web counter Media Lies: One piece of the Kerry puzzle

Saturday, September 11, 2004

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One piece of the Kerry puzzle

A lot of discussion of John Kerry's Vietnam service has centered around the incidents that led to his medals, and rightfully so since his entire claim to fitness for the office of Commander in Chief rests on them. If he didn't earn the medals, then questioning his fitness for command is clearly justified since he made them the proof of his status as "war hero". As my readers know, there is much to question about John Kerry's medals and indeed his entire four month tour in Vietnam.

However, a bigger problem is revealed by some of the most inconsequential of events that he was involved in. Today I was rummaging around in the document archives at the Vietnam Project housed at Texas Tech University. This wonderful resource, like so many others, is available free of charge to anyone in the world for the price of an Internet connection and a few minutes (or hours) of your time. While there, I stumbled across a document titled "COASTAL DIVISION THIRTEEN SWIFTGRAM". (Go here and enter 5560101055 or Swiftgram in the Keyword search box.) This document was authored by LCDR Streuli and was intended to be a breezy, conversational newsletter to cheer up the families of Swift boat crewmates back home.

On the second page, Streuli briefly mentions a meeting that is of interest to Kerry researchers. Streuli writes
On 22 February Gen Abrams and Vice Admiral Zumwalt took time from their busy schedules to talk to and commend the division for the job it is doing.
Douglas Brinkley talks about this meeting in his Kerry hagiography, Tour of Duty, but his description of the meeting is a great deal different than Streuli's description in the newsletter.

In Chapter Twelve, page 254, the story of this meeting begins with a discussion of the dangerous nature of duty on the Swiftboats.
The good time perched atop Hon Khoai was a rare reprieve from the war for the men of Coastal Division 11. Swift boat duty in Vietnam had become a dangerous gambit for its young officers. Gone were the coastal patrols--it was now mainly riverine warfare. "When I signed up for the swift boats, they had very little to do with war," Kerry said in a little-noticed contribution to a book of Vietnam reminiscences published in 1986. "They were engaged in coastal patrolling and that's what I thought I was going to be doing." Now the somewhat easy billet had turned deadly. Under Admiral Elmo Zumwalt's command, Swift boats were aggressively engaging the enemy. Zumwalt, who died in 2000, calculated in his autobiography On Watch that sailors in Operation Sealords had a 75 percent chance of being killed or wounded while on duty in Vietnam.
Brinkley goes on to quote Wade Sanders (a lifelong friend and supporter of John Kerry.)
No neophyte naval officer in his right mind could have been comfortable with those odds, and neither were the PCF veterans. "Our divisions were on the brink of mutiny," PCF-98's Lieutenant Wade Sanders declared of the mood in the junior officers' ranks. "The people that were managing Sealords were sending us up the same river on the same day at the same time, week after week. They might as well have handed out our schedules to the VC. We were also pissed off that we were being ordered to kill livestock and burn hooches even if the enemy wasn't around. There was just a lot of seething discontent when we arrived in Saigon."
The purpose of these paragraphs is to set the scene for what follows. They were never given orders to kill livestock and burn hooches indiscriminately nor were they on the verge of mutiny. The rules of engagement in Vietnam were so strict that CAPT Hoffman had to ask for them to be relaxed in order to protect his men. Even "free fire zones", a term very much misunderstood by civilians, simply meant that you didn't have to ask for permission to fire when you were fired upon.

It's important to remember also that all of the officers and crew that served on the Swift boats at that time were volunteers. They didn't have to be there--they chose to be there. Descriptions of men such as the legendary Michael Bernique were of men who loved the danger and were aggressive in their pursuit of combat. In fact, Bernique is credited with a daring foray into a river that, instead of earning him a court martial and demotion, inspired Admiral Zumwalt to create Operation Sealords. LT Rich McCann reminisced, "While we didn't like getting shot at, we had great admiration for Zumwalt himself." It's entirely possible that John Kerry wasn't the only one who had hoped for "an easy billet" when they volunteered, but it's difficult to believe that the majority of the men who served on Swift boats were trying to avoid combat. (On the other hand, nobody wants to get shot at--at least no sane person does.)

One would also not expect these men to be type that would be grumbing and complaining about seeing combat or about the way missions were carried out, but that is precisely the picture that John Kerry wanted to paint because it served the purpose of displaying his "heroism under fire" of a different sort. The daring and courage to stand up to his commanding officers and tell them when they were doing something wrong. This is the John Kerry who stands before you today, asking for your vote. A man who wants to be both a hero on the battlefield and a hero in the war against authority, the same authority that he now seeks to obtain.

The story continues
On January 22, 1969, Admiral Zumwalt, a perpetual smile in place, had to face a score of young officers in awe of him--and some of them were angry. Besides Operation Sealords, some of the men had questions about why he had ordered the aerial spraying of Agent Orange throughout the Mekong Delta. They realized its purpose was to destroy the vegetation along the riverbanks, which the VC were using as sniper dens, but they worried that it might also be harmful to them.
I question whether any of the men felt at all like Sanders how describes them. There's no evidence that I'm aware of that indicates they did. Furthermore, concerns about Agent Orange weren't raised until well after the war was over. It's questionable at best that the men of the Swift boats would have known about any dangers of Agent Orange much less have been overly concerned about them. It strikes me as an anachronism.

On the other hand, it fits in perfectly with the picture that Kerry wants to portray. A group of brave Swift boat officers were serving their country courageously, exposed to dangerous duty that suffered from a 75% casualty rate. Those officers were angry about being sent into such dangerous duty without any input in mission planning and they were also concerned about the military's spraying of Agent Orange because they thought it might be exposing them unnecessarily to illness. What they needed was someone with the guts to stand up to the much admired Admiral Zumwalt.

Enter John Kerry.

After meeting with Gen Abrams an intelligence briefing was conducted. Then Admiral Zumwalt returned and expressed his admiration for his men, stating that he felt a "future Chief of Naval Operations" was in the room. Kerry felt this was "strange...because almost everyone that I knew was planning to get out. Perhaps the Admiral was referring to himself?" This is an odd statement. Many of the men that served with him went on to distinguished careers in the Navy, including Kerry's friend, Wade Sanders, who made the Naval Reserves his career.

When the Admiral finished, he opened the floor to questions. One officer asked a question and was given, according to Kerry's recollection, "a glare that said, 'You better not have a follow-up question, buddy.'" A second officer asked a question, and was shot down. John Kerry was the next to speak up, but the Admiral's reaction was completely different.
After some parrying, the admiral was finally rescued by his trusty aide Captain Roy Hoffmann, who stood up and made a few remarks about the unavoidability of innocent people being killed in Southeast Asia. Zumwalt declared this normal--fortunes of war, as it were, and to be expected.
After some closing comments the meeting was adjourned and the officers returned to the dangerous duty of plying the "murky waters near the Cambodian border".

Noteworthy here is the fact that Kerry alone was able to stand up to the Admiral and in fact bested him in the debate. Captain Hoffmann had to rush in to save the day. Nevermind that just a few pages earlier Zumwalt is described as "fiercely intelligent", "hardworking", "exceptionally open-minded" and a man who "adored the young officers who served in Vietnam". A more subtle theme is that the Admiral was unconcerned and insensitive to the innocent civilian casualties of war--an insult I suspect ADM Zumwalt would take very personally where he still alive.

CAPT Hoffman states, in Unfit for Command
I was standing behind General Abrams and Admiral Zumwalt observing the audience reaction. I distinctly remember Kerry sitting separated several seats from the nearest associate and to the left of the speakers. He did not ask one question or otherwise participate in the dialogue.
Furthermore, the Boston Globe reports
None of the swift boat sailors and officers who served with Kerry and were interviewed said they could recall a mutinous threat. Nor did Kerry's subsequent actions suggest he was gun-shy.
These report clearly refute the image that Kerry has tried to create of a bold officer willing to stand up to corrupt officers who routinely commanded and committed war crimes.

Why would he create such an image for himself?