Tour of Duty
John Kerry and the Vietnam War
by Douglas Brinkley
William Morrow, 546 pp., $25.95
ACCORDING TO the publisher's press release, "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," by Douglas Brinkley, "was never intended as a political biography"--meaning, I suppose, that it is not meant to be confused with those ghost-written, election-year puffers and potboilers under whose weight the remainder-tables of America's bookstores are already beginning to buckle and break. "Tour of Duty" is intended to be a real book that makes an enduring contribution to the national letters--akin to the moving and beautifully written "Faith of My Fathers," by John McCain and Mark Salter, rather than "A Charge to Keep," by George W. Bush and Karen Hughes, which was, lucky for them, forgotten within weeks of its publication in 1999. Among this year's campaign books, the story told by "Tour of Duty" is more compelling than "Four Trials," by John Edwards; it has much less bombast than Howard Dean's "Winning Back America," and none of the dullsville policy chatter of "An Even Better Place: America in the 21st Century" by Richard Gephardt, RIP. And unlike, say, Al Sharpton's "Al on America," it sheds light on the life of a presidential candidate who is not a boob.
Also, the author of "Tour of Duty" is no skulking ghostwriter but a figure in his own right. Douglas Brinkley has written, among much else, books about Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and John Kennedy. These, along with his fondness for the television camera and the op-ed page, make Brinkley an exemplar of what is called the "presidential historian"--a recently minted job title that denotes writers of popular biographies who have a special fascination with American presidents and politicians. Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin are among the more familiar brand-names. Their granddaddy is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., famed chronicler of the Kennedy clan. Like Schlesinger, these new presidential historians often write well, with a special talent for brisk and colorful narratives, and as with Schlesinger, their relations with academic history grow more tenuous with each published book. Though Brinkley is himself director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, you are much more likely to find a presidential historian lecturing from behind a desk at Jim Lehrer U. or Charlie Rose Tech than from the podium of a classroom filled with real students.
Another common attribute of the presidential historian is toadyism--an admiration for his subject that sooner or later puddles into sycophancy, especially if the subject has agreeable politics. Here again, Schlesinger showed the way, though Beschloss, Dallek, and the others seem intent on outdoing even the author of "Robert Kennedy and His Times" in their willingness to glorify their subjects. Brinkley must be aware of the danger. At several different points in "Tour of Duty" he asserts that this is his book, not Kerry's; the clear implication is that it is a work of cold-eyed history rather than political advocacy or personal puffery. The bulk of the book involves long, detailed accounts of Kerry's adventures as commander of a "Swift boat" during the Vietnam war. "The narrative is based largely on journals and correspondence Kerry kept while on his tours of duty," Brinkley writes at the book's opening. "He, however, exerted no editorial control on the manuscript."
AND WHAT DO YOU KNOW? He didn't need to. (The italics on that no, by the way, are Brinkley's.) John Kerry himself couldn't have written a more admiring book about John Kerry. Even a modern presidential candidate might think twice before writing a sentence like this about himself: "Looking into the faces of the Vietnamese peasants he encountered, a wave of compassion shot through John Kerry." Kerry knew what he was getting with Brinkley. In his acknowledgments, at the book's close, Brinkley stresses again his editorial independence. "Kerry wished that the story of what the Swift boats did in Vietnam was better known," Brinkley writes, "and toward that end granted me permission to quote from what he collectively called his 'War Notes' with only one string attached: that I write any book or article drawn from them within two years."
This time the italics are mine. If Kerry's true purpose was to spread the word about the history of Swift boats in Vietnam, correcting an oversight in the historical record, you can't help but wonder why he required the author to finish the book in two years. As it happens, Brinkley began his work in 2002, which meant that it would have to be finished by . . . oh. And sure enough, the book arrived in bookstores two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. You don't suppose the senator had some other purpose in mind?
No one who reads it will doubt that "Tour of Duty" was published in haste. It's hard to believe that Brinkley would write this badly if Kerry had allowed him to work a while longer--through one more election cycle at least. Some passages are merely inept, though partially comprehensible: "Chicago still stood as America's most American city: its Italian pizzerias and German beer halls, side by side with its Jewish synagogues, Polish bakeries, African-American churches, and all the other savory ingredients in that windy microcosm of this nation's boiling melting pot." Other passages are just baloney: "As it did for so many Americans of his generation, John Kerry's youth came to a cruel end on November 22, 1963." And some passages, no matter how often you read them, will never make sense, as when Kerry visits San Francisco during the Summer of Love: "Anarchy was in the air; spelling 'Amerika' and putting Chairman Mao's 'Little Red Book' of Communist precepts in vogue. It was stylish not to be, and downright hip, to look unkempt." (Lay off the bong.)
A READER LEARNS to read between the lines. Brinkley is loath to say anything critical of Kerry, but every once in a while the cat slips out of the bag anyway, purring suggestively. In prep school, a friend recalls, "John was always talking about global issues. He was only eighteen years old and he knew just everything about politics. . . . That annoyed some people. No doubt about it." "He relished holding court on every policy issue," Brinkley writes. Translation: He was a know-it-all.
"He always had a sense," says another friend, "of his place in history as a young man." He loved public speaking in the exhortatory mode, especially when he himself was doing the speaking, and he got to hector his first big audience in 1958, at the age of fifteen, in a speech to his classmates called "The Plight of the Negro." One Negro was present. When he vacationed abroad as a college student, another friend recalls, "There was only one thing John had to do in London, and that was go to Hyde Park Corner and make a speech. He stood up on a soapbox and off he went." Translation: He was a windbag and a know-it-all.
Though born well-to-do, Kerry never hit the big money until he landed his second wife, Teresa Heinz. His father was a foreign-service officer and lawyer, his mother an heiress to a shipping trust. They shuffled Kerry and his sister among postings in Massachusetts and Berlin and Oslo and Washington and London, before parking the kids in a series of private schools in Europe and New England. The longest he lived anywhere as a boy was in a large house in a suburb of Boston. He stayed there two years before being uprooted again by his restless parents. Still, he tells Brinkley, those two years in the suburb "gave me a sense of belonging to the land."
That remark, pompous in the unmistakable Kerry style, is touching in its way, too. His parents were stern and emotionally remote. There was family wealth--sailboats and biking trips through the English countryside--but no familial warmth. When Brinkley writes about Kerry's first years in prep school, that "his life would have been simpler, in fact, if he had been an African American from Atlanta or an Okie from Tulsa," it is not quite (italics mine again) as stupid as it sounds. Kerry was plunged by his parents into a class system in which ambition was frowned upon, where, even in the early 1960s, irony and detachment were highly prized, and by nature, Kerry was gnawingly ambitious and utterly without irony. He had his own struggles.
Of course, you can't feel too sorry for him too long. By the time he graduated from Yale he had also enjoyed a sunlit cascade of summers wandering the Riviera, weekends sailing in Newport, double dates with Auchinclosses and Bundys (McGeorge's side of the family, not Al's). He had watched the America's Cup in the company of President and Mrs. Kennedy. He surfed, sailed, skied, and flew private planes for recreation. At Yale he was enlisted into Skull and Bones, the most widely-publicized "secret society" in the world, joining the ranks of such "Bonesmen" as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, along with more Harrimans, Rockefellers, and Whitneys than you could spank with a riding crop. That's what they're called, by the way, "Bonesmen"--though "Boners" is a better word for this collection of stiff pricks.
When Kerry graduated in 1966, having been voted class orator, he delivered another of his public scoldings. It was a skeptical critique of the Vietnam war. "What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism," he announced to his classmates. "And this Vietnam war has found our policymakers forcing Americans into a strange corner." The speech was warmly received. Then Kerry left school, joined the Navy, enrolled in Officer's Training, and prepared to be sent to Vietnam.
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.