Off The Record: Flap over Kerry's war record an 'intramural squabble'

August 23, 2004|HERB BROCK

To loosely paraphrase a co-worker of mine whose husband was a Vietnam-era veteran, the only men of draft age who generally were immune from criticism from either the pro-war or anti-war side during that era were the military people who came back from Southeast Asia in body bags - and even they were knocked.

The men who volunteered for service were called everything from "zealous" to "idiots."

The men who were drafted were called everything from "unlucky" to "unprofessional."

The men who had college deferments, high draft numbers and flat feet were called everything from "lucky" to "professional system beaters."

The men who joined the Guard units and the reserves were called "weekend warriors" and "draft dodgers." (Many of these "weekend warriors" happened to become fallen war heroes after their units were activated and sent to Vietnam.)

The men who opposed the war but performed alternative service as conscientious objectors (COs) were called "chickens" and "CO-wards." (I happened to be one of these "CO-wards" although my status as a CO was a fully legal option under the Selective Service System and my non-military service was approved by my draft board.)


The men who opposed the war but fled to Canada were called "traitors" - and worse.

And the men who strongly supported the war but fought like hell to stay out of it were called "chicken hawks" and "soldiers of someone else's misfortune."

The war has been over for nearly three decades, but it and the name-calling have returned because of the presidential candidacy of Democrat John Kerry. And again, my co-worker's line about how no man of draft age "did it right" kicks in.

Kerry opened the door to the deja vu feelings and flashbacks by making his fourth months as a Naval officer in Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign. Remember how he began his convention nomination acceptance speech with "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty"? And, in one way, his ploy is great politics - and a wonderful paradox and a delicious oxymoronic situation.

Here we have as the standard-bearer of a party led by a crib full of Baby Boomers, who cut their political teeth on anti-war activities in the 1960s and now despise the country's latest war, a man who was both a major war hero and a major anti-war activist.

With Kerry, the Democrats get several things for the price of one. For one thing, they get a man whose military credentials far outshine those of the Air National Guardsman president with the spotty Guard attendance record and also outshine the war-loving vice president with the deferment-happy Selective Service record. (They are the candidates of the party with the reputation of being much more pro-military.) Democrats also get a man whose peacenik credentials appeal to his own party's anti-war base. Finally, they get a man who was both for and against the Vietnam War and for and against the Iraq war.

But Democrats have had to interrupt their celebration of a man with a split military and political personality to respond to recent attacks on him. And this latest debate has the Republican "chicken hawks" clucking.

These attacks on Kerry come from dozens of men who served on swift boats on the same Vietnamese rivers and seas as Kerry's own swift boat, and they are recorded in a recently released book titled "Unfit to Command." Unlike most of Kerry's "band of brothers," they did not serve on the same boats with him, but they say they were close enough to watch him and, thus, have credibility in their assertions that he exaggerated his heroism, cooked up reports to win his medals, and generally lied about his service.

They also contend that Kerry brazenly wanted to use his brief stint in Vietnam as material for a run for president. They said he openly talked of his goal of landing in the White House and wanted his Vietnam Naval experience to mimic the PT Boat 109 heroism of another Massachusetts senator as a way to realize that ambition. Indeed, Kerry nowadays has been using his middle initial, and many cynics believe he's doing that so voters will connect John F. Kerry and John F. Kennedy when they go to the polls on Nov. 2.

Motivating these veterans is an emotion still steaming inside them: Kerry's anti-war activism. While they want the world - especially American voters - to know about what they claim is Kerry's less than heroic service in Vietnam, they really want to nail him more for what he did and said after he returned home. They are still angry about his statements before the Senate and at anti-war rallies in which he seemed to accuse many of his fellow soldiers and Marines of war atrocities.

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