August 26, 2004
The Source of Swift Boat Anger
BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
In verifying the accuracy of the ads of the now notorious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," the media has quite rightly focused on the details of their accounts: how their attacks on John Kerry contradict their own prior statements, official Navy records, and the accounts of Kerry’s crew.
But lost in the media hoopla is the motivation of these men. For those who funded and produced the ad, the motivation is simple: they are close associates of George W. Bush and his chief political strategist Karl Rove, and they want to see Bush win the election. Having financed and directed the John McCain smears, these Bush money-men certainly won’t pass up the chance to vilify John Kerry.
For those who star in the ads -- the actual swift boat veterans who began this process and wrote the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command" -- the evidence points to a darker motivation: revenge on John Kerry for revealing in 1971 their indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians.
Thirty-three years ago, Kerry told the world about the American policy of establishing "free-fire zones," where a solider was ordered to shoot anything that moved, combatant and non-combatant alike. Kerry discovered upon his return to the United States that such zones and other inhumane tactics routinely practiced in Vietnam violated the Geneva Conventions regulating the laws of war.
While free-fire zones are not "war crimes" in the classic sense of Nazi death camps, they do raise an important question as to America’s understanding of its moral character. Are there limits to conduct in war? If so, should violations of these limits be reported or covered up? The fury directed at Kerry, both in 1971 and today, is largely fueled by the knowledge of many of these vets that they –- like the Abu Gharib prison guards –- were ordered to act outside international norms of humanity.
As these soldiers were "just following orders," John Kerry’s intention was not to publicly lambaste them. In fact, Kerry even labeled himself a "war criminal," to show solidarity with his fellow vets rather than point the finger at them, so as to focus his criticism on then-President Richard Nixon and the other policymakers who issued the questionable orders.
This distinction was unfortunately lost on the otherwise intelligent and articulate John O’Neil, the current co-author of "Unfit for Command," who was hired by Nixon in 1971 to take on John Kerry. (The other co-author, Jerome Corsi, notorious for calling Kerry a Communist and for slurring Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and gays, has been wisely kept hidden from the talk show circuit by the anti-Kerry crew.) Debating Kerry in 1971, O’Neil conceded that he, like Kerry, participated in "free-fire zones," but he insisted the problem was not the policy itself; it was the person who revealed it publicly: John Kerry.
But Kerry was not after O’Neil. Kerry was out to change the policy. In Vietnam, Kerry and his crewmen complained to superiors so much that Kerry’s supportive commanding officer was transferred from the unit. Returning home, Kerry went before the Senate and publicly read veterans’ accounts of even more serious atrocities. (The second Swift Boat ad quotes Kerry’s descriptions of these atrocities -- "raping, cutting off ears … heads" – without disclosing that Kerry was, in fact, reading from other veterans’ statements, not his own.)
Thirty-three years later, it is Kerry’s exposure of systematic inhumanity in Vietnam that continues to fuel the anger of these vets, not the faux-controversy as to how Kerry earned his medals during the war. From 1971 to 2003, none of these veterans -- not even John O’Neil -- challenged the Navy’s well-documented account of Kerry’s heroism and courage.
All but one of Kerry’s many shipmates have fiercely defended his "grace under fire," swapping stories of how he risked his life to rescue Jim Rassmann, how he bravely faced down and killed a Viet Cong sniper, how he once saved forty-two Vietnamese civilians from starvation, etc. The exception, Steven Gardner, proves the rule with his reported "hair-trigger penchant for firing M-60s into the mangrove thicket" and Kerry’s purported threats to court-martial him if he did not curb his aggression. Even a leading force behind the anti-Kerry vets, former admiral Roy Hoffman, praised Kerry’s service as a "shining example" until he found out Kerry had disclosed to author Douglas Brinkley Hoffman’s fulsome praise of a soldier who killed thirty unarmed Vietnamese fisherman in a free-fire zone. Reported by fellow vets as "hotheaded," "bloodthirsty," and "egotistical," Hoffman was "the classic body-count guy" who "had a genuine taste for the unsavory aspects of warfare."
Projection is powerful psychiatry. A man fearing damage to his own reputation will often lash out at his accuser rather than examine the truth of the accusation. And for those aggressive veterans who continued to support the war in 1971, the needless loss of Vietnamese life was not the only charge that could be laid at their feet. John Kerry’s famous rhetorical question: "How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" referred to American lives.
When Kerry asked this question in 1971, fifty-five thousand Americans were already dead, Nixon was withdrawing troops, and even John O’Neil had to concede the war was lost. But Nixon, O’Neil, and others continued to argue for "Vietnamization," a continuation of the war so as to have "peace with honor." Unfortunately, this strategy led only to three thousand more Americans dead, ten thousand more wounded, and still did not save South Vietnam.
That three thousand more names are inscribed on the Vietnam Wall for no other purpose but to preserve America’s "honor" must weigh heavily on O’Neil, Hoffman, Gardner, and the other "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," who so fervently believed in continuing the lost cause 33 years ago that they have turned their ire on Kerry today.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Levine, a former Congressional legislative counsel, hosts a radio
talk show in Washington DC and on the Internet at www.RadioInsideScoop.com.
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