Monday, August 16, 2004

Tawdry and Distasteful: Is Challenging a Candidate’s Military Record Worse Than Refusing to Investigate It?

Bill O’Reilly is way off-base on his condemnation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's efforts as “tawdry and distasteful.” To the contrary, Kerry's shameless exploitation of his service record for political gain is tawdry and distasteful. So is the mainstream media’s pass on the issue.

John Kerry touts his four months of service in Vietnam as his primary qualification to be our Commander-in-Chief. He arguably owes his ascent to the top of the Democratic ticket to his service record; when his campaign was faltering in the days before the Iowa caucus, Kerry's skillful use of Jim Rassman and the "Band of Brothers" allowed him to draw votes and defeat the frontrunner Howard Dean. At the Democratic convention, Kerry spent the majority of his time either directly or indirectly alluding to his Vietnam service—and very little time on his two decades of Senatorial experience and accomplishments. And Kerry uses the fact that he served in Vietnam as a club to fend off any attacks on his post-Vietnam record, as if "I served in Vietnam" trumps questions about his voting on military, intelligence, and budget issues. Why then is questioning his service record off limits, especially since he has steadfastly refused to release his own service record after calling on President Bush to release his?

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has scored one hit on Kerry’s military record when they debunked his "Christmas in Cambodia" claim. Not only has Kerry had the repeated claims of his Cambodian experience in the Congressional Record ‘corrected’, his personal biographer Douglas Brinkley has updated the Kerry bio “Tour of Duty” to reflect the change—yet there was no mention either in the Record or in the biography that the experience which Kerry claimed was "seared" into him was, in fact, invented out of whole cloth. Rather than being “tawdry and distasteful” the SwiftVets have done what the press has not; they have exposed the truth about a part of Kerry's history. They have caught Kerry in one lie about his Vietnam experience, a lie that was used repeatedly for partisan political advantage. Is the Rassman/Bronze Star/Purple Heart incident another example of Kerry’s prevarication?

Like Bill O’Reilly, I believe in Jim Rassman’s sincerity. However, I also find the SwiftVets’ anti-Kerry claims about the Rassman incident entirely plausible. It is entirely reasonable to me to expect that a soldier who is literally blown off a boat into the water, ears ringing and stunned from the explosion, struggling to keep afloat but just barely to avoid any possible enemy fire, might not be able to understand which way the bullets are going through the tremendous crescendo of gunfire when numerous Swift boats open up with their .50 and .30 caliber machine guns, Mark 19 grenade launchers, and individually-fired M16s, raking the banks to suppress any possible enemy fire even if there is no enemy present. I certainly would have kept my head low, as Mr. Rassman did, and I too would have been deeply appreciative to the commander and crew of the boat that picked me up. However, there is nothing inconsistent with his reporting of what happened and with the SwiftVets’ report.

Additionally, the official US Navy report (quoted on Kerry’s website and based on Kerry’s after-action report) has Kerry’s Swift boat towing the disabled boat (PCF-3, which hit the mine and from which Rassman fell) back to their base. If there was indeed a full-fledged ambush at the site where the boat struck the mine, and the boats were fired upon over a 5,000 meter (more than three mile) stretch of the river as they fled the ambush then why on earth did the boat patrol stop, return, board the disabled boat, and tow it back? If Kerry did indeed suffer severe injuries, wouldn't it have been more important to hurry him back to medical care than to have his boat tow a disabled boat back? Things just don't add up here.

In contrast, the version of the Rassman incident reported by the SwiftVets matches the agreed-upon facts. Here’s how they tell it: one boat in the patrol, PCF-3 upon which Rassman was riding, struck an underwater mine and was disabled. All of the other boats with the exception of Lt. Kerry’s craft immediately closed around the disabled vessel; Kerry’s boat sped away and only turned around and rejoined the group after a short interval had elapsed and Kerry realized there was no ambush. Other Swift boats had already commenced picking up sailors who had fallen overboard with Rassman, and the Swift boat commanded by Larry Thurlow preparing to take the disabled PCF-3 under tow when Kerry’s craft returned and assisted, picking up Rassman. According to the SwiftVets, Kerry’s boat played no heroic role nor did Kerry engage in individual heroics.

The tell-tale here is the nature of Kerry’s buttock wound. Kerry claims he was struck by shrapnel from the exploding underwater mine, while his critics claim he was struck in the buttocks by rice after he had attempted to destroy a VC food cache earlier that day. Kerry’s own account of that day, quoted in the Brinkley biography “Tour of Duty” has him stating “I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice bin explosions” and mentions that Kerry had pieces of rice and slivers of grenade fragments removed from his buttocks later that day. How do you get rice and grenade fragments in your buttocks from an underwater mine explosion?

That the SwiftVets have easily busted Kerry on the “Cambodian Christmas” incident, an incident which should never have gone uninvestigated by the press for more than twenty years if they were doing their job of keeping America informed in the first place, means this; it is ethically indefensible journalistic malpractice to refrain from investigating the allegations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against a candidate running for the single most powerful political office in the world. I'll go further. It is tawdry and distasteful to give a presidential candidate a pass on his record when serious allegations have been raised by a source which has proven reliable.

Maybe Kerry is fully deserving of the accolades his supporters heap on him. Maybe he's not. The fact is, Kerry has chosen to make his war record a campaign issue and therefore his war record is open to scrutiny. The media's role is not to refuse to investigate that record in the face of serious and well-documented allegations because they favor a certain political agenda, it is to examine the records of political friend and foe with the same magnifying glass. Bill O’Reilly, if you were really looking out for us, you would insist on a full investigation and let the chips fall wherever they may.

To do anything less is, indeed, tawdry and distasteful.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Apocalypse Now

Anyone who has been following the presidential campaigns this year has heard about the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and their allegations against John Kerry. Over 200 former Navy officers and enlisted men who served alongside Kerry in the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam have gotten together to, in so many words, set the record straight. These former comrades-in-arms allege that John Kerry has continually and consistently "sexed up" his combat record, received unwarranted medals, and lied about his and his fellow sailors' actions during the war. One veteran, John O'Neil, along with co-author Jerome Corsi, has compiled all of the information presented into a book, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," which is currently Number One on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's websites. However, the cover really blew off the story with the public airing of the anti-Kerry TV ad by the group in several key battleground states.

As would be expected, the Kerry campaign has come out swinging. They have angrily denied the charges, questioned the motives and political backing of the group, threatened to file lawsuits against any stations airing the group's ads, and called upon President Bush to condemn the group and their ad. However... a careful reading of the Democratic responses is very illuminating. Instead of a point-by-point refutation of the group's charges, the response is legalistic, ad hominem, and in my opinion disingenious.

Take, for instance, the letter sent by the DNC andKerry compaign to TV stations (link provided courtesy of The Drudge Report. In the letter, the Kerry campaign demands the stations refuse to air the ad since it contains falsehoods, yet the "falsehood" identified is a bogus misstatement of the ad's contents, charging that the Swifties' claim of "serving with John Kerry" is false because "they weren't on the same boat." Unfortunately, one sailor who did serve on Kerry's boat with Kerry has stood up with the Swifties.

Why don't the Democrats want this ad to run? Well, having seen the ad on the Internet (here is one source), I can see why. It is devastating. John Kerry has made his service in Vietnam the central theme of his campaign, and this ad attacks his campaign at the core. Either the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are lying, or John Kerry is lying. Certainly someone is lying.

John Kerry does have his "Band of Brothers," sailors and soldiers who served with him in Vietnam. However, his boat crew in the "Band" only served with him for the last two weeks of his tour, and the Swifties include a couple of Kerry's crew members who spent most of Kerry's tour under his command, who were along on the controversial occasions, and who dispute Kerry's account of those occasions. I can believe the "Band of Brothers" yet also believe the Kerry crew among the Swifties. It's like the story of the blind men describing the elephant: each person provides a different impression of the elephant's physical description based upon which part of the elephant they can reach. Similarly, I can believe Jim Rassman's sincerity in his telling of the events that led to his rescue by John Kerry yet also believe the skippers of the other Swift boats that were present; getting blown out of a boat, tossed into the water, stunned, and hearing the suppressive firing of numerous light and heavy machine guns (by the Swift boats in order to keep any potential snipers' heads down) would probably not leave one in the best state of mind to observe and understand what was occurring for a half-mile up and down the river.

I disagree with John McCain's assertion that the Swifties' ad, book, and tactics are "dishonest and dishonorable." Certainly Kerry's war record is part of his public record: Kerry has repeatedly emphasized his four months in Vietnam all out of proportion to his two decades in the Senate. It is arguable that Kerry owes his successful primary campaign over Howard Dean to his "Band of Brothers." If Kerry the man invented Kerry the legend, the public has a right to know, and to judge him accordingly. More important, the Swifties have earned their right to exercise free speech and McCain of all people should understand that.

The first crack in the Kerry armor appeared last week, when one of the charges leveled by the Swifties, that Kerry lied when he repeatedly claimed to be "5 miles inside Cambodia" on Christmas Eve 1968, was tacitly admitted to by the Kerry campaign. The story now is that Kerry was actually in Cambodia in either January or February of 1969. Of course, say Kerry supporters, Kerry didn't actually lie about this incident which was "seared in his memory" and repeated by him since the early 1970s. He just was mistaken about the date. Yeah, right.

Kerry could answer many of the Swifties' most devastating charges against him if he would just release his full military records, as he called on Bush to do during the brouhaha over Bush's service in the National Guard (and which Bush did). Why won't Kerry release his records?

Kerry's problems are just starting. Despite his campaign's best efforts, the story is gaining traction. The Cambodian flip-flop has boosted media interest. The New Yorker magazine has decided it will investigate the charges raised by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth extensively. Other news organizations are also looking into the story. If additional allegations against Kerry are proved true, the feeding frenzy will start and it won't be pretty. If the Swifties are telling the truth, their salvo may well end up sinking Kerry's campaign.

It's Not What We Don't Know...

"... that hurts us, it's what we do know that just isn't so." The quote is from Will Rogers, noted pundit of the mid-20th century, but it's just as applicable today.

Case in point: all of the badmouthing of the USA Patriot Act. According to some out there (such as all of the Democratic presidential contenders including the party's nominees for the ticket) passage of the Patriot Act has turned America from a democracy to a police state and shredded our Constitution. Of course, what the Kerry/Edwards ticket fails to mention is that they both voted for the Patriot Act!

It's been almost three years since the Act passed, and there is not one instance of rights abuse under the Patriot Act. Despite the claims of the doomsayers, the Patriot Act really did two things: it made the same laws that apply to the Mafia (racketeering) and drug traffickers apply to terrorism suspects, and it updated federal wiretap provisions to stay with current technology (mobile phones, email).

I don't have a problem if the next Al Qaida hijacking team will now have their cell phones monitored (after a court order has been applied for and provided), or if the next time we capture a suspected terrorist the FBI can examine the contents of his laptop computer and turn over any information to our intelligence services.

Since 9/11 there have been several publicized arrests of alleged terrorists. Some have been released, but many more have pled guilty (or have been convicted). We have not suffered another terrorist attack anywhere in the world (I don't include Iraq and Afghanistan because we are still militarily involved in these countries). We have seized bank accounts, broken up terrorist cells, and yet we are not rounding up all people of Middle Eastern descent and putting them into prison camps (as FDR did to Americans of Japanese descent during WWII).

In short, we are at war. We've been attacked by an enemy whose stated goal is the eradication of our country, our culture, and our predominant religions. The president and his administration have a very narrow row to hoe... protecting the country without throwing away the things that make our country great (our liberties). So far they've done an admirable job.

So, the next time you hear someone complaining about John Ashcroft or the Patriot Act and how bad and unconstitutional and un-American they all are... ask them to cite one instance of someone who has had their rights unjustly violated. Just one.

They can't do it, because it hasn't happened.