Setting Straight Kerry’s War Record
By THOMAS LIPSCOMB Mr. Lipscomb, the founder of Times Books, was the publisher of Admiral Zumwalt’s best-selling book, On Watch.
Senator Kerry recently wrote a letter to President Bush complaining, “You and your campaign have initiated a widespread attack on my service in Vietnam, my decision to speak out to end that war,” and warning, “I will not sit back and allow my patriotism to be challenged.”
In the absence of any evidence from Mr. Kerry of an attack from the Bush campaign, Mr. Kerry seems to have originated his own doctrine of “pre-emption.” How valid are his concerns?
No one denies Mr. Kerry’s four bemedaled months in “Swiftboats” or his seven-months’ service as an electrical officer on board the USS Gridley, during its cruises back and forth to California, or even his months as an admiral’s aide in Brooklyn, before he was able get out of the Navy six months early to run for office.
Taking a look at Mr. Kerry’s much-promoted Vietnam service, his military record was, indeed, remarkable in many ways. Last week, the former assistant secretary of defense and Fletcher School of Diplomacy professor,W. Scott Thompson, recalled a conversation with the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. that clearly had a slightly different take on Mr. Kerry’s recollection of their discussions:
“[T]he fabled and distinguished chief of naval operations,Admiral Elmo Zumwalt,told me — 30 years ago when he was still CNO —that during his own command of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam,just prior to his anointment as CNO, young Kerry had created great problems for him and the other top brass,by killing so many non-combatant civilians and going after other non-military targets.‘We had virtually to straitjacket him to keep him under control,’ the admiral said. ‘Bud’ Zumwalt got it right when he assessed Kerry as having large ambitions — but promised that his career in Vietnam would haunt him if he were ever on the national stage.” And this statement was made despite the fact Zumwalt had personally pinned a Silver Star on Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Kerry was assigned to Swiftboat 44 on December 1, 1968. Within 24 hours, he had his first Purple Heart. Mr. Kerry accumulated three Purple Hearts in four months with not even a day of duty lost from wounds, according to his training officer. It’s a pity one cannot read his Purple Heart medical treatment reports which have been withheld from the public. The only person preventing their release is Mr. Kerry.
By his own admission during those four months, Mr. Kerry continually kept ramming his Swiftboat onto an enemy-held shore on assorted occasions alone and with a few men, killing civilians and even a wounded enemy soldier. One can begin to appreciate Zumwalt’s problem with Mr. Kerry as commander of an unarmored craft dependent upon speed of maneuver to keep it and its crew from being shot to pieces.
Mr. Kerry now refers to those civilian deaths as “accidents of war.”And within four days of his third Purple Heart, Mr. Kerry applied to take advantage of a technicality which allowed him to request immediate transfer to a stateside post.
Once back in the States, Mr. Kerry joined “the struggle for our veterans,” as he called it last week in Atlanta, by joining a scruffy organization called the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The VVAW’s executive director, Al Hubbard, supposedly a former Air Force captain wounded in Vietnam, quickly appointed Mr. Kerry to the executive committee.
Mr. Kerry participated with the VVAW at agitprop rallies such as Valley Forge and the “Winter Soldier” guerrilla theater atrocity trials in Detroit, finally testifying in April 1971 before the Senate as an authority on the war crimes his fellow American servicemen had committed in Vietnam.
Outside of his own “accidents of war,” there is no evidence that Mr. Kerry had then or has now the least idea what may or may not have been the realities of ground combat. However, he had no problem reeling off for the Senate a series of unproven, secondhand allegations that would have been perfectly at home at the Nuremberg trials indicting his fellow veterans.
Mr. Kerry stated there were “war crimes committed in Southeast Asia...not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-today basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.”Then Mr. Kerry got specific:
“They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam...we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions; in the use of free-fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search-and-destroy missions,the bombings,the torture of prisoners, all accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam.”
In other words, My Lai was just another day in the life of the Vietnam War.
This wasn’t a one-time occasion. The VVAW had been peddling this line from the day Mr. Kerry joined them and had been publishing charges like this for the previous two years. Mr. Kerry repeated them on “Meet the Press” with Al Hubbard, who was found to be a total fraud and who never served in Vietnam, much less was wounded. However, Mr. Kerry has never renounced the charges he made.
Recently, his fellow VVAW supporter, Jane Fonda, has tried to minimize a potentially damaging picture of him a few rows behind her at the three-day VVAW Valley Forge rally in September 1970.And many members of the press fell for the line that it was accidental or coincidental,including Fox’s Chris Wallace and ABC’s Tim Russert.
However, there were only eight or nine speakers that day, including Donald Sutherland, Mark Lane, Bella Abzug, and Ms. Fonda. And far from being a casual audience member, Mr. Kerry, an executive committee member, not Ms. Fonda, was the lead speaker.
Ms. Fonda had been funding VVAW events since before Mr. Kerry joined its executive committee. At Valley Forge, Ms. Fonda said: “…My Lai was not an isolated incident but rather a way of life for many of our military.”
Their appearance together in that picture may be a lot of things, but it was not a coincidence.
Mr. Kerry has already confessed his complicity in killing civilians as “accidents of war.”However, he has offered a classic Nuremberg defense that this was not only a commonplace occurrence throughout the Vietnam War, but he was carrying out a policy “with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
His commander of naval operations in Vietnam, who specifically designed the mission that Mr. Kerry and the other Swiftboat commanders executed, Admiral Zumwalt, clearly disagreed. An examination of the truth behind this disagreement is not an attack on Mr. Kerry. It is a matter of vital historical interest.