

    Addendum to my last comment: after clicking that link, scroll down to the next-to-last item.

  7. Mike Adamson says:

    It’s quite possible that I’m confusing the “what ought” with the “what is”. I should have said that I wouldn’t consider the issue important enough to merit the attention and that its prominence is reflective of the times. As a Canadian, I don’t have any particular axe to grind. I would probably prefer to see Kerry elected as I consider the current administration’s judgement in the international arena to be lacking to say the least. I’m struck more by the persistance and prominence of the issue rather than the details in themselves.

  8. McGehee says:

    Fair enough.

  9. Cooper says:

    I bet Kerry’s crewmates appreciated the fact that he “…sacrificed 10 pounds of socks and clean underwear to pack a typewriter.” Especially after being cooped up in 100 degree, humid weather. But hey, anything for a future political career.

    So you´ve narrowed down to this and that proves why Kerry is unfit for command, Good job.

  10. Fair and Balanced says:

    How many supporters of the “Swifties” were living during the Vietnam Conflict? How many of you lost good friends in Vietnam? I was 18 in 1968 and have very clear memories. One of my close high school friends was killed by so-called ‘friendly fire’ in early 1969 while serving in Vietnam. He had been there only a few months. Indeed, it was possible to have been wounded and/or killed on one’s very first day in Vietnam. (I suggest that those who doubt this might want to interview wounded veterans of the current Gulf War who were ‘in country’ only days before being hit.)

    Several other good friends who served in the U.S. military came back from Vietnam physically and/or psychologically scarred for life. My young husband, who had a very low draft lottery number, would surely have been drafted and sent to Vietnam had he not developed high blood pressure out of sheer anxiety about it all.

    Why would I have wanted to support the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s, knowing that my younger brothers would soon be in line to be drafted? Why would I have wanted to support Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia and spread the war there? Yes, I joined peace demonstrations; many of those walking alongside me were veterans who had survived Vietnam.

    Not everyone who lived through that era (least of all those Vietnamese civilians who survived) is blowing half of the hot air that some bloggers are blowing. Not everyone felt the same, acted the same, nor believed the same–then nor now.

    Free speech is alive and well in America. Get used to it. And be grateful if you didn’t have to put yourself in harm’s way as many veterans and civilians have done. Talk is very, very cheap.

  11. Peter says:

    It’s personal for more people than just the Swiftees. There are about two and a half million veterans, all tarred with Mr. Kerry’s war criminal, rapist-torturer-murderer brush. There was a period of some six years, as each of my four children would hit that period in school that I would have to relive and rebut those charges. It’s a lot of fun, telling your teenaged daughter that, no, Daddy isn’t a rapist.
    As it turned out, many, if not most, of the ‘veterans’ giving these lurid stories either never wore the uniform at all or were never in Viet Nam, it doesn’t matter. That crap is still being taught in schools.
    It was unpleasant for me, a lot of the men killed over there had children themselves. One of my Sergeants left, if memory serves, three kids, they would have been in their early to mid teens in 1971. That Sergeant was one of the finest men I’ve ever known, my middle boy is named after him, as it happens. I wonder, sometimes, how that ‘testimony’ affected his children.
    It’s personal all right. I wouldn’t know a Swift Boat if it bit me on the ass, I don’t care one bit about what the Hee-row did over there. I know what he did over here and that’s enough.
    They tell me that there is a wall in Washington, DC with some 58,000 or so names on it. I served with some of those people. They never got a chance to answer John Kerry’s slander.
    There hasn’t been a day in the almost forty years since my first trip across the pond that I don’t remember those young men. John Kerry might as well have gone to each individual grave, took out his handy-dandy movie camera and pissed on their graves, filmed it and sent the film to their families.
    I’m not anyone important, except to my family and friends, I’m not anyone famous, I’m not a particulary good speaker or writer. Yet it is up to me to speak for those young men who will never be able to speak for themselves.

  12. McGehee says:

    I know how Vietnam War Hero John Kerry™ is reacting to this story, and it tells me something about Kerry that the Swifties can’t tell directly: that Kerry would rather try to silence his critics than rebut them.

    We don’t make men like that President.

  13. Bill says:

    The idea of soldiers exaggerating war stories is just shocking!

    I have a real problem with 2 things:
    1. These Swifties got any real publicity at all. All the official documentation tells a totally different story from them, some of these guys said the exact opposite not too long ago, and some of the outrageoulsy bigoted comments coming from a couple of them make me think they are not honorable men at all. That’s not all of them, but quite a few.

    2. Kerry won’t answer the charges directly. Although he did get the only other officer at the incident to backup his story making the Swifties look pretty foolish again.

    Overall, I think Kerry is a pompous jerk, but there seems to be nothing at all to most of these Swifties claims.

  14. Gary B. says:

    I doubt that anybody saying there is nothing to the swiftboatvets charges have actually read their book. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making such foolish statements. But, why let the facts get in the way of supporting the Benedict Arnold of the 20th century. I don’t want that SOB to be the CoC of a military with my children in it.

  15. Dan says:

    Another Viet Nam vet here.
    Bill: You commented “All the official documentation tells a totally different story ” which would appear, on its face, to be a valid argument. But then again — if I recall correctly, the official documents regarding My Lai didn’t say anything about a massacre of noncombatants. One thing I learned in my military career (I’m retired Army – joined in ’67, got out in ’71, went back in in ’78), is that the official stuff reflects the ground truth just somewhat more than the rumor mills.
    Because of the hard work of the many Johns and Janes of the antiwar crew, many (most? all?) of the Viet Nam vets felt tarred by the babykiller appellation. The general impression given, through press accounts, college speeches, etc., was that we were drug-addicted, undisciplined, baby-killing, ear-collecting, murderers. And stupid, to boot, since we went while others pursued their degrees, worked to become 4F (not acceptable for military service), took off to Canada, deserted, etc., and were applauded for those actions.
    I was a Democrat. And although now a registered Republican, I still have a pre-1965 Democrat heart. One that listened to and believed “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and “…pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe…”