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A Footnote to The New Soldier

In Kerry's 1972 book, his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appears heavily doctored.

12:00 AM, Sep 15, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
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AFTER HIS 1971 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry had to publicly defend his testimony. He debated fellow Swift Boat veteran John O'Neill, a young pro-Nixon conservative and future author of the anti-Kerry bestseller Unfit for Command, most prominently on the Dick Cavett show. And, in conjunction with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he released a book called The New Soldier.

The book is largely a photographic record of the VVAW's march on Washington, which Kerry helped organize and which served as dramatic prologue to Kerry's Senate testimony. The New Soldier also contains statements from men who'd participated in the VVAW's controversial and unverified war crimes hearings, the Winter Soldier hearings which took place in Detroit in February. In many cases, the book gives the source of such statements as the Congressional Record, into which Senator Mark Hatfield read the entire testimony of the Winter Soldier hearings. But the centerpiece of The New Soldier is Kerry's own testimony, his debut on the national political stage.

It seems interesting, then, that Kerry's own words were heavily edited for the book. For starters, his most provocative statement about war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers was left out. And this elision, like several others, was not indicated in the text by ellipses or any other punctuation to make it clear that what the reader sees on the page is an incomplete and selectively transcribed version of the future senator's testimony.

I had done an article on The New Soldier in February and had noticed one or two irregularities in the text, but since they weren't the focus of my article, I paid them little mind. When THE WEEKLY STANDARD recently ran a lengthy portion of Kerry's '71 testimony in the magazine, I became newly aware of the differences between how Kerry and his editors had presented his testimony and how the Congressional Record presented his testimony. So I did a comparison, going line-by-line through The New Soldier's version of Kerry's '71 testimony with a copy of the transcript from the Congressional Record downloaded off of the C-SPAN website to see what had been changed.

SEVERAL EDITS in The New Soldier were merely cosmetic, as when the book dispenses with the exchange of greetings between Kerry and the Foreign Relations Committee as he gets ready to speak. But it is hard to imagine any non-political reason why several key paragraphs (about 375 words) of testimony are unceremoniously dropped from the opening statement.

This seems particularly strange since this passage includes Kerry's now-famous words explaining the derivation of the name "Winter Soldier." ("The term 'Winter Soldier' is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted Valley Forge because the going was rough.")

The same passage also contains the most infamous words of Kerry's testimony, the ones most often quoted by his critics. They describe the Winter Soldier hearings:

It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the country side of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

In the same 375-word passage that was edited from the book, Kerry also says that "I don't want to go into the foreign policy aspects because I am outclassed here. I know that all of you talk about every possible alternative of getting out of Vietnam."

However, in the book, Kerry's dig at cold warriors is retained: "We are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism."

Indicating where and if transcribed text has been changed is, of course, standard procedure for quoted material.

In the next paragraph of the book, ellipses are used for the first time to indicate text that had been removed from the original. Half of a sentence is deleted, but its removal seems to have only served the readability of the text.

ALTHOUGH KERRY is credited as a co-author of the book, credit also goes to two editors, George Butler, the photographer and director of The Long War of John Kerry, and David Thorne, Kerry's college roommate and formerly his brother-in-law. Both men are old friends of Kerry's and remain his confreres. It is unclear why passages were removed. But that Kerry's testimony was published in The New Soldier without some of its most well-known statements can hardly have escaped the notice of the book's editors. It would be even more surprising if this happened without the full knowledge of Kerry himself.

Two other striking passages came out of The New Soldier before it went to press. In one, a wonkish section on returning veterans and VA hospitals, Kerry complains that returning soldiers cannot find jobs and cannot find adequate medical treatment. It contains also this startling anecdote: "Another young man just died in a New York VA hospital the other day. A friend of mine was lying in a bed two beds away and tried to help him, but he couldn't. He rang a bell and there was nobody there to service that man and so he died of convulsions."

One result of editing the testimony to remove this section is to make the testimony more political, more tightly focused on the conduct of the war. Kerry also faced a barrage of criticism after his testimony from O'Neill and others that he was trying to speak for all veterans, and in this passage he clearly he is speaking for all veterans. So perhaps that was the reason it was taken out.

Another memorable passage removed from the book version of Kerry's testimony contains the following anecdote: "An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation at Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians, and then suddenly one day he stopped in Vietnam and he said, 'My God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people.' And he stopped. And that is what we are trying to say, that we think this thing has to end."

From November 20, 1969 to June 11, 1971, just a few months after Kerry's Senate appearance, a hodgepodge band of American Indians occupied Alcatraz island. Taken over by fewer than a hundred, Alcatraz became home to more than 5,000. The occupation was a watershed event for the newly radicalized Indian movement. But for present purposes, the reference to Alcatraz is another indication, like his connection to the VVAW (whose patrons included Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda), that Kerry frequented quite radical circles in this period of his life.

Like the others, the deletion of this passage was not indicated by ellipses or any other punctuation to tell the reader that what was on the page did not reflect the original text.

What to make of all this? That Kerry and his co-editors were pretty inept at editing Kerry's Senate testimony to save him from any future embarrassment it might cause. And that their editorial judgment was more dishonest than sloppy.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.