Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 13, 2004
POLITICS: Hopefully But Almost Certainly Not The Last Post About Bush's and Kerry's Service Records
As recently as five days ago, this, from Kevin Drum, was the motto of the Left in dealing with the dueling stories about (1) whether George Bush was given preferential treatment in joining the Texas Air National Guard and whether he fulfilled his service requirements to the TANG and (2) whether John Kerry earned bogus medals to get an early trip home from Vietnam:
As it turned out, of course, the documents Drum was discussing in that post were crude forgeries. Even apart from that, however, Drum is way off base in his analysis, as I'll discuss below. Now, we get a different tune from Matt Yglesias, who's been an unlikely bitter-ender in the forged-documents debate:
A third perspective comes from this comment by Oliver Willis (scroll down; it's in the comments section) that pretty well sums up the mindset of Willis, the rest of the Media Matters crowd and their ilk:
(You can see a similar approach in this DNC email and press conference Friday morning after the 60 Minutes documents had been fairly well exposed as frauds). Well, let's start with Drum's and Yglesias' points about the burdens of proof. And let's recognize the basic truth about these stories:
1. George W. Bush was paid by the TANG for a sufficient number of drills to meet all requirements, and was given an honorable discharge in 1973.
2. John Kerry was awarded three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star by the United States Navy, was granted permission to leave Vietnam early, and was given an honorable discharge from the Navy Reserves in 1978.
So before we go talking about documents and witnesses, let's recognize that the official records of both the TANG and the Navy reflect decisions made at the time to credit Bush with the service and Kerry with the honors they claim today. So of course, the burden of proof is on their accusers, especially given that there is (now that the Killian memos have been revealed to have been frauds) no sign that anyone questioned Bush's service prior to, I believe, his 1994 race for governor of Texas, and that most (though not all) of the questions about Kerry's medals were aired for the first time in 2004. How do those cases stack up?
The AWOL Story
I've about beaten this one to death and I won't revisit all the links here. But a critical theme that runs throughout coverage of this issue by people who actually have some experience serving in the Guard or the Reserves (which are two different animals, of course, but share some important similarities) is that irregular periods of service and spotty records are not all that unusual. For example, we have no shred of evidence that John Kerry ever drilled with the Navy Reserves between 1970 and 1972, when he was still an officer. For more detailed and thorough perspectives on this, see McQ of QandO here and here as well as A View From The Flight Deck. Each of these guys stresses a critical point: it's in the nature of the Guard for service requirements to be flexible. The purpose of the National Guard is not drills; the purpose is to have people you can call up for varying types of service if needed. Making the drill requirements flexible is, in fact, a good way to accomodate the work schedules of people who - as all Guardsmen do - have other jobs. That tends to be misunderstood by people who (1) haven't served themselves and (2) think of Vietnam-era Guard service as some sort of benefit that had to be paid for in drill time. It took some time, I must confess, for me to grasp that point as well.
At the end of the day, the critics of Bush's record have a tough time arguing that the TANG was somehow duped into giving Bush an honorable discharge, since this basically amounts to proving a negative - specifically, that he wasn't where he claims he was, at the base in Alabama, on the days in question. But there are a number of witnesses who do remember Bush's service in Alabama, including this new one noted by Captain Ed today:
Copeland, 65, remembers meeting Bush on two occasions. He does not remember the precise dates. On one occasion, Copeland said, Bush and Lt. Col. John "Bill" Calhoun came to Copeland's office with a question about Bush's pay. Copeland is not sure, but he believes the question had to do with where to mail Bush's checks.
Read the whole thing. As I said, the burden of proof is on those who would argue that the TANG didn't know what it was doing when it granted Bush an honorable discharge. Simply saying that the records are not complete is not enough to carry that burden. As for Yglesias' point about the Killian memos, let's not forget a key dynamic in both of these stories: neither Bush nor Kerry likely spends much time personally involved in these issues. To add to that, the Bush White House generally likes to let things simmer a bit in the blogosphere/talk radio/NR/WSJ universe before jumping on an argument. My assumption is that the press people were just expected to talk around these documents, and Bush himself (the only guy in the White House with any relevant personal knowledge) wasn't ever going to look at them unless the thing blew up big time.
The Swift Boat Story
As Drum's post indicates, the general tendency on the Left has been to just dismiss the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as liars and avoid getting into the details. It's certainly true that some of the Swifties' claims have been overwrought and others have included factual assertions that are contradicted by some documents. Neither of these facts should be surprising, however, given that the men involved have lingering anger against Kerry and are, in many cases, just now revisiting events of 35 years ago:
That was then. After their opening news conference, the veterans ? most of whom had not seen one another in 35 years ? began talking among themselves about their memories of Kerry. They read Douglas Brinkley's hagiographic war biography, Tour of Duty, and found descriptions of events they didn't recognize. They compared notes. And their point of view changed. They came to question what Kerry had done, not just after leaving Vietnam, but while he was serving alongside them. In particular, they came to question some of the cornerstones of Kerry's Vietnam record, the engagements in which he won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. The result of that questioning was a book, Unfit for Command, written by the group's main spokesman, John O'Neill.
That's from Byron York's summary and analysis of the Swifties' charges in the latest issue of National Review; it's available on the web only to NR Digital subscribers, but I'd highly recommend it as a concise and even-handed analysis of the central factual issues. Another terse summary can be found in this "30 Questions" list (link via Kaus), and a much more detailed analysis of the attacks on Kerry's medals (though not his now-infamous claim to have spent Christmas 1968 in Cambodia) was assembled here by some readers of Captain's Quarters. ( Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard also had a decent but less comprehensive roundup a few weeks ago).
The bottom line? Well, the "Christmas in Cambodia" story decisively discredited Kerry's original account, and it seems unlikely that Kerry would have gone into Cambodia without the knowledge of any of his boatmates, fellow Swift Boat skippers or commanding officers, not one of whom to my knowledge has corroborated his story; it was also apparently not done, at least in the time before Kerry left Vietnam in March 1969, to send big, noisy swift boats on clandestine missions to drop off CIA agents. Nobody has found any record of swift boats being used in this way, even 35 years later when many of the details of secret missions in Cambodia are far less secret. Still, it remains unclear whether there is any shred of truth to Kerry backers' revised theory that maybe he was in Cambodia at some later date. Unlike the medals and AWOL issues, there are no Navy records of any kind supporting Kerry having done what he says he did.
The medals? Some of Kerry's medals are for real heroism: There's no serious question about Kerry's second Purple Heart, and you can nitpick, as a military matter, about Kerry's Silver Star, but as to the latter the controversy seems to keep coming back to Kerry shooting a guy who'd shot at his men with a rocket launcher in the back, and to me that's a good thing even if the guy was a teenager in a loincloth. Maybe that's not quite Silver Star material, but that's for the Navy to decide, they did, and I don't see a point in second guessing it. The same goes for inside-baseball debates about the wisdom, in combat terms, of Kerry's decision to beach his boat. That leaves two other controversies:
Kerry's First Purple Heart
The eyewitness accounts on the central issue (whether Kerry's wound suffered on December 2, 1968 was the result of enemy fire or whether there was no enemy fire that night) are fairly muddled - Kerry's defenders have some points on their side in arguing that William Schachte, Kerry's immediate superior, may not have been on the boat that night, although the idea that Kerry was on a training mission with no one there to train him seems a bit implausible - and the few available documents (most are missing or nonexistent) are most decidedly not in Kerry's favor, particularly his journal a few days later saying "we" hadn't been shot at yet. But the really damning thing for Kerry on this one is the fact - undisputed, as far as I've been able to tell - that his commanding officer, Grant Hibbard, refused to grant him a Purple Heart at the time, and yet Kerry seems to have re-applied for one later when no one involved in the incident was still around to object. It's not clear exactly when he re-applied, but the medal was awarded in late February 1969, timing that's more consistent with the idea that he was hatching a plan to use the three-and-out rule to go home, since all three of his Purple Hearts were awarded in a span of about 20 days. Here's John O'Neill, in an interview with John Hawkins of Right Wing News:
Our contention is both his first and third Purple Hearts were fake. He invoked the 3 Purple Heart rule to leave Vietnam 243 days early. None of these involved any injury that required even an hour of hospitalization. None of these involved any kind of real injury.
The timing and the fact that Hibbard denied the medal the first time around give this story enough juice, in my mind, to overcome the burden of the fact that the Navy eventually awarded the medal. In fact, the Kerry campaign has made some noises about conceding the possibilty that the medal was improperly awarded, although as usual with the Kerry people I couldn't tell you what their position on that is at this moment. We may never know who is right about whether there was enemy fire that night, although it would help if Kerry would release his records so we could find out if there is anything else there on this engagement.
The Bronze Star and the Third Purple Heart
Both of these decorations were awarded to Kerry on the basis of action on March 13, 1969; almost as soon as the medals were awarded, Kerry took advantage of the three-Purple-Hearts rule to get out of Vietnam, itself a decision that irritates some of his fellow swift boat comrades but doesn't really raise the blood pressure of most of us who haven't walked a mile in those shoes.
The story of the Bronze Star, endlessly repeated in the Iowa primaries, is basically that (1) Kerry returned his boat to the scene of an ambush, (2) under heavy fire, and (3) by so doing saved the life of Army Special Forces officer Jim Rassman. The he-said-she-said aspects revolve around Kerry's account - including that embodied in the official Navy report, which Kerry appears to have written - and Rassman's vs. those of the other swift boat captains. But Rassman, by his own account, was under water during most of the engagement and not in a position to guage the location of the various boats or tell the difference between hostile and friendly fire.
Which is significant, because most of the case against Kerry's account rests much more heavily on physical evidence than on uncorroborated points of testimony by his accusers, notably the facts that (1) the other boats were, in fact, quite close enough to pick Rassman out of the river themselves (as they were essentially stationary after one boat, PCF-3, was disabled by a mine) and (2) since only one of the boats sustained any bullet holes and no one was shot (and there's some debate over whether the three bullet holes were even from that day), the heavy fire described by Kerry is fairly impossible; large boats in a narrow canal are huge targets. Similar issues arise with Kerry's claim that his own boat hit a mine, which according to the Swifties is inconsistent with the physical evidence.
On this one, I'm reserving judgment until I get my copy of Unfit for Command (it's shipping slowly; the Wall Street Journal's best seller list shows three times as many copies sold as any other non-fiction book last week), because the devil is in the details. But nothing I've read seems to offer much of a persuasive rebuttal to the various points noted by the Swifties; the most the critics have done is point to the three bullet holes and to poke at the credibility of the witnesses. Of course, witness credibility is a far less significant issue when testimony can be corroborated.
Kerry's third Purple Heart is tied up with this incident. By his own accounts, it appears that Kerry sustained self-inflicted wounds earlier in the day from throwing a grenade at too-close range into a rice bin. But York, at least, contends that Kerry may nonetheless have merited a Purple Heart due to a contusion on his arm sustained during the Rassman incident.
Without new records from Kerry, the Swift Boat story is unlikely to advance any further in either direction, but at this point there's no incentive for Kerry to do that. On the present record, I have to give credit to two of the Swift Boat Veterans' charges - against the "Christmas in Cambodia" story and the first Purple Heart - and essentially call a draw pending further analysis on the Bronze Star and third Purple Heart. As I've indicated repeatedly before, the relevance of all this is dubious - Kerry did serve, and in highly hazardous duty, and nobody questions this (least of all the other swift boat veterans) - although the Cambodia thing is more significant because (1) it appears that Kerry may have spent years retailing a wholly false story and (2) he used it in policy debates and not just as campaign background fluff. But to use the Swift Boat Veterans as an example of a group throwing wholly unsubstantiated mud, as Kerry's defenders have repeatedly done, is just severely misleading and doesn't square with a detailed appraisal of their charges.