Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Pathetic ... And Bound To Lose V: Choices

There has recently been something of a boomlet in articles pointing out that Senator Kerry has not released the records of his military service. Sometimes the observation is coupled with a suggestion that those records might show that the circumstances of his Purple Hearts and Silver Star are less than heroic. Frankly, the circumstances under which John Kerry served in Vietnam were - in the large - so immediately hazardous to him, that picking at the details of that combat record seems a lot more likely to be shameful to the pickers than it would be to Senator Kerry. Suppose, for example, such picking "revealed" that Kerry was thought to have experienced some periods of bad judgment in fire? At one point, for example, he left his craft to pursue a hostile combatant - leading to an expression of some exasperation from a superior officer. So what? So what if other, even more questionable examples of combat judgment can be identified? There can't be many more demeaning tasks than trying to second guess a junior officer in the heat of battle. As Oprah says: Let's not even go there, girl.

But some of those records might still be significant in evaluating some of Senator Kerry's non-combat choices in the Navy. For example, Lieutenant John Kerry served aboard 50-foot aluminum boats known as PCFs (from "patrol craft fast") or "Swift boats" (supposedly an acronym for "Shallow Water Inshore Fast Tactical Craft"). Although some critics of Kerry have (unfairly, in my view) asserted that Swift boat duty "wasn't the worst you could draw," Swift boat duty was plenty dangerous. But the unreleased records might be significant as a means of verifying claims made by Senator Kerry and reporters friendly to the Senator that the young man chose to leave the safe haven of his aircraft carrier for the danger of Swift boats. Was this a true choice? What other choices did John Kerry have at that point? Was he told that he could stay, safe and sound, on the carrier (the story he and his supporters tell) or was he told that he must "choose" from among several dangerous alternatives, Swift boat service being just one? The unreleased records might properly shed light on that kind of choice. Senator Kerry is rather mysteriously quoted by the Globe as describing one of "choices" this way: Kerry experienced his first intense combat action on Dec. 2, 1968, when he "semi-volunteered for, was semi-drafted" for a risky covert mission. What the heck does that mean? The Globe also notes:

Kerry initially hoped to continue his service at a relatively safe distance from most fighting, securing an assignment as "swift boat" skipper. While the 50-foot swift boats cruised the Vietnamese coast a little closer to the action than the Gridley had come, they were still considered relatively safe.

"I didn't really want to get involved in the war," Kerry said in a little-noticed contribution to a book of Vietnam reminiscences published in 1986. "When I signed up for the swift boats, they had very little to do with the war. They were engaged in coastal patrolling and that's what I thought I was going to be doing."

But two weeks after he arrived in Vietnam, the swift boat mission changed -- and Kerry went from having one of the safest assignments in the escalating conflict to one of the most dangerous.

Yet, Kerry supporters continue to maintain that he volunteered for dangerous service. Is that so? Did he have another chance to avoid dangerous service after he arrived in Vietnam? How else does one account for this passage, from the first of the same Globe series:

[Kerry] read a book about President Kennedy's World War II experiences on a patrol boat, PT-109, which one day would help inspire Kerry to volunteer for duty on a Navy patrol boat in Vietnam.

But the Globe say that Kerry volunteered for Swift boat service to avoid dangerous service at a time the swift boats ... had very little to do with the war.

The fact is that John Kerry has demonstrated a rather ugly habit of seriously misrepresenting himself and his major choices - and allowing others (especially at the Boston Globe) to do that favor for him, uncorrected by the Senator (and now the New York Times). There is, of course, his notorious decades-long impersonation of an Irishman in a state where that matters politically, an impersonation which the Globe substantially advanced, but where he now admits has no Irish heritage. Then there is this kind of coverage from the Boston Globe:

Kerry initially thought about enlisting as a pilot. But his father, Richard Kerry - a test pilot who served in the Army Air Corps - warned him that if he flew in combat, he might lose his love of flying. So Kerry, who sought in so many ways to emulate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, took to the water, just as his idol served on a World War II patrol boat, the 109.

This passage, and the entire Globe article in which the passage appears, completely omit all reference to the fact that at the time John Kerry made this Air Force/Navy decision, he was facing a draft into the Army, which his parole board had refused to extend so that he could study in Paris. The effect of the omission is to create the "he disagreed with the war, but felt he had a patriotic duty to join the armed services and go to Vietnam" myth that Senator Kerry has exploited so effectively throughout his political career. While the circumstances of John Kerry's joining the armed forces do not detract from his courage in combat, neither does his courage in combat imply that he joined the armed forces because he felt he had a patriotic duty to. The fact is, JFKerry - like WC Fields - had always wanted to see Paris, no doubt Philadelphia would do, but he was faced with a vastly less appealing choice by decision of his local draft board.

John Kerry's hero, the Irish-American JFK, provides an interesting parallel. There is no evidence that the real JFK sought to avoid military service - quite the contrary. But one might ask how did it come to be that a man with a bad back who was the son of a hugely wealthy and influential Democrat found himself commanding a PT boat in the middle of the Pacific war zone. JFK and his family and campaigns told the world that JFK has chosen to do that - also out of his sense patriotic duty. JFK had originally been given a desk job in Washington, from which he is said to have been extracted, sent to Charleston and eventually placed on PT-109 as a result of his sexual indiscretion - especially with the notorious and controversial Inga Arvad Fejos.

That JFK may have been sent to command PT-109 for reasons other than his naked choice does not detract from his valor in the line of fire. But, as a political matter, such a story would definitely have properly had a material effect on his electability and the degree to which one would admire him. A man who chooses to expose himself to danger out of patriotic duty and then comports himself well in the line of fire and is injured is simply more admirable than a man who is sent into danger and then comports himself well in the line of fire and is injured.

That's true for both JFK's.

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