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imperialism & war selection 2004

Kerry in Vietnam: war hero or war criminal?

Yes, this is the same Kerry who today is calling for 40,000 more U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq.

In his senior year at Yale in 1966, John Kerry enlisted in the U.S. Navy, with his actual induction scheduled for the summer after his graduation. Despite this commitment, Kerry kept a vigilant eye on the political temperature and duly noted a contradiction between his personal commitment to go to war and growing antiwar sentiment. At the graduating ceremonies he made a fiery denunciation of the war and of LBJ. Then Kerry presented himself for military service.

After a year's training and a spell on the USS Gridley, Kerry reassignment was to the Swift boat patrol. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong's Tet offensive had prompted a terrible series of search and destroy missions by the United States, plus the assassination program known as Phoenix. As part of the U.S. Navy's slice of the action, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and his sidekick, Captain Roy "Latch" Hoffman, had devised "Operation Sea Lords," in which the Swift boats would patrol the canals and secondary streams of the Mekong Delta, with particular emphasis on the areas near the Cambodian border. The basic plan, explicitly acknowledged by many Swift boat veterans, was to terrorize the peasants into turning against the National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong (V.C.). The entire area, except for certain designated "friendly villages," was a free fire zone, meaning the Americans could shoot at will and count anyone they killed as V.C.

Day after day, night after night, the Swift boats plied the waters, harassing and often killing villagers, fishermen and farmers. In this program, aimed at intimidating the peasants into submission, Kerry was notoriously zealous. One of his fellow lieutenants, James R. Wasser, described him admiringly in these words: "Kerry was an extremely aggressive officer, and so was I. I liked that he took the fight to the enemy, that he was tough and gutsy -- not afraid to spill blood for his country."

(Douglas Brinkley's recently published and highly admiring bio, "A Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," offers many telling vignettes to an assiduous reader. It's based almost entirely on Kerry's diaries and letters of the time.)

On Dec. 2, Kerry went on his first patrol up one of the canals. It was near midnight when the crew caught sight of a sampan. The rules of engagement required no challenge, no effort to see who was on board the sampan. Kerry sent up a flare, a signal for his crew to start blazing away with the boat's two machine guns and M16 rifles. Kerry described the fishermen "running away like gazelles."

Kerry sustained a very minor wound to his arm, probably caused by debris from his own boat's salvoes. The scratch earned him his first Purple Heart, a medal awarded for those wounded in combat. Actually, there's no evidence that anyone had fired back or that Kerry had been in combat. He got two more Purple Hearts, both for relatively minor wounds. Indeed, Kerry never missed a day of duty for any of the medal-earning wounds.

Craving more action, Kerry got himself deployed to An Thoi, at Vietnam's southern tip, one of the centers for the lethal Phoenix sweeps and the location of a infamous interrogation camp that held as many as 30,000 prisoners.

Christmas Eve, 1968, finds Kerry leading a patrol up a canal along the Cambodian border. The Christmas ceasefire has just come into effect. They spot two sampans and chase them to a small fishing village. The boat takes some sniper fire (or at least Kerry says it did).

Kerry orders his machine-gunner, James Wasser, to open up a barrage. At last there's a note of contrition, but not from Kerry. Wasser describes to Brinkley how he saw that he'd killed an old man leading a water buffalo. "I'm haunted by that old man's face. He was just doing his daily farming, hurting nobody. He got hit in the chest with an M-60 machine gun round. It may have been Christmas Eve, but I was real somber after that ... to see the old man blown away sticks with you." It turned out that Kerry's boat had shot up one of the few "friendly" villages, with a garrison of South Vietnamese ARV soldiers, two of whom were wounded.

Contrast Wasser's sad reflections with Kerry's self-righteous account in his diary of such salvoes, often aimed into Cambodian territory. "On occasion we had shot towards the border when provoked by sniper or ambush, but without fail this led to a formal reprimand by the Cambodian government and accusations of civilian slaughters and random killings by American 'aggressors.' I have no doubt that on occasion some innocents were hit by bullets that were aimed in self-defense at the enemy, but of all the cases in Vietnam that could be labeled massacres, this was certainly the most spurious."

It's very striking how we never find, in any of Kerry's diaries or letters cited by Brinkley, the slightest expression of contrition or remorse -- and Brinkley would surely have quoted them had Kerry ever written such words. Nor did Kerry, in his later career as a self-promoting star of the antiwar movement, ever go beyond generalized verbiage about accidents of war, even as many vets were baring their souls about the horrors they had perpetrated.

When Kerry was awarded his Silver Star (in one episode he had it pinned on by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and at the ceremony had the opportunity to meet Commander Adrian Lonsdale, the operational commander of Seas Lords), Kerry seized the chance to criticize the conduct of the war: "What we need, Sir, are some troops to sweep through the areas and secure them after we leave; otherwise we're just going to be shot to hell after we go through, and there'll be nothing gained."

Yes, this is the same Kerry who today is calling for 40,000 more U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq.

Nader 27.Mar.2004 00:11

George Bender

The next task is to get Nader on the Oregon ballot. To do that we need to get 1,000 registered voters together in one place at the same time. Join us on April 5, 6 p.m., Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave. It's free. If you're not already registered to vote you can register there.


It's really easy to be an armchair quarterback 27.Mar.2004 10:19

My name will alter context of this argument

It's really easy for anybody who has never been in combat or even military training to judge another man for his actions in the same. If you did not attend the vietnam, or even any other war you have absolutely no right to criticize or conjecture. (because conjecture is a lot of what your article is) Regardless of how neatly coherent and accurately quoted a story from a reliable source is in war: WAR is the most irrational process a human being can go through. It is a process, and everyone from the bomb stricken civilian to ground pounder who dutifully carries out orders to the general giving them from his bullet proof helicopter would tell you the same. It is horrible and insane. If you have never been in a combat situation, you should be loath to be a critic. Most survivors of war are the most ardent anti-war activists.
Thus, Kerry's anti-vietnam protests. And his voting to send more troops, so the ones over there can get a break and have more protection. You miscontrue the entire situation because you obviously have no military background. I challenge you on that.

ex-military paratrooper, combat veteran
son of vietnam veteran and survivor of WWII bombings

thanks for telling me what my rights are 27.Mar.2004 13:20


"you have absolutely no right to criticize"

Sounds just like the Bush administration. I guess we can't criticize Bush because we're not all Skull and Bones multi-millionaires.

Yes, we should all be aware of our experiences and when people have had drastically different experiences, but we should reject the notion that people have had to experience all things first hand to be able to comment on them.

Look us in the eye and see who we are today before you judge 27.Mar.2004 14:03


I never met Senator Kerry even though our time in country overlapped. And by his accounts we were in the same waters. As a PBR boat captain we provided some to the same support. As mentioned above a clinical account of actions is easy. Combat is confused, disorienting and while time presents the illusion of moving slower little is clear or in focus. That same Christmas we were in combat in a friendly area. There are few friends in combat. If you can't call them by name beware. War does make most survivors anti-war. Said much better long ago there is NO HONOR OR GLORY IN WAR. Said by me there is no shame in surviving. Go on is what we must do. KERRY is no more a warmonger than any young scared man wanting more than anything to come home alive. Tet had too goals. To push the sentiment in the US to force a stop to our involvement and to sacrifice as many of the VC as possible so when the North prevailed the VC would not have enough numbers to be a political force. The NVA was successful in both respects. I know who I was then. I know what I did then. I know who I am now and what I do now. Lets look at him for what he is today. Not sure I will see what I like but I am willing to look. Some have used similar arguments to justify genocide or the holocaust. This was not mass murder. Some got scared and shot first. Some innocents were killed. Some seemingly innocent were killers on both sides. Most of us just wanted to come home alive. Judge us by who we are today. We will sleep well tonight because men and women of the armed forces are willing to do violence to those who would do us arm. Not said by me but said well.
Thoughts from A
Husband, Father, Grandfather, Survivor, Veteran and I hope your friend in that order.

spanky 27.Mar.2004 15:33

Tony Blair's dog

"We will sleep well tonight because men and women of the armed forces are willing to do violence to those who would do us arm."

No, we will NOT sleep well tonight because men and women of the armed forces are willing to do violence to those countries who would not freely hand over their natural resources to the corporations funding the recent U.S. "president".

If you really want to stay safe from "those who would do us arm" you do not steal and kill in other countries.

And most important of all, you never, ever, try to force your cultural "values" on other people. Because, no matter how OK "your" "way of life" feels, it is NOT the "right" way of life for others.

Not understanding cultural differences is the surest way of making a fool out of oneself.
Trying to force all people into the same mold is the goal of corporations wanting to be able to sell the same shit to everyone through the same marketing campaigns.

There is a reason why greed is listed as one of the seven deadly sins.

Conservative destortion 03.Jul.2004 14:16


This documment is a distortion of fact.

Kerry, Swifts, Neos, Liars 06.Aug.2004 09:42


Lessee. A psycho CO obscessed w/body counts ORDERS artrocities. Kerry obeys orders, improvises tactics, saves lives. Kerry is NOT career Navy, Kerry does not 'get along'. Kerry questions tactics, gets rebuked as 'anti-war'. Kerry gets out of the Nam with medals and a million dollar wound (so far, so good).

Kerry outs Hoffman and O'Neil as war criminals. Oopsy, that's bad. Somebody has to be right, somebody has to be wrong. Enter Chuck Colson, Nixons' born again hatchet man. Colson kick starts O'Neils' group. Swifties limp along untill the election year. Nobody cars about psycho vets, UNTILL they're useful to the GOP, then look what happens;

"Until now," he adds, "Hoffmann has been best known as the commanding officer whose obsession with body counts and 'scorekeeping' may have provoked the February 1969 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at Thanh Phong by a unit led by Bob Kerrey -- the Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Nam, became a U.S. senator from Nebraska and now sits on the 9-11 Commission."

Conason says that Spaeth is not "as well known as" Karen P. Hughes but yet is "among the most experienced and best connected Republican communications executives. During the Reagan administration she served as director of the White House Office of Media Liaison, where she specialized in promoting "news" items that boosted President Reagan to TV stations around the country. While living in Washington she met and married Lezar, a Reagan Justice Department lawyer who ran for lieutenant governor of Texas in 1994 with George W. Bush, then the party's candidate for governor. (Lezar lost; Bush won.)"

(End of Conason quote)

So, it seems, the GOP is solidly backing this smear. Some of the highest, most expereinced GOP tactical media staff are involved. They are working 'pro bono' to advance these half truths to the level of acceptable news.

I am at a loss to find printable words to describe O'Neils actions. My experience; I was enlisted, I served three tours, I had a hard time with it. The biggest threat wasn't the enemy, it was these crazed, ambitious, 'Apocalypse' types. Now, today, rather than face their criminal and insane actions in country, they (O'Neil, Hoffman) continue to pursue a fantasy redition of what 'really happened'.

Even so, even in the face of this perfidity, I still say, "Let the truth come out!" If O'Neil, Hoffman and the others want to criticise, lets get all the facts. It's going to be brutal. It's going to be hot. One way or the other, it will define the candidates. It will define the parties.

It may redefine, 'decency'.

thank you! 19.Aug.2004 20:39

dr. mag

I was a kid/teenager during Vietnam--graduated high school 1971. I learned through high school debate research how absurd the war in Vietnam was. I was not sold on Kerry till I learned what he did during AND after the war. I thank and bless all of you for your posts, and hope more of those who were there will contribute.
I hated the war but completely respect the soldiers who fought it.
And I really respect those who saw how wrong it was and came back to protest it.

Disingenuous 28.Aug.2004 18:11


"Yes, this is the same Kerry who today is calling for 40,000 more U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq."

Yes, Kerry wants more Green Berets in service. Not just more meat, more boots on the ground, but nore counter-insurgency specialists. You need more people who speak the language, eat the food, and shoot the weapons everyone else has.

That's the best counter-insurgency solution anyone can come up with. Of course the best counter insurgency is don't piss anybody off. Now, if we get a foreign policy that even comes close to respecting the morals, feelings, and faith of the people we're dealing with, we'll probably piss a lot less folks off. That, in turn will mean less dead kids for us, and a whole lot more money to spend on roads, schools, churches, offices and factories.

So, yes, I like Kerrys' proposals. What's not to like?