John Kerry and Viet Nam: An Historian’s View

John Kerry and Viet Nam:

An Historian’s View

© Peter W. Dunn, 4 Sept 2004

As the debate of regarding John Kerry’s Viet Nam record  heats up, there seems to be a lack of overall historical perspective.  Parties on both sides are regarding evidence largely from an emotional view point, and it is therefore helpful to remind everyone that what we are examining is history–events that happened over thirty years ago.  As a person trained in the historical criticism of ancient sources, I would like to add my perspective to the debate.

Historians are supposed to be even-handed, but because history is not an exact science, historical studies often reveal as much the predisposition of  the historian as it does about the object of the study. There is no such thing as pure objectivity.  There is little ability to “prove” a point of view, only to create and test hypotheses. Nevertheless, a good historian tries to overcome his or her own prejudices and the biases of contemporary culture to assess and judge critically events in the past.  Good historians in the classic discipline abide by certain rules of historiography–in the light of these rules, I wish to discuss John Kerry’s Viet Nam record.

While there are many sub-rules, there are two chief criteria for the creation and evaluation of hypotheses which I value the most.  The first is the question of evidence:   Does the hypothesis take into account all of the data which is pertinent to the historical event in question?  Does the historian seem to be ignorant of or intentionally ignore certain data?  The second is Ockham’s razor:  hypotheses should not unnecessarily be built upon hypotheses; thus, the simplest solution is to be preferred.  But a caveat is in order:  An hypothesis may be too simple if it does not take into account all of the relevant data.  Finally, a word should be said about the reliability of sources.  Historical sources are almost always of human origin and are therefore fallible to varying degrees.  If reliable evidence external corroborates your source, then your source is probably reliable and can be trusted where corroborating evidence is unavailable.  The opposite is also true.  If reliable external evidence shows your source to be in error, your source may not be trusted when there is no corroborating evidence.

John Kerry as a source

I will take two examples of where we can test Kerry:  The first is the throwing of medals over the fence in protest.  Kerry is on the record as saying that he threw his own medals over the wall, including the bronze star, the silver star and three purple hearts. He is also on the record saying that they were not his medals but someone else’s (e.g., Slate, Boston Globe).  Historically, both versions of the story can’t be true.  It is easy to see why he would lie about this issue.  He has recently tried to portray himself as a war hero, and for that medals are necessary.  He has also tried to portray himself as the noble anti-war protestor, who was compelled to return awards given to him for the mistake of the Viet Nam War.  Thus, his desire to sketch two seemingly antithetical  portraits of himself has caused him to create two versions of the same story.

The second is the Christmas Eve account in Cambodia.  He has said on the record that he was in Cambodia on Christmas eve 1968 under Richard Nixon’s order being shot at by the Khmer Rouge. This event has been shown to be a complete fabrication, and now Kerry surrogates are saying that he was not in Cambodia on that day, but four times in January 1969 under the cover of secret missions.  No evidence regarding these later alleged events are available and we have only Kerry’s word.  It is curious that Kerry’s testimony is also guilty of a two serious anachronisms: the first is that Nixon (Republican) was not president on Dec. 24, 1968, but rather Johnson (Democrat) was; the second, we are told by experts, is that the Khmer Rouge could not have been involved in shooting at Kerry until two years later. It would seem that Kerry’s testimony was intended to discredit a Republican president and by extension other Republicans.

These are two examples of Kerry’s unreliability as an historical witness; there are many more, some even more ridiculous–such as his recent fib about a beloved dog named of all things “VC” which accompanied him on his Swiftboat.[1] But these two examples are illustrative and they compel me to conclude that he is an unreliable and tendentious source.  He heaps historical inaccuracies upon his recollection of false events.  If we apply the rule regarding the reliability of sources, we are forced to conclude that we can only trust Kerry where reliable corroborating evidence is available. If Kerry is the sole source, he cannot be trusted on face value. This is why it is necessary for Kerry to have all his military records released, since historians would be unable to evaluate the accuracy of his testimony regarding events leading to his receiving medals and awards without first seeing how those medals were awarded, who signed off on them, and upon whose testimony they were given in the first place.  If Kerry’s own field reports were the main source for the citations for his own medals, then their merit is deeply suspect.

Swiftvets as sources

It would be impossible without thousands of dollars in research funds to evaluate each of nearly 300 Swiftvets who have made statements for and against Kerry.  Undoubtedly, whenever dealing with so many eye-witnesses, the individuals are of varying historical reliability:  some will be good and others not.  But the cumulative weight of the number of witnesses suggests that their combined testimony may not be discounted without some compelling reason.

The Swiftvet testimony is worthy of our attention if only because Kerry himself is not a reliable source.  But there are reasons to see bias playing a role amongst the Swiftvets too.  In the case of Rassman, he evidently believes that he owes his life to Kerry.  Perhaps out of gratitude alone, he would not contradict Kerry; and we should not forget that the role that his friendship would play in creating bias in Kerry’s favor.  In the case of the 264 Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, they are clearly angry at Kerry for his testimony upon returning from Viet Nam which had the effect of depicting all US forces in Viet Nam as war criminals.  It is very easy to see why they would hate Kerry and wish to see harm done to his campaign for President.

As a result of Swiftvet TV ads, John Kerry has also recently accused these 264 men of being liars and lackeys for the Republican party.  Kerry’s further claim that they did not serve on his boat suggests that only the testimony of those who served directly under Kerry’s command and on his boat is germane, and all these vets consider Kerry a war hero. An historian must reject this claim.  Other swiftboats served in direct proximaty to Kerry’s boat, and therefore their crews were also eye-witnesses of the historical events in question.  They are also primary sources to the events and their testimony cannot be so easily dismissed.  Kerry once again proves his unreliability as an historical source, when he implies that these swiftvets were not eye-witnesses of his service in Viet Nam.

As an officer, Kerry may have also exerted an influence over his crew which could have clouded their judgment or inhibited their willingness to speak against him.  Those outside that influence also have great value if only because of their greater objectivity:  Suppose a father beats his wife and children.  Do you expect that family to bear testimony against him?  It is possible, but as likely as not, the family will hesitate to put their dirty laundry in public.  If Kerry himself is guilty of war crimes as he once claimed in testimony before the Senate, then members of his crew are accomplices and would therefore wish to protect Kerry.  An historian must seek different kinds of evidence–not only those under his command, but those who were outside that command and particularly those under whom Kerry served.

It is therefore telling that a significant majority of the surviving officers under whom Kerry served have denounced his service. To my knowledge, the thirteen veterans taking his side served under him or equal to him and would therefore see only one side of Kerry, and one might be able to conclude from this that as a leader Kerry is likable and able to inspire loyalty.  But Kerry’s own officers say that he was lazy, disloyal, self-serving and often unwilling to follow orders. This seems to contradict the meritorious service records signed by some of these same gentlemen.  These officers now claim that the signing of service reports recommending an officer for promotion is not the same as saying that this person is qualified to be President of the United States.  And besides, only those familiar with how to read such service records are able to interpret them correctly, and according to the Swiftvets, who are able to do so, even the records which Kerry has published on his website corroborate their many of their contentions regarding his character as an officer–to those on the outside they appear to be respectful, sometimes even glowing accounts, but those inside the high command were able to determine who were the best officers marked for accelerated promotion and who presented various kinds of problems.  Kerry’s commanding Swiftvet officers are now on the record saying Kerry is unfit to serve at that level, and they base their position not on service reports in need of scrutiny and interpretation, but upon their own observation of his service while in Viet Nam.  Primary sources of this nature in my view are formidable indicators of Kerry’s character as an officer in a chain of command.  It would be difficult to chalk up unanimity of these officers to partisan bias alone.

Finally, these Swiftvets have repeatedly challenged Kerry to sign the Form 180 which would permit the Navy to release all of his service and medical records.  They apparently do not fear that such evidence would contradict their version of the events.  Kerry has not released all of his service records.  One may only conclude that he is hiding something.  From an historian’s point of view it is necessary for all the records to be released to see if the accusations of the Swiftvets should be corroborated or dismissed on their basis.

Two Competing Hypotheses Tested

The first hypothesis regarding the historical event of John Kerry’s Vietnam record is that he was a war hero who served honorably and received wounds leading to three Purple Hearts which led to his early release.  This John Kerry volunteered for dangerous service and showed great courage and was therefore a recipient of a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.  Upon returning home, Kerry further proved his courage by standing up against an unjust and unnecessary war.  John Kerry is therefore qualified to be President of the United States.  This is the hypothesis of the Kerry campaign and the liberal media.

The second hypothesis regarding the historical event of John Kerry’s Vietnam record is that John Kerry came to Viet Nam seeking a quick exit from the war and that is why he sought the three Purple Hearts for superficial wounds which would assure his return stateside.  He, however, always had the ambition of becoming President of the United States and so he sought medals for courage and heroism as well.  He therefore falsified records in order to obtain medals for which he was not worthy.  He then returned to the United States and slandered his brothers who served with him by accusing them of war crimes. He also admitted to committing war crimes himself for which he was never charged.  John Kerry is therefore unfit for the office of Commander in Chief.

Perhaps on the surface of it, the first hypothesis seems to conform to Ockham’s razor the best. It is after all the simplest solution to the evidence of Kerry’s honorable discharge from the Navy and his numerous medals and citations. But those who hold this hypothesis must either ignore or dismiss the evidence of the Swiftvets.  This leads to a new, untested hypotheses upon which the first must stand: namely that the Swiftvets are lying and that they are lackeys for the Republicans.  We can’t take Kerry’s word that they are lying about Viet Nam, since Kerry is an unreliable source.  Nor on the surface do these men appear to be answerable to the Republican party.  It requires elaborate genealogies of connections and conspiracies to show that they are answerable to the Bush campaign and not independent as they themselves maintain.

The second hypothesis rests upon the testimony of 264 Swiftvets whose credibility is at least equal to that of John Kerry and therefore are worthy of at least the same kind of attention that Kerry’s hypothesis enjoys.  It rests upon the further hypothesis of John Kerry’s unscrupulous ambition to exalt himself to the office of President. John Kerry proves to be an unreliable and tendentious witness about his own Viet Nam record.  Kerry’s false testimonies tend to serve the furtherance of his political ambtions, and so there is nothing on the surface of things that would suggest that the Swiftvets are not telling the truth about his ambition to become president at the time, since they, unlike him, stand to gain nothing in terms of financial gain or political advantage.  Even the royalties for the book, Unfit for Command, will not go to the authors but to charity.  It is easier to believe that they are motivated by raw hatred for John Kerry; but such hatred would not entirely discredit their testimony, but rather should cause the historian to ask the question of why so many of his fellow Swiftvets hate him.  The historian must also ask why they would come out so strongly to discredit Kerry.  Their own reason is that they believe that Kerry presidency would be a disaster and that they are bound by principle and honor to denounce Kerry’s service in Viet Nam.  There seems to be no good reason to doubt their stated purpose.  They seem to be motivated entirely by an animus towards Kerry and are not at the same time trying to promote Bush for President.

Moreover, there is corroborating evidence for the hypothesis that Kerry was even 30 years ago thinking about the office of President: the 8mm film that Kerry took with him to re-enact the events of his heroism.  This film has been used in the propoganda of the Kerry Campaign to portray Kerry as a war hero.  Thus, an historian would connect the dots:  Kerry’s detractors say that Kerry filmed himself as a hero during his Vietnam days in order to use the film one day in his campaign.  Since Kerry has used the footage in his campaign, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Swiftvets are telling the truth about their observation of Kerry’s ambition.

Full disclosure of Kerry’s military records will tend to confirm one or another of the two hypotheses:  Kerry’s promise to disclose his records and yet his tacit refusal to do so tends to swing the balance towards the hypothesis of the 264 Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.  I mentioned Kerry’s refusal to release his records to a young friend who said to me, “If you are stopped by the police you don’t ask them to search the bag that has your stash of marijuana in it.”


Let us try to consider how good historians fifty years from now will view the John Kerry’s Viet Nam record.  They would be emotionally unattached to the presidential race of 2004.  How would they evaluate John Kerry’s service in Viet Nam and his subsequent anti-Viet Nam protests?  I think that future historians will be forced to conclude that Kerry was an unrealiable witness from the start and that even while in Viet Nam had the ambition of becoming president.  In addition, they would not be able easily to discount the testimony of so many of his fellow swiftboat veterans who served with him, 264 who believe that Kerry is unfit for office while thirteen say that he is.

Finally, I think historians will regard as specious John Kerry’s attempt to say that his four month service in Viet Nam affords him special attention for the office of President of the United States.  He has, after all, claimed that Viet Nam veterans, himself included, were commiting war atrocities as a matter of course.  The incoherence of John Kerry’s competing claims is astonishing.  Above all, a young officer who served on the front line is not thereby qualifed to be president.  Futher historians will probably have to conclude that Kerry’s attempt to portray himself the intrepid warrior was a smokescreen to hide his voting record as a Senator, which shows him to be weak on defense issues at a time when anxiety over terrorism was arguably the most important issue to voters.

Finally, I think historians will need to admit that the major media sources, with a few exceptions (e.g., Fox News, conservative talk-radio, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times), did not wish to examine the evidence of the Swiftvets and denounced it out of hand, by trying to associate them with the Bush campaign.  But this begs the question of Kerry’s own reliability:  even if the Swiftvets were helped and encouraged by the Bush campaign, however, their testimony is not of no worth to the historian: we cannot dismiss them because Kerry says they are liars.  And they are no more discredited because of alleged association with the Republicans than Kerry’s “Band of Brothers” can be because they campaigned in favor of Kerry.  John Kerry’s own claim to be a war hero must be examined against Swiftvets claims and against the official Navy records, if only because Kerry is an unreliable historical source. Journalists, according to surveys, are overwhelmingly in favor of Kerry for President and are thus trying to silence the Swiftvets to protect their preferred candidate.  But in ignoring the evidence of the Swiftvets while doing Kerry’s dirty work by attempting to discredit them, the “mainstream” media has shown unhealthy partisanship and has discredited its own reliability as a news source.  We can thus say that if the mainstream media is your only source of information, you cannot trust it.

[1] Kerry wrote:  “When I was serving on a Swift Boat in Vietnam, my crewmates and I had a dog we called VC.  One day as our Swift Boat was heading up a river, a mine exploded hard under our boat. After picking ourselves up, we discovered VC was MIA (missing in action). Several minutes of frantic search followed, after which we thought we’d lost him. We were relieved when another boat called asking if we were missing a dog.” There is no corroborating evidence of this story, neither of the mine that blew up or of the existence of the dog.  It appears to be complete fabrication to win the sympathy of animal-loving voters.  See http://www.washingtontimes.com/functions/print.php?StoryID=20040825-120324-7732r (article no longer available—pwd 8 Nov 2007).


1 Comment »

  1. Potential presidents gotta be good salemen first. What are they sellin’? Themselves, of course.

    If they could sell you on them being a hero, they have it made in the shade.

    George Bush junior? That leather bomber jacket really made him out to be the cat’s meow. Not the party boy in college he was known to be.

    Can’t blame Kerry for trying. That’s what he does. They all try to sell their own selves.

    Comment by Sola Yeshua — October 14, 2011 @ 12:10 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: