Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Editorial: Kerry and the swift boat snipers
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Two weeks into the face-off between John Kerry's campaign and a group of veterans organized to ambush his candidacy, the argument has turned to the fine details. Was the shrapnel taken from Kerry's arm a battle wound or just a scratch? Was Kerry's swift boat in Cambodia in December 1968 or February 1969? Was Kerry under hostile fire when he pulled Jim Rassman out of the river or was Kerry late in coming to a routine rescue?
Getting at the exact truth of these incidents, especially 35 years later, is likely impossible. If war stories couldn't be exaggerated, things would be awfully quiet at a lot of veterans' gatherings. The fog of war and the toll of years dims combat memories, but this has more to do with attack-dog politics than honest disagreements.
So far, Kerry's critics appear far more inconsistant in their stories than Kerry. Not only do their accounts contradict military records, they often contradict the critics' own previous statements. As more witnesses come forward, Kerry's version of the handful of events in question gets more backing. The "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is still getting a free ride in the conservative media, but it is increasingly clear that theirs is a smear campaign that has nothing to do with truth.
But the fact-checking exercise misses the point. If Kerry's Vietnam experience is relevant to the choice voters face Nov. 2 -- and we think it is -- what matters are the facts even Kerry's harshest critics don't dispute: He enlisted in the Navy on his own. After a tour of duty on a ship off the Vietnam coast, Kerry asked to be sent back to Vietnam, requesting swift boat duty, the most dangerous assignment the Navy had to offer. There, Kerry experienced three things most who haven't seen combat can only imagine: He had shots fired at him; he watched friends and strangers die; he killed at least one enemy soldier.
Combat experience is not required in a president, but having been in combat most certainly gives a commander-in-chief an important frame of reference. Unlike his opponent, Kerry knows first-hand the toll war takes. Kerry needs to do a better job explaining how that experience would guide his decisions should he reach the White House.
Kerry should also include in his Vietnam story other parts equally important to his political resume. He should defend his vocal opposition to the war, a mission that also involved courage and risk. His work decades later in getting answers to the questions about Vietnam MIAs and restoring diplomatic relations between former enemies show his involvement went far beyond four months captaining a swift boat.
With the U.S. again bogged down fighting an insurgency in a faraway place, the lessons of Vietnam are more relevant to this campaign than in any since the fall of Saigon. It's time the campaigns and the media stopped listening to the swift boat snipers and started focusing on the battles at hand.