The Magazine

Arms and the Man

From the February 9, 2004 issue: John Kerry in Vietnam.

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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BUT WHY? If Kerry found the war morally dubious and strategically unwise, and had gone out of his way to declare his views publicly, why did he enlist? It is a question a skilled biographer might be able to penetrate, especially with the access Brinkley was given, but our presidential historian never shows much interest in it. A reader is left to surmise. Many of Kerry's best friends from school were enlisting; for a certain kind of Yale man, it was what a Yale man did. In 1966, of course, the Sixties had not yet quite begun, and Kerry was under the sway of an older ethic that was only then beginning to crumble. The best explanation Brinkley offers comes from one of Kerry's classmates: "You've got to understand that a large percentage of our class was much more traditional in their view of society, and of their obligations to their country. . . . It shifted dramatically between '66 and '68. So I would say we [the class of '66] were much more like the class of '56."

Whatever its origins or inspirations, Kerry's service as a lieutenant in the Navy forms the hinge-point of his life story and the crux of Brinkley's book. It makes for good, though sometimes excessively detailed, reading. The most vivid and eloquent passages come from Kerry himself, in letters and diaries that Brinkley quotes at length. They reveal a young man of great intelligence, sensitivity, and self-awareness. Those who know the story of Kerry's Vietnam experience only in the roughest outline may be surprised here and there by Brinkley's account. Of Kerry's two tours of duty, his first was spent almost entirely at sea, as a deck officer on the frigate USS Gridley. He never saw battle. His second tour lasted four months, all of them in Vietnam. When it was over he had earned three Purple Hearts, one Bronze Star, and one Silver Star, making him the most decorated "Swift boat" commander of the time.

Swift boats--fifty-foot aluminum craft built to maneuver in shallow water--were assigned to patrol the Mekong Delta, stopping Viet Cong supply boats loaded with ordnance for guerrilla fighters in the south. It was perilous duty. Kerry volunteered for it. "You had to be a bit of a cowboy to want a Swift," a veteran tells Brinkley. "It meant that you were willing to get shot up all the time." On the evidence, Kerry was indeed a bit of a cowboy, though he never endangered his men unnecessarily, and he did indeed get shot up, though only one of his three wounds put him out of action for any length of time. Kerry's heroism is simply a fact, bald and undeniable. And it is the form his heroics took that is especially impressive.

"He was in total control, and willing to be aggressive," says one of his crewmen. "He wanted to take the fight to the enemy. . . . He always put his men's welfare first, and he was tough, tough, tough. He was a great leader."

Kerry's Bronze Star was awarded for an action that has lately been well-publicized--the rescue of Army Lieutenant Jim Rassman, who earlier this year, unbidden, phoned Kerry's presidential campaign days before the Iowa caucuses and volunteered to help. Rassman believes, and the citation makes clear, that he owes his life to Kerry and his crew. When a fleet of Swift boats came under heavy fire from AK-47s and rocket launchers on shore, several of the boats were blown to a shambles, and Rassman was thrown overboard. He swam through sniper fire coming from both banks of the river, but there was nowhere to go. Kerry turned his boat and headed into the barrage, toward the floundering Rassman. Though his own right arm had already been hit by shrapnel, Kerry left his pilothouse and pulled Rasmussen out of the water as his crew returned a hail of gun and rocket fire.

HIS SILVER STAR was also a consequence of Kerry's aggressiveness. Heading through the mangrove swamps one morning, Kerry's boat was ambushed by automatic weapons and small arms, as well as a rocket launcher, coming from somewhere on shore. Instead of turning the boat back from the line of fire, which would have exposed other crews to danger, Kerry ordered his helmsman to steer the Swift straight to the point on shore from which the gunfire was blazing. He beached the boat, grabbed his M-16, jumped off, and headed into the jungle after the scattering Viet Cong. When one of them turned around and aimed his B-40 rocket launcher, Kerry shot and killed him. The ensuing firefights took eight more Viet Cong lives and prevented further ambushes.

"I was shocked when Kerry beached the boat," another crewman tells Brinkley. "He saved the day and our lives."

"What Kerry did was against the rules," another said. "We had been taught that we weren't supposed to become jungle fighters. But thank god he did."

Kerry's "extraordinary daring and personal courage," said the citation, "in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission."

Having been wounded three times, Kerry was entitled to ask for reassignment, and he did, angling for something out of the line of fire. He was sent home early, to Brooklyn, where he landed a comfortable assignment as a personal aide to an admiral, who after a few more months granted Kerry's request for early discharge from the Navy. Kerry was in a hurry because there was an election coming up and he wanted to run for Congress--as an antiwar candidate.

KERRY FAILED in his bid for a congressional seat, but there was a silver lining. He quickly became famous as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and, in an action that's as notable as his heroism, threw his battle ribbons away during a protest at the Capitol. (He also tossed the medals of two other veterans who had, he later said, given them to him for that purpose, though at the time he was happy to let bystanders think the medals were his own.) In televised testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he characterized the behavior of his fellow servicemen in terms that bordered on slander. He ran for Congress again, lost again, went to law school, and continued his climb up the greasy pole of Massachusetts politics, eventually entering the Senate in 1985.

The pattern that runs through Kerry's political life was thus established from the moment he left the service: He is expert at having it both ways. He got hero points for bravely fighting in the war and sensitivity points for believing that the war he bravely fought in was barbaric. He has slid from one side of this formula to the other as the situation requires, and only a few of his hostile fellow veterans have been so crude as to point out that, by his own logic, he is a war criminal.

"I never wanted to be a professional veteran," he protested to a reporter during one of his early political campaigns. But of course that's what he's been, unavoidably. In his public presentation, he is a dour, pompous, and unlikable man. His political career--and his success during this presidential campaign, when his fellow Democrats ache for a candidate who will appear strong on "national security"--is unimaginable without his extraordinary service in Vietnam.

God knows, and experience proves, that he won't shut up about it. It has become his own personal bloody shirt. Kerry's eagerness to bring up his military service at every opening strikes many people, including all Republicans, as opportunism, as just one more instance of an ambition that will exploit anything on the path to its own fulfillment. But there are other possibilities, if we can briefly extend him the benefit of the doubt. It might also be the way a reflective man responds to an experience he's never quite been able to get over. And because he can't quite get over it, he doesn't want us to either. This may be narcissism, but it's not opportunism, necessarily, and in any case it's perfectly understandable, and probably not worth criticizing.

BRINKLEY WRITES at great length about Kerry's antiwar activism and only a bit less about his later political career. For anyone interested in these phases of the story, however, "Tour of Duty" is nearly worthless. His devotion to Kerry is simply too large. Brinkley spends a single paragraph on the medal-throwing, for example, and though he dedicates many pages to Kerry's courtship of his first wife, he mentions their divorce in a single phrase. All the less commendable events of the post-Vietnam career are ignored or smoothed over.

This is, as we've seen, a professional hazard common to "presidential historians." Yet the same reticence is shared also by two generations of Americans, who have never seen combat themselves, or indeed any kind of life-threatening struggle, and who puzzle over what they might do if they did. In a country like ours, where life is generally so soft and easeful, heroism is a special kind of conversation-stopper. What are we to do when confronted with a veteran like Kerry, who charged when we might have run, whose courage came out when the stakes were highest?

We look at our shoes and shuffle our feet. We don't ask too many questions. We shut up. We let him go on and on about his "life of service to our country." As we should.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.