THE WAR HERO SCHTICK

Collin Levey makes a point that I’ve been arguing for some time: “Kerry may be overdoing the war-hero shtick.”

Speaking in Seattle on Tuesday, John Kerry told a roomful of ex-Deaniacs that “for the second time in the last few days, a New England Patriot won one on the road.” The crowd cheered because it knew what he meant: Patriot Kerry is a Vietnam veteran, winner of Purple Hearts and a Silver Star in Vietnam. And, by the way, he’s a Vietnam veteran.

Did he mention that he was a Vietnam vet?

Kerry has been talking about his military credentials more or less since he got out of the military. His first bit of national political notice came from throwing other veterans’ medals onto the White House lawn to protest the war. Vietnam has been a centerpiece of his Senate personality. And so far it has been working just fine in the campaign, matching up nicely against both Wesley Clark and Howard Dean.

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In fact, though, while military service is a nice addition to a campaign’s repertoire, it’s overrated. Most Americans haven’t served in the military and don’t consider themselves second-class citizens. Bill Clinton never served but beat out two veterans in George Bush and Bob Dole. John McCain, for that matter, was beaten by George W. Bush despite McCain’s heroic ordeal as a POW.

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Wherever Kerry is to be found these days, you don’t have to look far to find his friend and supporter, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee and fellow Vietnam vet. Cleland, who lost his seat to a Republican challenger in 2002, has been put forward at every stop as a martyr to alleged GOP slurs on his patriotism. In fact, as his hometown Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported in detail, Cleland’s own campaign originated the strategy of meeting every criticism of his record on homeland security (he had voted 11 times for a Democratic Party-line effort to open up the new department to organized labor) by ginning up “feigned outrage” and accusing opponents of challenging his “patriotism.”

Cleland made these alleged slurs a central theme in his Georgia re-election campaign. Kerry would be wise to take note of what happened next: Georgia voters listened carefully to both sides and then tossed Cleland out.

Voters honor the service and patriotism of military veterans. Indeed, so much so that they can be quickly turned off by use of such symbols cynically to evade scrutiny and accountability.

That’s why Kerry’s best move now might be to shut up about Vietnam. He’s about two applause lines away from convincing voters that he’s trying to cash in on a war that cost thousands of his fellow volunteers and draftees their lives.

This is absolutely correct. Personally, I find Kerry’s Vietnam service to be a significant plus factor that enhances his credibility as a plausible commander-in-chief. But it’s a point best left to others to make.

I tired of it from John McCain, too, when it became his fallback position any time he was challenged on an issue. When criticized for being “weak” on abortion, for example, he’d retort with “I don’t need any lectures on the value of human life. I was a POW!” Which is not only nonsensical but rather crass. We know you served. We’re giving you credit for it. Now, let’s move on.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
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. melvin toast says:

    Especially when he demonstrates by throwing medals over the capitol fence. Medals which were supposed to be his but apparently he still has his. Where’s the integrity in that?

  2. Jem says:

    Also, his leadership of the avowedly Marxist VVAW, including the Winter Soldier affair where, along with some genuine testimony, numerous faux veterans spoke of the war crimes they could not possibly have committed (because they were never in Vietnam) undercuts his claim to heroic status. Actively seeking to dishonor his peers who were still serving in Vietnam is not very heroic to me.

    If the folks at http://www.vietnamveteransagainstjohnkerry.com are right, he wasn’t really even all that heroic in obtaining his medals–he got scratched three times, losing at most two duty days, and won his Silver Star for beaching his boat, then hopping off to administer the coup de grace to an opponent one of his men had probably wounded mortally already and seize a war trophy.

    I’m not saying he didn’t earn his medals (hey, I wasn’t there), but I haven’t seen anything that leads me to the conclusion he’s the reincarnation of Audie Murphy, either…

  3. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    “Especially when he demonstrates by throwing medals over the capitol fence. Medals which were supposed to be his but apparently he still has his. Where’s the integrity in that?”

    Well hey, he threw his *ribbons* over the fence! I’m sure that wasn’t the first time he couldn’t make up his mind on an important issue, and it was far, far from the last.