JOHN KERRY, fresh from a three-day vacation at his retreat in Ketchum, Idaho, addressed the annual convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Boston last week, and it was quite a speech--combative, fiery, personal. The firefighters' union was one of the first to endorse Kerry during the Democratic primaries last year, as the candidate barnstormed among the snowy drifts of New Hampshire and Iowa, and on Thursday Kerry spoke to them plainly but forcefully, as one would to old friends. "Over the last week or so," Kerry began, "a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been attacking me. Of course, this group isn't interested in the truth--and they're not telling the truth. They didn't exist until I won the nomination for president."
The firefighters listened quietly.
"Of course," Kerry went on, "the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer." He paused. "Bring it on."
The firefighters roared. Once a rhetorical staple of Kerry's on the campaign trail, the phrase "Bring it on" had been remaindered of late, the Kerry campaign having come to the decision, according to Democratic strategists, that the utterance sounded silly. But Kerry was all seriousness when he addressed the firefighters. This was personal.
Which shouldn't be surprising. It's not every day a war thought finished over 30 years ago starts up again. And that is a fair description of what has taken place on the campaign trail over the last two weeks, as the Kerry campaign wrestled with charges from a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans that he distorted--even lied about--his war record. The group with the portentous name has accused Kerry of winning medals under false pretenses, of killing defenseless Vietnamese, of lying about his location and activities during the four months he spent in Vietnam. The veterans make their case in a television ad, which they ran in three key swing states (West Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin) and also in a book, Unfit for Command, which was written by the group's leader, a veteran named John O'Neill, along with a political scientist named Jerome Corsi.
These are not trivial claims. The Swifties don't give Kerry the benefit of the doubt on any issue. They challenge the circumstances behind every medal he earned in Vietnam. Their accusations are of three broad types.
First, there are issues of fact that are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. The controversy over how Kerry earned his Bronze Star and third Purple Heart, for example, in which the young lieutenant pulled special forces soldier Jim Rassmann from the Bay Hap river, revolves around whether or not there was enemy fire at the time. Kerry says there was; the anti-Kerry veterans--some of whom were present that day, in boats alongside Kerry's--say there wasn't. The documentary evidence available so far backs Kerry's story. For example, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs reported last week that a newly uncovered medal citation for Larry Thurlow, one of the veterans who challenge Kerry's account of the Rassmann incident, supports Kerry. Thurlow claims to have lost the citation over 20 years ago, but has refused to release his service records. Something similar happened in the case of Kerry's Silver Star, as one anti-Kerry vet told conflicting stories to the Boston Globe over the course of a year. In the final analysis, however, such claims boil down to Kerry's word versus his opponents'.
The second sort of accusation is even harder to pin down, because it delves into questions of intent. Personal scruples also play a role here. These are charges that Kerry was not entirely honest in the after-action reports he wrote from the field; that as time passed his version of battles grew exaggerated and distorted; that details in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty, an account of Kerry's war years, conflict with those in the Boston Globe biography, John F. Kerry. The story of how Kerry earned his first Purple Heart falls into this category, as do the events surrounding an attack on a sampan by Kerry's crew in the late winter of 1969. The charge here is not that Kerry "lied," or even that he has "distorted" the truth, but that he has told inconsistent stories over the years, occasionally omitting certain details.
It is the third sort of charge--that Kerry has sometimes painted a demonstrably false picture of events--that is the hardest to dismiss. John O'Neill's group insists Kerry was not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, as the senator has repeatedly asserted that he was. They maintain that no one--including members of Kerry's crew who otherwise support the senator--has yet corroborated Kerry's presence in Cambodia that Christmas Eve. And indeed, after the charge had been vetted by a ravenous host of Internet bloggers, and broadcast on numerous talk radio and cable news programs, the Kerry campaign, along with Douglas Brinkley, was forced to concede: On this point, the anti-Kerry Swifties may be right.
On October 14, 1979, John Kerry made his debut as a film critic for the Boston Herald. The film in question was Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling, lushly photographed Vietnam War drama. Kerry's review was harsh. "Francis Coppola brings us Apocalypse Now the same way the politicians and generals brought us the war in Vietnam," Kerry wrote, "by spending a lot of money, displaying a lot of technical razzle-dazzle, and by losing all sense of proportion and direction." Plus, "Coppola's Vietnam is devoid of reality and feeling."
Kerry served in Vietnam from November 1968 to March 1969, and he related Coppola's movie to his own experience. "On more than one occasion," he went on, "I, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, took my patrol boat into Cambodia." Kerry continued: "In fact I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real." It was that same absurdity which Coppola failed to capture in the film, Kerry said.
Kerry's criticism was biting, but his implied chronology was off. President Nixon didn't claim there were no American troops in Cambodia in December 1968. Indeed, he couldn't have. He wasn't president until January 20, 1969. Nevertheless, Kerry continued to recount his Christmas Eve adventure in the waters of Cambodia after he was elected to the Senate in 1984.
For example, on March 27, 1986, Kerry took to the floor of the Senate to protest President Reagan's funding of the anti-Communist contras in Nicaragua. Like many Kerry speeches, this one warned against American intervention abroad by resurrecting the specter of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam: "Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia," Kerry began. "I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia."
"I have that memory, which is seared--seared--in me," he went on, "that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way, we have a responsibility in the United States Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict."
The memory of his Christmas in Cambodia, indelibly seared into his mind, was such that Kerry often told others about it. Reporters, for example. In an AP dispatch published on June 25, 1992, reporter John Diamond wrote that, by Christmas 1968, "part of Kerry's patrol extended across the border of South Vietnam into Cambodia."
"We were told, 'Just go up there and do your patrol,'" Kerry told Diamond. "Everybody was over there [in Cambodia]. Nobody thought twice about it." Five years later, in a September 4, 1997, Senate subcommittee hearing on Cambodian politics, Kerry began his remarks by saying, "I first was introduced to Cambodia when I spent Christmas Eve of 1968 in a river in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict." Kerry was impressed with what he saw. "I found it to be a rather remarkable and very beautiful country which had an allure to me, and to many others," he told his fellow lawmakers, "which has been sustained through those years."
In June 2003, Kerry repeated his story to Boston Globe reporter Michael Kranish, who later included it in John F. Kerry, the biography he wrote with coauthors Brian Mooney and Nina Easton. Kerry told Kranish that his adventures on December 24, 1968, began "near Cambodia," when his Swift boat was ambushed by Viet Cong. But later, Kerry said, "he had gone several miles inside Cambodia, which theoretically was off limits." Kerry's incursion put him in a cynical mood. He told Kranish he had sent a "sarcastic message" to his superiors from the Navy's "most inland" unit.
For Kerry, incursions into Cambodia brought home the central absurdity behind the American war in Vietnam: It was a war in which you had trouble distinguishing friend from foe in a country that your government denied you ever set foot in. To understand John Kerry, Michael Kranish told Fox's Hannity & Colmes last month, you have to understand his war experience. "And in one short anecdote I'll tell you," Kranish continued, "that in Christmas of 1968, he was on a small boat with his men, basically in Cambodia at a time when Richard Nixon was telling the American public that we're not in Cambodia. And he basically became skeptical."
Yet Kerry's account of his Christmas adventure in Cambodia is not supported by hagiographer Douglas Brinkley in his book Tour of Duty. Here is how Brinkley tells it:
Christmas Eve, 1968, turned out to be memorable for the men of PCF-44 [the boat Kerry commanded] though not in the jingle-bells sense folks were enjoying back home. The only concession to the holiday spirit was that morning's rare breakfast of scrambled eggs, after which the crew headed their Swift north up the Co Chien River to its junction with the My Tho only miles from the Cambodian border.
"Only miles from the Cambodian border" is elaborated in the next sentence:
Because they were only an hour away from that neighboring country, Kerry began reading up on Cambodia's history in a book he had borrowed from the floating barracks in An Thoi.
Only an hour away?
Douglas Brinkley's book and Unfit for Command agree that Kerry was stationed at Sa Dec in December 1968. However, Sa Dec is about 55 miles from the Cambodian border. The anti-Kerry veterans--among them Kerry's commander at the time, George Elliott, and Elliott's superior, Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann--say that areas close to Cambodia were not patrolled by Swift boats at all, but by smaller craft called PBRs. "If he'd attempted to go in, he would have been stopped," Hoffmann told me last week. What's more, O'Neill writes in Unfit for Command, "preventing border crossings was considered so important at the time that an LCU (a large, mechanized landing craft) and several PBRs were stationed to ensure that no one could cross the border."
The Cambodia story put the Kerry campaign on the defensive. Two weeks ago, Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan issued a statement. Here it is in its entirety:
On December 24, 1968 Lieutenant John Kerry and his crew were on patrol in the watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia deep in enemy territory. In the early afternoon, Kerry's boat, PCF-44, was at Sa Dec and then headed north to the Cambodian border. There, Kerry and his crew along with two other boats were ambushed, taking fire from both sides of the river, and after the firefight were fired upon again. Later that evening during their night patrol they came under friendly fire.
It is an acknowledged fact that Swift Boat crews regularly operated along the Cambodian border from Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand to the rivers of the Mekong south and west of Saigon. Boats often received fire from enemy taking sanctuary across the border. Kerry's was not the only United States riverboat to respond and inadvertently or responsibly cross the border. In fact, it was this reality that lead President Nixon to later invade Cambodia itself in 1970.
Read the statement carefully, and it becomes clear that it is a tacit concession. Meehan places Kerry's boat not in Cambodia, but "in the watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia." Meehan had to hedge, because none of John Kerry's crewmates on PCF-44 affirms that they entered Cambodia. For example, the Boston Globe reported that James Wasser, a Kerry crewmate, "did not think" PCF-44 ever went into Cambodia. "It is very hard to tell," Wasser said. Wasser is a Kerry supporter. Steven Gardner, who was the gunner on PCF-44, and who is not a Kerry supporter, is more succinct. "Never happened," he told the Globe. "We didn't go to Cambodia," Gardner told me last week. "We were no closer than 40 miles, 30 miles max."
And Rocky Hildreth, another Swift boat commander in Kerry's division, said last week he "never heard of anybody going into Cambodia" in December 1968.
Indeed, at this writing, not a single Swift boat commander or crewmate of Kerry's has stepped forward to confirm that John Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968.
For that matter, Kerry himself has not always been so precise about his location. "Christmas Eve I was getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia," he told the Providence Journal-Bulletin on April 3, 1994. "Stupid Vietnamese were celebrating Christmas by shooting tracers, fifty-caliber, right up into the air," Kerry went on, "and the goddamned things were coming right over our head. That was a wild night." Then, swept up in his rhetorical reverie, Kerry brought the Cambodia story full circle:
"That was a night like right out of Apocalypse Now," he said.
THE ANTI-KERRY SWIFTIES were in Washington last week, attending planning sessions and break-out panels at the Key Bridge Marriott, across the Potomac river from Washington's Georgetown neighborhood. They are middle-aged men now, their hair gray or absent, their paunches established, their combat fatigues replaced with golf shirts and khakis. Most are from the Midwest. Politically, they range from conservative Democrat to conservative Republican to independent-minded Perotista. In fact, most dislike politics altogether. "This is not about politics," one of the veterans, a 61-year-old man from Montgomery, Texas, named Jack Chenoweth told me. "This is about telling the truth." Van Odell, who in 1969 was Jack Chenoweth's gunner, said the anti-Kerry vets were making progress. "I feel optimistic," Odell said. "I felt when we started this thing we'd be a one-day news story. But we're still here."
Chenoweth first joined Swift Boat Veterans for Truth last March, when he received a call from John O'Neill. Like most of the anti-Kerry Swifties, Chenoweth has held a low opinion of John Kerry since Vietnam, one that was only reinforced by Kerry's antiwar activities in the early '70s. When Kerry delivered Senate testimony in April 1971 as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Chenoweth and others were repelled by statements like this one:
Over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. . . . They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped 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 a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside 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.
After O'Neill started tracking them down this year, the 250 or so veterans who have joined his effort began to reminisce and compare notes, some of them told me. And they compared their recollections with what they saw on Kerry's campaign website, as well as after-action reports O'Neill says he obtained from the Navy archives. Looking back from a distance of over 30 years, the veterans say they concluded that, when a firefight was over and Kerry wrote the requisite after-action report, the future presidential candidate bent what had happened to his own advantage. So they put together their own account of events: Unfit for Command.
The book has some conspicuous flaws. O'Neill and his coauthor attack Kerry for accusing veterans of committing war crimes in Vietnam, but then turn around and accuse him of committing the same. They raise the unanswerable question of whether Kerry "deserved" his medals. And, in its own way, the book accepts the same dubious premise that Kerry embraced at his nominating convention: that the American public should judge the 2004 presidential candidate centrally on his military service long ago.
And yet, on August 19, when Kerry addressed the International Association of Fire Fighters, he did not respond to any of the charges made by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He did attack the group's integrity, however. "Here's what you really need to know about them," Kerry said, his voice rising. "They're funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. They're a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything you need to know--he wants them to do his dirty work." Then, late last week, a Kerry campaign spokesman, along with some liberal commentators, urged Regnery, publisher of Unfit for Command, to pull the book, accusing the company of "retailing a hoax."
So it seems the Kerry wars will continue for some time. A debate over Vietnam was supposed to work to the senator's advantage, of course. If you watch Kerry on the stump, or read his speeches, or saw him take the stage at the Democratic National Convention, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kerry wanted this election to be a referendum on his experience in the Vietnam War at least as much as he wanted it to be about other issues. With the release of Unfit for Command, he got his wish.
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.