Why do we keep refighting Vietnam?

The Swift Boat Controversy

August 26, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - What if both sides are right? That thought comes to mind repeatedly as I try to hash out the battle between veterans who attack John Kerry's Vietnam War combat record and those who defend it.

Out of the fog of war, politics and old memories, long-ago events have become the focus of an ugly election-year mud fight as a group of Swift boat veterans and others contend that Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, didn't deserve the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded.

Watching and reading various conflicting accounts of what happened or didn't happen, of how brave Mr. Kerry was or wasn't, and how much he was hurt or not very hurt, I'm struck by one consistency: how his crews and others who were closest in proximity to Mr. Kerry during the war give the most support to Mr. Kerry's side of the stories.

A striking example emerged at the Chicago Tribune when William B. Rood, an editor on the metropolitan desk who was another Swift boat commander in the operation that led to Mr. Kerry's Silver Star, broke a 35-year silence to support the official account of Mr. Kerry's heroics in leading a 1969 attack against an ambush along the Dong Cung River. "The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us," Mr. Rood wrote in Sunday's Tribune. "It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue."

Indeed, even those who were present during the actions in question seem to come away with differing accounts of details, such as whether there was hostile fire or whether Mr. Kerry was hurt by enemy fire or fragments from his own grenade launcher. But anyone who knows the courage it took to ride those 50-foot aluminum Swift boats up and down the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta would have a hard time arguing that it did not take tremendous courage simply to report for duty every day.

As President Bush said Monday, distancing himself from the Kerry attacks, "I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be proud of his record."

So why are we chewing over a decades-old war when we should be hashing out more current issues? The easiest answer is that it's between national political conventions, and August is typically a slow month for news.

And, of course, Mr. Kerry brought this dust storm on himself by making his war record a central theme in his political campaign. In a crowded Democratic field, his dimming chances in the Iowa caucuses re-ignited after Jim Rassman, whose life Mr. Kerry saved in Vietnam, reappeared in Mr. Kerry's life to endorse him at a campaign rally.

I suspect the real quarrel of Mr. Kerry's critics is not with his war record but with his post-combat peace movement record. He was a prominent leader in protests by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He recounted before Congress in 1971 that he had heard stories of American soldiers who had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads," etc.

A lot of Vietnam veterans felt betrayed by Mr. Kerry's testimony, although I have talked to others who were grateful that he exposed national leaders who the vets felt had betrayed them. Mr. Kerry more recently has acknowledged that some of those horror stories were later discredited, but he has not backed away from his central message that it was not the soldiers but the nation's Vietnam-era leaders who should be held accountable for the war's atrocities.

He has a point. As we later learned, projects such as the Phoenix counterinsurgency program authorized the use of brutal tactics against enemy combatants and sometimes civilians who got in our way in Vietnam's "free-fire zones." Such are the ugly memories that make Vietnam a hot, divisive topic that will haunt the baby boomer generation forever.

Why are we refighting Vietnam? Because its questions remain unsettled in our national conscience. Now Mr. Kerry's big battle will involve turning the debate around from what he did during the war to what he can do to avoid more wars like it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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