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.

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