Blogs > Cliopatria > Swift Boat Historiography

Aug 24, 2004 6:38 pm

Swift Boat Historiography

So, is anyone going to use the Swift Boat controversy as a"teachable moment" this fall? Because if you strip away some of the hyper-polemic, there's an interesting historiographical issue -- actually several -- at play. Historiographically, how would we balance contemporary documents against decades-removed oral history, if it were not a partisan issue? When is absolute certainty justified in the face of contradictory sources? What bigger questions does this connect to (i.e., is this really an avenue worth pursuing) or are there analyses that need to precede asking the questions we're asking?

As historians, we sometimes gloss over these sorts of questions: unless absolute precision is necessary (and it rarely is), we can tolerate some slippage, some tension in our sources. If we were writing a chronicle of the Vietnam Swift Boats -- an interesting chapter in our naval history, I suspect, but I defer on this to our military history friends -- we'd probably place Kerry's mission to Cambodia in"late '68 or early '69" with a footnote explaining the variant recollections and documents. Someone needs to sit down and examine"the fog of war" as a trope, by the way, in light of recent scholarship on memory, memory and trauma, and false memory. OK, that's epistemology, not historiography, but they're related.

If we were writing a history of Vietnam-era medal-awarding practices (has anyone written an analysis of medal-awards that goes beyond military antiquarianism?) we would probably compare Kerry's award documentation with that of other similar missions and medical records, and might conclude that they were within the relatively wide margins for which combat awards were given. Or we might conclude that some of them were (he still has one piece of shrapnel in him) and some weren't: I don't know, that's the point, and for all the seething and frothing, nobody has offered any kind of analysis of standard deviation that would make for a meaningful conclusion. Analysis of Kerry's training and service has already made it clear that his 'four months' in-country was the conclusion an entirely typical tour of duty, and far more active than many.

The question of how close to"truth" we need to get is an interesting one. Matters of 'honor' and 'character' are at play, and so it seems that the standards are being set pretty high (though the last few years have not been kind to the military academies in this regard). Intuitively, we want a firm conclusion (certainly my students do), and are uncomfortable with agnosticism, even when it is entirely justified. Do we, as historians, really need to answer these questions, or is it enough to note the"interesting" vagaries of sources and leave it at that?

Follow-ups: Wilson, at The Elfin Ethicist doesn't think the attacks have significantly altered the fact that Kerry's record, both in and against the war, was substantial. But Edward Gibbon pointed out"truth and reason seldom find so favorable a reception in the world" [via Brian Ulrich] as to succeed solely on their own merits. Konrad Lawson, at Munnin, points out that, credible or not, the attacks shifted the debate from examining the meaning of Kerry's record to scrutinizing the minutiae in a way that is very advantageous for Bush/Cheney. Now, is it our job to shift it back?

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Richard Henry Morgan - 8/26/2004

A few points. There are medals, and there are medals. Few outside the service know that the Silver Star is only given for valor, and that the Bronze Star doesn't require valor. The great majority of awards don't involve valor, so the 22,000 number for Grenada begs a lot of questions -- I would hazard a guess that more than half were ARCOM's, the lowest attaboy until they invented the even lower Army Achievement Medal.

Much of the SBV's charges seem to have been ably challenged, and Kerry's medals seem deserved (if one ignores the unwritten rule that you don't take a Purple Heart for a wound that doesn't cost you a day of work).

Paradoxically, the SBV's seem on more solid ground on matters that don't involve awards -- matters that Jon emphasized in writing about the Cambodia claims of '68 and '69.

Brinkley obviously, and now explicitly, doesn't believe Kerry's claims for a trip into Cambodia in Christmas '68. In his book, Brinkley didn't point this out, but danced around it, offering a narrative that put Kerry in Vietnam "only miles" from the Cambodian border (not a single member of Kerry's crew, nor a single document, put them inside Cambodia). Also, in the book, there was no talk of black ops.

Then the SBV's pointed out the discrepancy between Kerry's Christmas claims, and the book by Brinkley, Kerry's hand-picked authorized biographer. At that point, Brinkley offered to the Telegraph, what he hadn't put in his book -- the Cambodian black ops assertions. Interestingly, Brinkley has offered not a single source for these claims, but his claims seem to mirror Kerry's to reporters over the years (a vague three or four missions). This is interesting because as far as I can tell, and I have read in the area, there is not a single mention of Swift boats being used in SOG Salem House operations into Cambodia. The tactical reasons for not using a boat to insert are so obvious, one need not rehearse them here.

Ken Melvin - 8/26/2004

There's a story here. It's not about battle ribbons. It's about campaign tactics. It's about diverting attention form the real issues. It's about distracting the voter with phony isssues. Most posters herein must know of the Willie Horton ads, the release Clinton's CIA files, the attacks on Ann Richards, Jim Hightower, John McCain, Max Cleleand, . . .. These boys have a track record. It's the only way they have ever one any of the elections they've won. It's unforgivable if the press allows the Bushs to get by with this again, yet there's a group herein this forum that has been so distracted. The sorting the wheat from the chaff is not being done. Again, I'm no historian, but much of what I'm seeing posted here doesn't look at all professional, but rather small minded, bigoted.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/26/2004


Although Jon did raise the question of how much we should simply teach the truth of the situation in class, this part of the discussion is how to help students assess and analyze facts for themselves. In that context, you don't give them the answer. You help then understand the tools for finding the answer.

That does not preclude stating what we consider the truth both inside and outside the classroom, but if we are doing so in the classroom, we have the job of saying how we came to that conclusion and allowing that to be challenged, if students can do so logically.

In either case, "picking out details" is part of our job. The details brick the path forward.

Ken Melvin - 8/26/2004

From the 'git go', O'Neill's connection to Colson and Nixon was known, and it was known that O'Neill wasn't even there at the same time as Kerry. Obviously or quickly, it became apparent that there was linkage to the Bush campaign, a campaign and group known for such dirty tricks. It was known that these guys had a bone to pick with Kerry re his 71 senate testimony. The coauthors background was quickly exposed. Those with knowledge of how the military works had to know that medals are sometimes treated somewhat as perks (geedunks) in areas of hazardous duty though there's no evidence anything the scale of Reagan's 22,000 commendations for Grenada was approached for this particular duty though the assignment was much more dangerous. I personally knew Chiefs who took the assignment in exchange for a commission, fully knowing their actuarial life to be less than one year. I personally heard the crap from right wing Navy officers who never served in WWII about Kennedy in 1960, 61, 62, 63 and even after he was assassinated. I know that all skippers aren't liked; especially those who follow a popular skipper. I know that there has been wax paper put on a carrier's skipper's bridge chair to 'protect his candy ass'. This skipper's sin? He followed a very popular skipper. He was never liked during his command. By now, almost all the testimony of this group has been discredited. Yet, we find 'historians' joining the picking at details as if straw in the wind. So: What, pray tell, is the appeal that's causing this abandonment of rationality by so many?

Jonathan Dresner - 8/25/2004

Depends on what you mean by 'norm', of course. We know that the 'existing procedure' for recording 'facts' in Vietnam was flawed in particular ways, and so those records cannot be taken as 'unvarnished fact' without confirmation; this makes the corroborating or countervening testimonies entirely relevant. Against that, as you note, we're talking about the 'testimony' of people who were not eyewitnesses to most of the incidents, which would not be accorded great weight in either a court of law or of historical analysis.

And to call it an 'abandonment of rationality' assumes that the vast majority of reporters and analysts, or the general public, has a strong grasp on the epistemological nuances of source balancing. ... in other words, there was no 'rationality' to 'abandon': we need to supply it.

Ken Melvin - 8/25/2004

Not a historian, I can but wonder; is this the norm? This willingness of 'historians' to rewrite history years after the fact based on testimony of obviously biased witnesses? To accept such testimony in the face of the facts as recorded per existing procedure at the time of the incident? By witnesses either not present the time or the locale of the incident? Would such evidence as is now being proffered by this group be admissible in a criminal procedure? What, pray tell, is the appeal that causing this abandonment of rationality by so many?

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/25/2004

That's exactly where the historiographical assignment could get interesting. Who, finally, are the observers? Are there reasons they would have been biased in a given direction then? If some have changed their stories, what might be the reason, or reasons, for that?

For everyone, what is the effect of time and subsequent experience on memory?

And if some facts can only be corroborated by a single source, how should those facts be weighed?

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/25/2004

The task force report being, of course, dependent on subordinate level paperwork going all the way back to Kerry's unit. The SBVFT are behind the eight ball to the extent that they claim there is no evidence at all of fire -- the task force report is evidence, though at a remove. It would be interesting to see what after-action report at the level of Kerry's unit was the basis for the task force report, and who wrote it.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/25/2004

"sewage swilling gutter divers" is not advancing the discussion in any useful direction. Drudge is a muckraker, and a partisan one at that, but that doesn't mean that he's always wrong (though it does mean that he's usually irrelevant, except when he's really, really right), any more than Jayson Blair invalidates the use of the NYTimes as a useful source.

Sources lie, but they're all we have. Let's try to get beyond 'your source, my source' and make some sense of this?

My initial thought about the Gardner story, based entirely on reading it here, is that, if true, it actually butresses Kerry's congressional testimony....

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/25/2004

slight correction. I forget to put in ellipses to indicate that this was only the opening of the story.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/25/2004

Aug. 25, 2004 | Washington -- The Navy task force overseeing John Kerry's swift boat squadron in Vietnam reported that his group of boats came under enemy fire during a March 13, 1969, incident that three decades later is being challenged by the Democratic presidential nominee's critics.

The March 18, 1969, weekly report from Task Force 115, which was located by The Associated Press during a search of Navy archives, is the latest document to surface that supports Kerry's description of an event for which he won a Bronze Star and a third Purple Heart.

The Task Force report twice mentions the incident five days earlier and both times calls it "an enemy initiated firefight" that included automatic weapons fire and underwater mines used against a group of five boats that included Kerry's

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/25/2004

The Gardner stuff isn't on Drudge, but since it doesn't paint a very flattering picture of John Kerry, I can understand why you would want to step over the Gardner stuff for a shot at Drudge. What other dance steps do you know?

Ken Melvin - 8/25/2004

I didn't know. I thought only sewage swilling gutter divers read Drudge; course does avoid objectivity, reality and all that, plus stimulates the old vitriolic gland, I bet. This Drudge, to be taken daily straight or with Limbaugh?

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/25/2004

Yeah, Drudge, as opposed to Jayson Blair's former employer.

The report on the phone call is actually sort of moving. Kerry, who seems a decent enough guy, can't seem to figure out why the Swift boat vets hate his guts.

But as long as we're casting aspersions on Drudge, I might as well go the whole hog, since this website hasn't dealt with the sampan incident.

According to Steve Gardner, who was a member of Kerry's crew, failure by Kerry to exercise command one night (apparently nobody was monitoring the radar) resulted in a sampan closing to 30 yards from Kerry's and Gardner's swift boat before it was challenged. It was spotlighted, the tillerman of the sampan swung up an AK-47, and Gardner sprayed him from his gun mount. Drawing alongside the boat, they discovered a dead grownup male (the tillerman), a shouting mother and her baby, and a dead child.

The after-action report of that night, traditionally the responsibility of the commanding officer (in this case Kerry) says five VC were killed, and two captured. Gardner's account has not been challenged by any other member of Kerry's crew -- the same guys who have staunchly defended Kerry's accounts of his Branze Atar and Silver Star actions. Just for the record.

Ken Melvin - 8/25/2004


Don Williams - 8/24/2004

and that is that George H Bush, Dick Cheney, and
Tom Delay was not on the Mekong River with them. Not even on the same continent -- on the other side of the Pacific in fact.

Some how Fox News seems to be overlooking that.

But , as usual, if they divert the US Voters with
misleading rants about irrelevent topics -- events of 35 years ago -- then they can divert the voters attention from the Bush disasters of today. And from Bush's lies.

Let's start with the fact that his budget this year projects a federal debt in 2008 that is $3.8 TRILLION
more than what he projected only three years ago.

Or let;s talk about how the Social Security , Medicare, military retirement Trust Funds will be holding $4 Trillion of worthless Republican IOUS as "Assets" when the baby boomers begin retiring in 2009. About how Social Security is underfunded by $7 TRillion and Medicare by $40 TRILLION -- a fact suppressed by the Bush Administration until after he got his tax cuts for the rich passed.

Millions of Americans will die before their time in the years to come because of sparse medical care -- medical care far more austere than today's. They will die not from Al Qaeda attacks but from cancers not diagoised until it is too late.

But Fox NEws anchors doesn't want to discuss the malign effects of the Bush Administration , do they?

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/24/2004

For what it's worth, there's a op-ed in today's WaPo (p. A17) called "Kerry's Cambodia Whopper". The author has it that Kerry has told the Christmas in Cambodia story and then repeated it eight times -- for a total of nine (by my math). He doesn't document all the occasions, but his total is more than double the ones I documented.

Drudge reports that the Kerry campaign is now saying it is possible that his first Purple Heart was awarded for an unintentionally self-inflicted wound. It also says that Kerry telephoned the Swift boat vets Sunday night.

My sense is that the Cambodian stories are going to unravel further. The buzz in the vets community is that nobody has ever heard of Swift boat special ops into Cambodia, despite the fact there have been histories of SOG operations written, etc. Add to that Steven Gardner and the sampan incident (which as yet stands unrefuted by Kerry's backers), and there is more mess to come.

Konrad M Lawson - 8/24/2004

Fantastic issues brought up in your posting, thoughtful and thought provoking as ever. I mentioned your posting and added some thoughts at:

Jonathan Dresner - 8/24/2004

My pleasure. I'm not teaching historiography this semester, unfortunately.

You could balance it with the AWOL discussion (, if that helps.

Ed Schmitt - 8/24/2004

This is a terrific idea. I was just re-reading Carl Becker's "Everyman His Own Historian" and I generally give the sales pitch to non-majors that we do in fact use the rudiments of historical analysis on a regular basis. A contemporary, hot button issue like this really brings home the value of "sifting and winnowing" that more advanced historical detection requires. Your suggestions on discussing the relevant questions to ask of sources are particularly helpful.

Jonathan Rees - 8/23/2004


Thanks for the idea, I'll be following this suggestion in my historiography class tomorrow. But is it biased to suggest that one historical argument with political significance is better than another? Of course it is, but this dispute is far too interesting to stop me from bringing it up.