Friday, October 15, 2004

Nightline: Very Clever, But Not Very Smart

Tonight's (14 Oct 04) Nightline featured an "investigative piece" on the controversy over John Kerry's Silver Star award. For those of you who haven't read "Unfit for Duty" here's the deal: John Kerry received a Silver Star (the Navy's fifth highest award) for his actions on February 28th, 1969. The SwiftVets allege that the award was the result of an inflated combat report written by Kerry himself, and that the true story of the incident is not something for which someone should receive a highly-regarded award such as the Silver Star. Here's how Nightline told it:
On Feb. 28, 1969, a convoy of three American Swift boats came up the river under the command of Lt. John Kerry, arriving at the village of Tran Thoi. According to Kerry's medal citation, the boats "came under intense automatic weapons and small arms fire from an entrenched enemy force less than 50 feet away. Unhesitatingly, Lieutenant [junior grade] Kerry ordered his boat to attack."

The Swift boats, which were transporting a group of the Americans' South Vietnamese allies, turned into the ambush and beached. According to the after-action report, the South Vietnamese troops stormed ashore, overwhelming the local insurgents.
But there's more:
According to the Navy's official report, following the initial ambush, Kerry's boat, PCF 94, and another Swift boat continued up the river to an area where gunshots had been reported.

Less than a kilometer upriver is Nha Vi, a small hamlet. Vo Van Tam, now 54, was a local Viet Cong commander during the war. According to him, the area was a hotbed of guerrilla activity. They had recently been reinforced by a 12-man unit, supplied with small arms and one B-40 rocket launcher. He said the reinforcements had been dispatched from provincial headquarters specifically to target the Swift boats.

According to the citation for Kerry's Silver Star, when the boats approached the hamlet, "a B-40 rocket exploded close aboard PCF 94" — Kerry's boat. He "personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy," the citation says, before commending Kerry's "extraordinary daring and personal courage" for "attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire."

That account is disputed by Swift boat veteran John O'Neill, author of "Unfit for Command," who maintains in his book that the statement "is simply false. There was little or no fire."
What Ted Koppel and ABC News fail to tell you is that John Kerry's account as explained in two books for which he was the source ("Tour of Duty" and "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best" which I'll refer to as the "Globe biography") back up the SwiftVets' version and are in complete contrast with the version ABC obtained from Vietnamese "eyewitnesses" during their trip to Vietnam. In fact, the ABC/Vietnamese version differs from that of John Kerry in several important instances. Again from Nightline:
According to the after-action report, after beaching the Swift boat, Kerry "chased VC inland, behind hooch, and shot him while he fled, capturing one B-40 rocket launcher, with round in chamber."

None of the villagers seems to be able to say for a fact that they saw an American chase the man who fired the B-40 into the woods and shoot him. Nobody seems to remember that. But they have no problem remembering Ba Thang, the man who has been dismissed by Kerry's detractors as "a lone, wounded, fleeing, young Vietcong in a loincloth." (The description comes from "Unfit for Command," by Swift boat veteran John O'Neill.)
A break here, to point out that this basic description—a wounded youthful fighter wearing only a loincloth who is fleeing—is also given in "Tour of Duty" and the Globe bio. So, it would have been fair and factual to say that everyone except the Vietnamese agree on this issue. Having clarified that, let's continue with the Nightline story:

"No, this is not correct," Nguyen Thi Tuoi, 77, told ABC News. "He wore a black pajama. He was strong. He was big and strong. He was about 26 or 27."

Tuoi said she didn't see Ba Thanh get shot either, but she and her husband say they were the first to find his body. They say they found him a good distance from his bunker, though she could not confirm that Kerry — or anyone else — had pursued him into the bush.

Her husband, Nguyen Van Ty, in his 80s, had a slightly different account of how Ba Thang died.

"I didn't see anything because I was hiding from the bullets and the bombs," he said. "It was very fierce and there was shooting everywhere and the leaves were being shredded to pieces. I was afraid to stay up there. I had to hide. And then, when it was over, I saw Ba Thanh was dead. He may have been shot in the chest when he stood up."
There are a lot of discrepancies between the Vietnamese/Nightline version of events and the Kerry-authorized version of events, much less the SwiftVets' version of events. Here's a quick encapsulation:

The Vietnamese version leans against proving Kerry shot the wounded VC. The villagers all say that Ba Thang, the purported name of the dead enemy combatant, ran "a good distance" before dying and any evidence of a final shot from Kerry was inconclusive at best. "He [Ba Thang] may have been shot in the chest when he stood up." Kerry's version claims that the VC sprinted around the back of a 'hootch' (primitive shack) and Kerry followed him, dispatching the still-alive and armed enemy. My take: sounds like the Vietnamese and Kerry are talking about two different guys.

The Vietnamese version differs from Kerry's version over details of the enemy VC. The Kerry-authorized Globe bio states "Out of the bush appeared a teenager in a loin cloth, clutching a grenade launcher." That agrees with the SwiftVets and the "Tour of Duty" version. The Vietnamese disagree. "No, this is not correct," Nguyen Thi Tuoi, 77, told ABC News. "He wore a black pajama." My take: again, sounds like the Vietnamese and Kerry are talking about two different guys.

Here's some things I don't understand:

Why on earth would anyone voluntarily give up cover and mobility—the Swift boat—to go running around in the jungle? It should be obvious to anyone that there was a reason for the Navy's discouraging people from beaching their boats and turning into infantry: it separates sailors from their floating pillbox and puts them at a tactical disadvantage to any dug-in enemy onshore. Let's extend this thought: why on earth would anyone, under intense enemy fire, jump off a Swift boat and run after a wounded and fleeing enemy when the obvious thing to do would have been to shoot him? The answer is: Kerry was not under intense enemy fire. The Vietnamese version has all of the bad guys hunkering down due to the intense incoming fire (outgoing from the Swift boat point-of-view).

Why on earth wouldn't a VC equipped with a loaded rocket launcher fire a shot at a Swift boat that was very close, and choose to run away instead? John Kerry and his crew were very lucky that day, and Kerry was very foolish. There is nothing inherent to the design of the Soviet-supplied RPG-7 launcher tipped with a B-40 anti-tank warhead that would have precluded the VC from taking a shot at very close range, and the shaped charge would not have unduly threatened the VC... certainly not as much as a Swift boat crew behind all of their weapons. It makes me wonder if the VC was, in actuality, the one who fired the rocket and initiated the ambush, and when Kerry's boat charged in right at the smoke trail he was taken by surprise and failed to reload... and that's why he ran. But again, this is all hypothesis and based on the facts I have to assume that Kerry did what he did.

The reason the SwiftVets have brought this story up is because they feel Kerry's real actions (as opposed to the after-action report version) do not warrant the award of a Silver Star. They claim that this incident is one of many that fit a pattern of an officer who was desperate to make a name for himself and who wanted decorations that would be useful in a later political career to the point of inflating his actions to receive medals that he would otherwise not be considered for. They are not claiming that Kerry was a coward in this incident—just that his actions on the ground didn't meet up with what they allege to be his embellished after-action report.

I don't understand why ABC went all the way to Vietnam. What did they really uncover? Ted Koppel spent much of the post-story interview with John O'Neil (of SwiftVet fame) asking O'Neil why the Vietnamese "eyewitness" version differs from the SwiftVets' version—and Koppel felt that quoting John Kerry was no defense. Isn't it obvious to Koppel that if the Vietnamese were right, then Kerry was lying?

O'Neil was angry, and in my opinion justifiably so, at Koppel's attitude of assuming the Vietnamese version was the truth by which all other versions must be measured. O'Neil kept stressing that the Vietnamese have a picture of Kerry hanging up in their War Museum where Kerry is given credit for helping the North Vietnamese achieve victory, and so why anyone give the Vietnamese version any credibility over that of Kerry himself? Koppel doesn't get it (or doesn't choose to get it); the SwiftVets are using Kerry's version to discredit Kerry. O'Neil should have told Koppel that, if he did have a problem with the details of Kerry's story, then Nightline should have gotten Kerry on to defend himself.

O'Neil did urge Koppel to investigate the other SwiftVets claims (Christmas in Cambodia, the Rassman/Bronze Star incident, the Purple Hearts, Kerry's meeting with North Vietnamese officials in Paris while still a commissioned officer in the US Navy, etc.). Koppel's response: maybe, if we have time to do it later. Sheesh... they can send a producer and TV crew to the boonies in Vietnam but they can't even take the time to sit down and interview people in the United States? Who are they fooling? ABC's goal was to kill the SwiftVets once and for all... and they failed. Koppel's closing commentary about how ABC felt compelled to tell the story regardless of which way the facts went was not very convincing, and came across as an excuse for a failed hit piece against the SwiftVets and John O'Neil.

And finally, I do think the Vietnamese version was less than truthful, yet in many ways supports the SwiftVets main charge: Kerry was not under intense enemy fire and so didn't deserve the Silver Star. Recall a VC saying "It was very fierce and there was shooting everywhere and the leaves were being shredded to pieces. I was afraid to stay up there. I had to hide." The heroic Viet Cong soldier with the rocket launcher couldn't be a frightened teen (as so many of them were), forced into the Viet Cong, ill-trained, malnourished, and scared to death. Instead he was a mid-20s 'hero of the people' who was big and strong and well-equipped with an issue VC uniform. There was no evidence of any US bravery. And of course, the heroic Vietnamese people fooled the imperialists by stealing a lot of US weapons and hiding them where Kerry overlooked them and they're still hidden under the garden in the village! Sure... then why didn't they dig one up for the TV cameras?

The show came across as a badly-executed attempt to "get" the SwiftVets and John O'Neil, to convince the public that the SwiftVet allegations are false. Instead, O'Neil called Ted Koppel on it, pointed out repeatedly that attacking the SwiftVet version was also attacking Kerry's version, and challenged Koppel to examine the SwiftVet charges fairly and impartially (to which Koppel replied maybe, if they have time).

Why won't ABC's Nightline or some other mainstream news organization go after the SwiftVet story? There's got to be a Pulitzer Prize to the reporter who, once and for all, destroys either the SwiftVets or John Kerry. I used to think it was a conspiracy. After watching Nightline I believe it's laziness and sheer incompetence.

No comments: