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September 05, 2004

Byron York on Kerry in Vietnam-- A Commentary

I was disappointed by the National Review article, "In
by Byron York. He pulls his punches. Kerry's Vietnam story has been deflating so fast that even conservative journalists can't quite comprehend how small his balloon has gotten. They, like all of us, took Kerry's medals at face value until quite recently, and the disinterest of the mainstream media really has helped Kerry a lot. Despite the punditry, I think Kerry has been quite smart to keep the bulk of his Vietnam records secret and to refuse to reply to anyone who disputes his Vietnam stories. If you're in the wrong, you're going to lose whenever you let out more truthful information or whenever you try to answer charges against you. The best thing is to try to laugh away the charges, at least, if the Press is on your side.

Let's look at York's article in detail to see what a pro-Kerry spin it has. Overall, the article is heavily anti-Kerry, simply because it presents some of the evidence against him. But its general tone is, "People have questioned Kerry's record but Kerry says they're wrong," rather than "People seem to have shown Kerry's record is fraudulent, and Kerry isn't saying anything to try to refute them". ...


Last May, when the newly formed group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth first spoke
to the press about John Kerry, the men -- mostly Kerry's fellow officers from
the four months he skippered a Navy Swift boat in Vietnam -- seemed divided on
the issue of Kerry's war record. Some questioned the medals he was awarded.
Others had no desire to cast doubt on his service. But all agreed on one thing:
that Kerry had betrayed them when, upon returning from Vietnam, he characterized
the American military -- and, by extension, the Swift boat veterans themselves
-- as having committed widespread atrocities in Southeast Asia.

That was then. After their opening news conference, the veterans -- most of whom
had not seen one another in 35 years -- began talking among themselves about
their memories of Kerry. They read Douglas Brinkley's hagiographic war
biography, Tour of Duty, and found descriptions of events they didn't recognize.
They compared notes. And their point of view changed. They came to question what
Kerry had done, not just after leaving Vietnam, but while he was serving
alongside them. In particular, they came to question some of
the cornerstones of Kerry's Vietnam record,
the engagements in
which he won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. The
result of that questioning was a book, Unfit for Command, written by the group's
main spokesman, John O'Neill.

More accurately, "they came to question every single one of the
cornerstones of Kerry's Vietnam record"


Unfit for Command, and a series of television ads made from it, have scored some
direct hits. But O'Neill and the Swift boat veterans have also missed their mark
on occasion, giving the Kerry campaign an opening to claim that everything they
say is untrue. In the end, however, when all the claims and counterclaims are
balanced against one another, it seems clear that the veterans, relying mostly
on their own eyewitness experiences, have raised some valid
-- and serious -- questions about John Kerry's four months in Vietnam color=red>.

No, they did much more than raise questions-- they answered a lot of
questions too. York's phrasing makes the Swifvets sound like the Democrats who
question Bush's National Guard service by saying,"Well we don't have any
evidence Bush didn't serve improperly, but how can we know he didn't?" Anybody
can raise questions. It is much harder to raise valid questions. But the
Swiftvets have not only raised some valid questions that they don't have the
information to answer (e.g., why are there three version of Kerry's Silver Star
citation, not just one?) but also, and mainly: (a) provided new evidence
(e.g., Dr. Letson saying that Kerry's First Purple Heart was for a minor
scratch), and (b) found inconsistencies in Kerry's stories (e.g., Kerry's
Bronze Star was for bravery under heavy gunfire, but nobody was injured by it
even slightly and the only evidence of any bullets to the five boats was three
bullet holes that might have been shot the previous day).



Another area in which the Swift boat veterans have raised fundamental questions
concerns the first of Kerry's three Purple Hearts. On December 2, 1968, newly
arrived in Vietnam, the future senator volunteered to undertake a nighttime
mission on a small "skimmer" craft north of Cam Ranh. Kerry and the others in
his boat saw a group of sampans being unloaded on the beach. They set off an
illumination flare to get a better look. Something happened — it's not clear
what, although there's no indication that anyone in the sampans opened fire —
and Kerry began shooting. During the firing, "a stinging piece of heat socked
into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell," according to Kerry's
recollection in Tour of Duty.


"What I saw was a small piece of metal sticking very superficially in the skin
of Kerry's arm," Letson recorded in a written account detailing his encounter
with Kerry. "The metal fragment measured about 1 cm. in length and was about 2
or 3 mm in diameter." Letson said he used forceps to remove the piece of metal,
which had penetrated no more than 3 or 4 mm into the skin. "It did not require
probing to find it, did not require any anesthesia to remove it, and did not
require any sutures to close the wound," Letson wrote. "The wound was covered
with a bandaid."


When Letson first went public with his account, the Kerry campaign suggested
that he had not been present at Cam Ranh Bay and was not even a medical doctor.
In a letter threatening television-station managers who ran the first Swift boat
ad, Kerry's lawyers wrote, "The 'doctor' who appears in the ad, Louis Letson,
was not a crewmate of Senator Kerry's and was not the doctor who actually signed
Senator Kerry's sick-call sheet. In fact, another physician actually signed
Senator Kerry's sick-call sheet."

But it turned out Kerry's lawyers were wrong. The sheet was
signed not by another doctor but by Letson's assistant, J. C. Carreon, who is no
longer alive.
And the sick-call sheet's description of Kerry's
wound, while very brief, is entirely consistent with Letson's recollections. It
reads, in full: "Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and appl
bacitracin dressing. Ret to Duty."

York ought to have mentioned here that a Purple Heart can be received only
for an injury severe enough to require treatment "by a medical officer", i.e.,
by a doctor. If the assistant, Carreon, was the only person to treat the
injury, it doesn't count for a Purple Heart. If the doctor, Letson, treated it,
then it doesn't count either, because Dr. Letson says he really didn't have to
see it. Kerry's medal is bogus either way.



No event plays a larger role in Kerry's Vietnam epic than the March 13, 1969,
engagement in which Kerry pulled Army Green Beret Jim Rassmann from the Bay Hap
River. Rassmann, who has become an active surrogate speaker for Kerry on the
campaign trail, says that he was on board Kerry's boat that day, in a group of
five Swift boats, when one of them, PCF-3, was rocked by a mine explosion. After
that, Rassmann says, the entire group of boats came under heavy fire from both
shores of the river. Then, according to Rassmann, there was another explosion,
this one near Kerry's boat, which threw Rassmann overboard. Rassmann dove
underwater to avoid both the gunfire and the propellers of the Swift boats; when
he came up for air, he says, all the boats had left. But there was still
shooting. With bullets whizzing around him, Rassmann dove again, and again. Then
he saw Kerry's boat coming back to get him. "John, already wounded by the
explosion that threw me off his boat, came out onto the bow, exposing himself to
the fire directed at us from the jungle, and pulled me aboard," Rassmann wrote
in the Wall Street Journal.


The medal citations for Kerry and for Thurlow (who, like Kerry, won a Bronze
Star for his actions that day) say that everyone was working under enemy small-
arms and automatic-weapons fire. But the Swift boat veterans have raised at
least some doubt about that. For example, in addition to their personal
recollections, they say that there were no bullet holes in the boats, indicating
a lack of hostile fire. While that is not entirely accurate -- records indicate
that there were three bullet holes in Thurlow's boat, at least one of which he
attributes to an earlier engagement -- it does suggest that the boats were not
significantly shot up in the incident. Compare that with another ambush, shortly
before Kerry took command of PCF-94, in which the boat was riddled with about
100 bullets.


In any case, the Swift boat veterans' account of the Rassmann incident casts
Kerry's actions in a somewhat less heroic light than, say, the legend-building
presentation at the Democratic convention. But it is simply
not an open-and-shut case on either side
, and, barring some
future revelation that could change the story entirely, it seems likely that it
will remain in dispute.

How strong does evidence have to get before it is "open and shut"? I don't
see how there could have been enemy small- arms and automatic-weapons fire
significant enough to justify a medal for picking up someone who fell off a boat
if nobody was injured and the maximum claimed damage is 3 holes in one of the
five boats. That sounds open-and-shut even before we get to the claims of
witnesses. Of the witnesses, Kerry is supported by himself and his crew-- who
sped away at first,leaving the other four boats-- Rassmann, who, struggling in
the water, is not terribly reliable-- and Lambert, someone else who got a Bronze
Star that day because he rescued someone under the supposed gunfire. On the
other side are the officers and crew in the other four boats. Doing a headcount
of witnesses, Kerry loses. Looking at who benefits personally from which story,
Kerry's side also loses. Note, too, that it isn't clear who wrote the action
report that the medal citations are based on, so we can't vouch for the
reliability of the official documents based on it (the Swifvets suggest,
plausibly, that Kerry himself wrote the report; Kerry says he didn't, but
doesn't say who did' in any case, the official reports do not add any names of
witnesses that would support Kerry's story). So what else do we need to make
the lack of enemy fire "open and shut"?



On the other hand, some of their criticism of Kerry has fallen short. They
suggest, for example, that Kerry's second Purple Heart was, like the first,
accidentally self-inflicted. It happened on February 20, 1969, when Kerry was on
a mission in the Cua Lon River: Suddenly, the boat was hit by a rocket-propelled
grenade, and Kerry suffered a shrapnel wound in his left leg. One member of the
Swift boat veterans was on another boat during that mission and suggests there
was no hostile fire, but there appears to be no reasonable
scenario under which Kerry's wound could have been self-inflicted. color=green> And there is evidence that Kerry's wound, while
not serious enough to keep him away from duty, was more substantial than the
wound for which he was awarded his first Purple Heart.

I haven't read up on this. What is the Swiftvet's scenario? York's readers
might like to decide for themselves whether it is reasonable.

York only hints at how severe the wound was. Pretty much any wound
would be more severe than the "band-aid" wound. As Kerry said, the wound was
"not serious enough to keep him away from duty". Thus, while this wound might
have truly qualified for the Purple Heart under the lax standards of the Vietnam
War, it isn't the kind of hospital wound the public thinks about when they hear
Kerry got a Purple Heart.

The Swift boat vets also criticize Kerry's third Purple Heart, the one awarded
after the Rassmann incident. Kerry suffered two wounds that day, one a shrapnel
wound to the buttocks and another an injury to his arm. Both Tour of Duty and
the Swift boat veterans' accounts say that Kerry was hit by shrapnel when he
dropped a grenade in a bin of rice, an action that was part of a general policy
to deplete supplies for the Viet Cong. "I got a piece of small grenade in my ass
from one of the rice-bin explosions," Kerry said in Tour of Duty. Later in the
day, during the Rassmann incident, Kerry is said to have hurt his arm in the
(disputed) explosion near his boat after the mining of PCF-3. While the rice-
bin wound seems clearly accidental, there also seems no doubt
that any injury Kerry suffered in the wake of the mining was the result of a
hostile enemy action.

No-- the doubt-- indeed, the near-certainty, since it is what the official
medical documents posted by the Kerry campaign say-- is as to whether Kerry
received an injury. Bruises not requiring a doctor do not count as injuries,
either in common language or for the official purpose of getting a Purple
Heart. The Bronze Star citation says that Kerry's arm was bleeding, but the
medical record says it was a "minor contusion"-- minor, that is, even by
comparison with the buttock shrapnel, which itself was not severe enough to
prevent Kerry from walking around normally. No-- what seems to have happened
was that Kerry had a minor shrapnel wound that was self-inflicted but at least
had some claim to require treatment by a doctor,

Perhaps the weakest case made by the Swift boat vets concerns the action in
which Kerry won the Silver Star. That occurred on February 28, 1969, when Kerry
famously beached his Swift boat, jumped onto land, and chased and killed a Viet
Cong guerrilla who had fired a rocket at the boat. The Swift boat veterans
suggest that Kerry's action was not only not heroic, but reckless and dangerous.
They also suggest that the guerrilla was a teenager, clad only in a loincloth,
who was fleeing when Kerry killed him. And they suggest that
there was some sort of official interference in the awarding of the medal that
resulted in the Silver Star's being awarded with suspicious haste.

Look below, and you'll see that York hardly gets back to the "suspicious
haste" question. It's important not because there is evidence of bribery, etc.
but because one scenario is that Kerry received the medal because Admiral
Zumwalt wanted some Swift officer to get a medal to raise morale and strengthen
his hand in intra-service disputes, and didn't really care whether the
particular officer deserved it or not.

But officials considered the recklessness of Kerry's actions
when they awarded him the medal
-- something that commanding
officer George Elliott, now a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has said
on a number of occasions.

As I said above, the official who awarded the medal may have had other things
in mind besides whether Kerry's actions were heroic. In any case, the question
is not whether Kerry persuaded his superiors to give him a medal, which he
obviously did, but whether he rightly persuaded them.

On the lone-guerrilla issue, crewmates who were there at the time have
recollections that conflict with the version of the story in Unfit for
. "Number one, it was a man," Fred Short, who was on board Kerry's
boat and now supports Kerry's candidacy, told National Review. "And if it was
just one guy, he was real good, 'cause he fired about four or five rocket-
propelled grenades at once."

The biggest problem for this story is not conflicting eyewitnesses, but
plausibility. Kerry beached his boat, so it was an easy target and its machine
guns were at a bad angle for firing, and jumped out, leaving his men with no
officer. If there was more than one enemy soldier, why wasn't Kerry's boat
destroyed in its near-defenseless situation?

That testimony is supported by the account of William Rood, who commanded the
other Swift boat in the action and believes there were other guerrillas firing
at the Americans.

No mention here of the fact that Rood also received a medal for the events of
that day, and hence has the same interest as Kerry in maximizing the size of the

And unlike the Rassmann incident, the Swift boat vets have not been able to
produce eyewitnesses to challenge that version of events. As for the haste with
which the medal was awarded, it is simply not clear what happened -- perhaps
more could be learned from the records that Kerry has not yet released.

Finally, the Swift boat veterans are caught in a difficult argument over the
Silver Star. They say they are not condemning Kerry's killing of the young
guerrilla, only the fact that he received such a prestigious decoration for it.
But in Unfit for Command, O'Neill writes that Elliott, when he approved
the medal, did not realize that Kerry "was facing a single, wounded young Viet
Cong fleeing in a loincloth," which suggests that Kerry acted improperly.

No-- York misses the point, probably because he hangs out with liberals who
*would* think such an action improper. The problem with getting a medal for
killing a single, wounded, fleeing, non-uniformed, poorly equipped enemy is not
that it is improper (indeed, non-uniformed combatants have very few rights under
the law of war-- remember Nathan Hale and Major Andre's executions for spying),
but that it is not heroic. Kerry should of course have shot the Viet Cong, but
why get a medal for it?

But imagine reading an account today of a young U.S. Army officer, patrolling
the outskirts of Baghdad, who comes under attack from an insurgent with a rocket
launcher. The officer orders his men to pursue the shooter -- and takes the lead
in the pursuit. He finds and kills the insurgent, who is still carrying the
rocket launcher. Since the insurgent had already fired on U.S. troops, and since
the insurgent was still armed, how many Americans would question the officer's
conduct? Probably not many (and, in one of the many ironies of this case, the
people angered by the incident would likely be Kerry supporters).


Of course, Kerry was entitled, under the military's
regulations, to ask for that Purple Heart
. And he didn't give
himself the other medals, either; the Navy approved each one. But the way he
operated, taking advantage of the full measure of the rules to
compile a politically appealing résumé
, diminished some of
those accomplishments, at least in the eyes of many of his fellow Swift boat
sailors. They didn't like it then, and they don't like it now.

Again, York underplays the seriousness of the charges against Kerry. Is it
really true that you're entitled to ask for medals you don't deserve? Maybe,
but I find it hard to believe that asking a superior to commit fraud by giving
you a medal would be well-regarded by the military, even if there's no specific
regulation against it.

There are two ethical problems here that York conflates. The first problem is
that Kerry seems to have asked for a Purple Heart for a wound-- I am thinking of
the leg shrapnel, the Second Purple Heart-- so minor that although it may have
qualified under the written rules and standard practice of the time, a real
gentleman would not have applied for a medal. This is the more excusable moral
lapse, though when Kerry later ran for President boasting of his Purple Heart,
it amounted to fraud on an American people who, as Kerry well knows, think
Purple Hearts are given for injuries that require hospitalization. And it is
somewhat insulting to soldiers who got their Purple Hearts for severe injuries.

Kerry seems to have done more, though. The second problem is that Kerry asked
for medals he knew would violate the rules, as well as the spirit of the rules.
Even if one's superiors make mistakes, it is morally wrong to take advantage of
their mistakes, and when we detect such mistakes, we should revoke the medals.

I, for example, am not injured, and, in fact, I'm not even in the army.
Suppose I apply for a Purple Heart anyway-- in fact, suppose I apply for a
thousand of them, for a thousand nights of poor sleep, and one applications
gets past a sleepy colonel and I get my medal. It's been officially awarded, but
that doesn't mean I'm blameless or that I got my medal fair and square so nobody
can say I don't deserve it.

Kerry went even further in this second problem, though. Someone provided Kerry's
superiors with false information-- the conflation of the buttocks shrapnel and
the bruise for the Third Purple Heart, for example. Who else but Kerry would do
this? This is not just "taking advantage of the full measure of the rules to
compile a politically appealing résumé". It is fraud, and Kerry is claiming
medals that although officially awarded, are in violation of the official rules.

Posted by erasmuse at September 5, 2004 03:54 PM

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