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August 7, 2004
The Mistake Continues

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have finally unveiled their campaign against John Kerry this week, first in a 30-second televised ad, and now in a new book that's vaulted to #1 on the Amazon hit parade, according to Matt Drudge. Where the TV spot talks in general terms about Kerry's record in Viet Nam (with the effective use of highly-decorated vets who were there), the book takes specific aim at Kerry's narrative:

George Bates, an officer in Coastal Division 11, participated in numerous operations with Kerry. In UNFIT FOR COMMAND, Bates recalls a particular patrol with Kerry on the Song Bo De River. He is still "haunted" by the incident:

With Kerry in the lead, the boats approached a small hamlet with three or four grass huts. Pigs and chickens were milling around peacefully. As the boats drew closer, the villagers fled. There were no political symbols or flags in evidence in the tiny village. It was obvious to Bates that existing policies, decency, and good sense required the boats to simply move on.

Instead, Kerry beached his boat directly in the small settlement. Upon his command, the numerous small animals were slaughtered by heavy-caliber machine guns. Acting more like a pirate than a naval officer, Kerry disembarked and ran around with a Zippo lighter, burning up the entire hamlet.

Kerry did more than just slaughter pigs and burn down village huts, both crimes under the UCMJ, as another anecdote makes clear:

O'Neill continues: "Kerry's boat moved slightly downstream and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. . . .A young Viet Cong in a loincloth popped out of a hole, clutching a grenade launcher, which may or may not have been loaded. . . Tom Belodeau, a forward gunner, shot the Viet Cong with an M-60 machine gun in the leg as he fled. . . . Kerry and Medeiros (who had many troops in their boat) took off, perhaps with others, and followed the young Viet Cong and shot him in the back, behind a lean to."

O'Neill concludes "Whether Kerry's dispatching of a fleeing, wounded, armed or unarmed teenage enemy was in accordance with the customs of war, it is very clear that many Vietnam veterans and most Swiftees do not consider this action to be the stuff of which medals of any kind are awarded; nor would it even be a good story if told in the cold details of reality. There is no indication that Kerry ever reported that the Viet Cong was wounded and fleeing when dispatched. Likewise, the citation simply ignores the presence of the soldiers and advisors who actually 'captured the enemy weapons' and routed the Viet Cong. . . . [and] that Kerry attacked a 'numerically superior force in the face of intense fire' is simply false. There was little or no fire after Kerry followed the plan. . . . The lone, wounded, fleeing young Viet Cong in a loincloth was hardly a force superior to the heavily armed Swift Boat and its crew and the soldiers carried aboard."

Unfit For Command contains highly incendiary material, the type of information that can burn both target and thrower. I don't know how much of this is true -- I suspect at least some of it, and I think what we'll get is two sets of veterans duking it out over the specific charges over the next month or so, until the Republican convention rolls around and drowns the argument out.

I odn't have a problem with the Swifties making their case; they have a right to speak out, and having served in combat, have more privilege to do so than I or others can. They obviously feel very passionately about Kerry, especially given his public renunciation of them in front of the Senate in 1971, which they blame in part for their post-service treatment. Kerry's campaign called it the worst dirty trick in presidential politics, although all that shows is the Democrats' poor understanding of history. It's certainly no worse than implying that George Bush somehow endorsed the dragging lynching of James Byrd, and in this case the Swifties are focused on Kerry's actual actions, not some weird line drawn between a presidential candidate and the crimes of mouthbreathing bigots.

My issue with this campaign is that it will not be effective, and in fact will be counterproductive. I agree with people that Kerry brought this on himself. The only thing Kerry has highlighted in his campaign is his four months of in-country service on the swift boat. If that's all that Kerry will ever talk about, then I agree that he has made the quality of that service fair game for debate. It's hardly a dirty trick for the Republicans to question Kerry's performance during those four monthe after Democrats called George Bush a deserter and contrasted his service in the TANG with Kerry's in Viet Nam.

Nevertheless, as an issue, it's a loser -- and worse, it will damage Bush more than Kerry.

First, the Swifties make the mistake of thinking that Kerry's service is admired on the left. It's not. It's only used in order to answer George Bush's leadership after 9/11, because it's the only thing Kerry has that approaches executive experience. Most of Kerry's supporters will not be shocked to hear that he burned down villages, shot small animals, and killed a young VC who was running away from him (and my reaction to that is "So what?"). Most of Kerry's support thinks that most Viet Nam veterans did much the same thing. Why? Because Kerry told them they did, 33 years ago. In all truth, the Left will receive this new information with a huge yawn.

Well, one might argue, this will increase support for Bush among swing voters. Possibly, but unlikely. Swing voters have routinely discounted both Kerry's Viet Nam experience and the TANG questions about Bush, preferring to focus on more current events. Kerry's final night at the convention found him surrounded by veterans, with numerous references to his service, and a big flag to which he constantly referred. And what happened? His numbers dropped.

All this campaign does is generate sympathy for Kerry among all but the most partisan observers. Fence-sitting veterans who have lived through the fog of combat may well remember some incidents of their own when they acted inappropriately or just not to their own expectations and might be inclined to feel sorry for Kerry, having all of this dragged up almost four decades after it happened. Those who have not served in combat or at all, like myself, will only be reminded that Kerry did. Others will feel the natural sympathy that goes out to someone who is under attack, especially if the attack is overwhelming. In short, the Swifties may well do what Kerry himself obviously cannot: touch a chord of empathy among a significant chunk of the electorate.

I have said all along that the Swifties should focus their fire on Kerry's post-Viet Nam activities, which lend themselves to much scrutiny. His speech to the Senate, condemning all veterans as war criminals and accusing the US of prosecuting a war of annihilation, would make a great start. Getting more of the story behind the Phoenix Project, in which his organization debated the assassinations of eight US senators, would make much more sense, since at the time, Kerry was launching his political career. It's where the Swifties really have their beef with him anyway; he may not have been loved in Viet Nam, but he didn't give them much reason to hate him until he returned.

Do the Swifties have the right to question Kerry's performance in combat? Sure. That doesn't mean they're right to do so, and more importantly, it doesn't mean they'll get the results they desire. Be prepared for the backfire.

UPDATE, 8/7 AND BUMP: I've been more swayed by the debate on this thread than I thought I would be. If you get a chance to listen to a replay of our Northern Alliance Radio Network, you'll hear me launch a counterattack on a caller at the end of the first half-hour. I believe we'll have the show replayed starting Monday at 9 am at this streaming link.

Keep the debate humming -- this has been fascinating, and actually well argued on both sides.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 7, 2004 1:18 PM

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