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Between the Lines

August 24, 2004

Fighting the wrong war

What happened on the rivers of Vietnam 35 years ago has for the moment become more important than what is happening in the cities of Iraq today. Since their current war is a political loser, some Bush partisans are fighting a different one. So I'm going to deal with it again today. I'd like to be able to say this is the last time I'll write about it, but I'm not that sanguine. It'll be with us until election day.

It seems to me quite clear that Kerry wins about 80 percent of the argument over his war record, based on the facts as we know them today. His one big problem is the "Christmas in Cambodia" story, which appears to be either faulty memory or a lie. Either way, Kerry should clear it up.

For some Vietnam vets – including those among the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – Kerry also sinned unpardonably by opposing the war after he got home, recounting at a U.S. Senate hearing atrocities he said had been related to him by other veterans.

Millions of words are being spent on all of this. Some of them are actually worth reading.

An L.A. Times editorial today (free site registration may be required) pretty well reflects my feeling about the anti-Kerry ads by the Swift Boat group and the anti-Bush ads by MoveOn.org, which backs Kerry:

…There is an important difference, though, between the side campaign being run for Kerry and the one for Bush. The pro-Kerry campaign is nasty and personal. The pro-Bush campaign is nasty, personal and false.

No informed person can seriously believe that Kerry fabricated evidence to win his military medals in Vietnam. His main accuser has been exposed as having said the opposite at the time, 35 years ago. Kerry is backed by almost all those who witnessed the events in question, as well as by documentation. His accusers have no evidence except their own dubious word.

Not limited by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false. Or at least, there is no good evidence that they are true. George Bush, if he were a man of principle, would say the same thing.

On Sunday, William Rood of the Chicago Tribune, who commanded a swift boat that accompanied Kerry's on one river mission questioned by the Swift Boat Vets group, stepped forward for the first time, following a phone call from Kerry, to tell his version of what happened that day (full disclosure: I shared an occasional beer with Rood when we both worked in Sacramento in the late 1970s). Here's how he explains why he decided to speak up:

Many of us wanted to put it all behind us--the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry's service--even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work.

But Kerry's critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there.

Rood's piece is interesting not only for its careful retelling of this mission, but for its recognition that at this distance from the events we're unlikely to ever get a much better understanding of what happened in Vietnam than we have now.

There's at least one mistake in that citation [for his own Bronze Star]. It incorrectly identifies the river where the main action occurred, a reminder that such documents were often done in haste and sometimes authored for their signers by staffers. It's a cautionary note for those trying to piece it all together. There's no final authority on something that happened so long ago--not the documents and not even the strained recollections of those of us who were there.

But I know that what some people are saying now is wrong. While they mean to hurt Kerry, what they're saying impugns others who are not in the public eye.

Phil Carter, a former Army intelligence officer who writes the excellent military-affairs blog Intel Dump, wasn't even born when the events cited by Rood and the Swift Boat Vets occurred. So he's carrying no particular baggage from the conflict. He does have an opinion, though:

The undisputed facts still show that Sen. Kerry volunteered for active-duty naval service, went to Vietnam once, then volunteered again for Swift Boat service, and was then cited several times during the course of that service. The documentary evidence shows that he was wounded three times — however slight — in combat. And the documentary evidence shows that he was decorated three times — two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star — in combat, which means that at least some of his chain of command concurred in the award. For all we know, Sen. Kerry was a pompous ass who didn't get along with all his shipmates and engendered a great deal of anger once he came home from the war to speak out against it. But even if that's true, it doesn't change what this documentary evidence attests to — that Sen. Kerry went to Vietnam, fought, was decorated for his valor.

Unsurprisingly, Kerry's actions in Vietnam and his actions when he returned home are inextricably tangled up in the eyes of some. One of those is Mac Owens, the military affairs analyst for National Review Online. He scorches Kerry in a current piece, in which he accuses the senator of "hypocrisy of the highest order" for first fighting in the war, then publicly opposing it. I don't buy it, but read it here and decide for yourself.

The real problem with the focus on Vietnam, whether it's Kerry's war record or George Bush's and Dick Cheney's lack of one, is that it detracts from what should be the real issues of this campaign.

"As Churchill would warn us, we have far more urgent and serious challenges to face as a people, and this presidential campaign is where we should be hashing them out. We need to stop hiding from harsh realities and get on with it," David Gergen, who was Ronald Reagan's director of communications, writes at USNews.com.

For starters, we desperately need a more comprehensive, bipartisan, and sustainable strategy to win this war on terrorism. So far, we have relied almost exclusively on our military power. While our troops have performed extremely well, it is now clear that our guns alone will not prevail. Terror threats are spreading, not shrinking. Last year brought the highest number of terror attacks in 20 years. We may have broken up al-Qaida at the top, but there are ominous signs of a grass-roots terrorism movement growing up in its place. Iraq itself remains chaotic, and we seem unlikely to realize our ultimate goal: creation of a stable anchor and a steady source of oil in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran edges toward a nuclear bomb, and if it succeeds, the Saudis may follow.

Our next president--Bush or Kerry--must be willing to use force but must combine that threat with a far more robust, imaginative effort to win hearts and minds. We must reach out more effectively to friends in Europe and Asia and, yes, the United Nations. More to the point, we must convince the vast Muslim communities--almost 20 percent of the world's population--that we are on their side. Progress will depend on sending a better message, but equally so, on helping them live better lives. One in five Arabs lives on less than $2 a day; two in five are under 14 years of age and are running out of hope. A hopeless young man is a ticking time bomb.

We haven't been hearing much about that, have we?

Unfortunately, as Phil Carter accurately notes, slime trumps substance most of the time:

It upsets me as a veteran to see these sorts of old wounds picked apart and used for political purposes. It also upsets me as an American to see the electorate manipulated in this way. But as long as "going negative" will produce electoral results, I think we're stuck with it. And the duty falls to us, as political consumers and voters, to figure out how to wade through this crap in order to find the truth. That's where the hip boots come in. You can buy a camoflauge hip boot set from L.L. Bean, or find an appropriate set at any fine sporting goods store near you. But I promise you this — you're going to need 'em by November.

Sixty-eight days and counting.

Posted by tbrown at 05:06 PM




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