Book Review: Unfit for Command

Roundup: Media's Take

Frank Wilson, book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 25, 2004):

Unfit for Command
Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry
By John O'Neill and Jerome E. Corsi
Regnery. 216 pp. $27.95

Nemesis was the Greek goddess of retribution. Her name has come to be used to designate anyone relentless in the pursuit of vengeance.

John O'Neill is John Kerry's nemesis.

O'Neill is the man behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has run a couple of television ads sharply critical of Kerry's military record. John O'Neill was also the commander of Swift Boat PCF 94. The man he succeeded as commander was none other than John Kerry.

O'Neill served in Vietnam for 12 months. When he returned Stateside he was infuriated to learn of his predecessor's antiwar activities. He challenged Kerry to a debate and got his wish in June 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show (he proved a formidable adversary). Now he has coauthored a book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.

It is a pretty klutzy piece of work. The prose is frequently disfigured by irruptions of adjectivitis ("treasonous Jane Fonda"). The chapter headings and subheadings read like the front page of a tabloid - "Kerry's Antiwar Secrets," "The War Crimes Kerry Doesn't Want Investigated." The tone throughout is intemperate. If I were a veteran, especially a Vietnam veteran, probably none of this would matter. But a more measured presentation not only would have proved less grating to the rest of us, but likely would have packed more of a wallop.

The authors have also chosen to start by putting their worst foot forward. The first half of the book is devoted to raising questions about whether or not Kerry deserved the medals he received. After about 20 pages, one feels the need for a scorecard to keep straight who is saying what about when and what. Still, in the midst of all this, they do manage to score a direct hit on Kerry's credibility.

Most of the attention the book has received in the mainstream media has been focused on this part of it. The most telling detail, though, which has been the talk of the blogosphere for weeks, is only now starting to attract notice.

On Oct. 14, 1979, Kerry wrote a piece for the Boston Herald in which he said that "I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no troops was very real."

Obviously, Kerry was ill-served by both his memory and the Herald's copy desk: Nixon didn't take office until a month later. Kerry's memory had improved by March 27, 1986, when he declared on the floor of the Senate that "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared - seared - in me."

The problem, as Unfit for Command gleefully points out, is that a different account of Kerry's 1968 Christmas is given in Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, the biography by historian Douglas Brinkley that was published earlier this year. His book, Brinkley says, done with Kerry's cooperation, "is based largely on journals and correspondence Kerry kept while on his tours of duty." But by his account, Kerry was in Vietnam during Christmas of 1968, in a town named Sa Dec, about 55 miles from the Cambodian border. In this account, no gunshots are in evidence. Brinkley quotes one of Kerry's letters: "the night soothes everything... . Visions of sugar plums really do dance through your head... . It's Christmas Eve."

Kerry's representatives have since conceded that the candidate was mistaken regarding what had been seared in his memory, but insist that he did indeed eventually make it to Cambodia, though no corroboration has been provided and none of his crewmates can remember being there. Brinkley also says Kerry did go to Cambodia - though not at Christmas in 1968.

The first half of the book notwithstanding, Unfit for Command really isn't about medals, wounds and whereabouts. It's about settling a score, as the second half makes clear. The Swift Boat vets, and a good many other vets as well, deeply resent Kerry's antiwar activities. As they see it, now that he's running for commander in chief, it's payback time.

When Kerry testified before the Senate about American soldiers who "had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads... limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan," he was simply repeating what he had heard others testify to at the Winter Soldiers Investigation in Detroit earlier that year. But he repeated it with extraordinary conviction - and without, the authors state, "[verifying] according to any standards of evidence, legal or academic." This continues to rankle a good many veterans.

What stands out in the second part of this book - though the authors don't seem to notice - is not gaps, discrepancies or misrepresentations, but the extent to which Kerry has been consistent in his view of the war and how that has been reflected in his policy decisions. Kerry has regretted the harshness of his language at the time, calling it on one occasion "over the top" and on another the words of "an angry young man." But he clearly continues to believe that Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place. So do lots of people. In fact, that's pretty much the conventional wisdom regarding the war.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

marte hall - 8/30/2004

Especial thanks, these high pitch days, of a book that has generated so much heat. An exceptionally welcome contribution -- by me, any way!