National Review: The Vets Became Upset When They Read Brinkley's Book

Roundup: Media's Take

Editorial, in the National Review (Aug. 26, 2004):

Speaking on behalf of Vietnam veterans in his Senate testimony on April 22, 1971, John Kerry said, "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service..." Thirty-three years later, it's clear that his plea fell on deaf ears. Kerry recalls his Vietnam service in virtually every campaign speech he makes. At the Boston convention, his four-month stint in Vietnam was repeatedly invoked as his primary qualification for the presidency.

Kerry's problem is that those who served alongside him haven't forgotten either. Many Vietnam veterans remember that Kerry slandered their service when he claimed they were responsible for widespread atrocities. These veterans include 250 of his Swift boat comrades, whose organization, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has taken to the airwaves to accuse him of lying about his record and betraying his fellow veterans. In particular, they say that in telling the U.S. Senate about non-existent American war crimes, he did something that our POWs refused to do under torture.

The book that has thrown Kerry on the defensive is not Unfit for Command so much as Tour of Duty, the authorized biography written by the pro-Kerry historian Douglas Brinkley. Until the book's publication in January, Kerry's fellow Swift boat veterans were unaware of his exact version of their alleged atrocities and his alleged heroics. Some of them had come to Kerry's rescue in the past, when he was accused of committing war crimes of his own (these statements are now used to challenge the Swift boat vets' consistency). The vets intended to refute Kerry's allegations of atrocities, but found that their eyewitness accounts contradicted Kerry's version of his exploits.

Why should it matter? First, there is the fact that Kerry has put his Vietnam experience at the center of his campaign. If it turns out that his account of that experience is based on exaggerations or lies, it is a damning indictment of his candidacy, on his own terms. Even if Kerry had not made Vietnam such a large part of his campaign, this controversy would be important, since dishonesty (even relatively minor incidents of it) with regard to war stories and decorations has ruined careers. Finally, there is Kerry's 1971 testimony, which he has never retracted and which still stands as testament to his belief that the American military was a criminal force in Vietnam. The Swift boat vets can be forgiven for asking whether someone who believes this country would order such crimes, and that its men in uniform would "routinely" carry them out, is fit to be commander-in-chief.

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