You’ll find what may be the most level-leaded and rational explanation of the whole ugly mess in an article cited by Joseph Bosco in a wonderful post. I realize that all of us, myself included, are reeling with Swift Boat fatigue, but this is an absolute must-read. A sample:
Put aside the claims that John Kerry doesn’t deserve his Vietnam medals–claims debunked in newspaper after newspaper, claims that, as the Los Angeles Times recently editorialized, “no informed person can seriously believe.” Put aside the question of whether John Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, as he has (probably incorrectly) claimed. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes, Kerry’s diaries say he was “patrolling near the Cambodian line” on that day. (At least one of his crewmates says it was “very hard to tell.”) Does that distinction really constitute an important campaign issue?
The medals and the Cambodia charges are partisan hack stuff, cynically repeated in service of the greater Republican good. What genuinely upsets conservatives–including conservative veterans–is something different. First, conservatives think it’s hypocritical for Kerry, who denounced the war, to now take credit for having fought in it. As The Wall Street Journal editorialized this week, Kerry has “managed the oxymoronic feat of celebrating both his own war-fighting valor and his antiwar activities when he returned home.” But what’s oxymoronic about that? What Kerry “celebrates” is that he volunteered for Vietnam–and served heroically–when elites (including Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle, and George W. Bush) were finding ways not to go. That’s noble, even if Kerry thinks the war itself was not. And, if Kerry is a hypocrite for having served in a war he opposed, what about Dick Cheney–who avoided serving in a war he supported?
The second thing that genuinely angers conservatives–including some of Kerry’s fellow swift boat captains–is that he called the war immoral. Kerry began his famous 1971 Senate testimony by recounting the recent Winter Soldier Investigation, in which soldiers spoke of atrocities they had committed. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s latest anti-Kerry ad intersperses his graphic descriptions of those atrocities (without explaining that he was paraphrasing firsthand accounts) with outraged veterans saying his testimony “betrayed us” and “dishonored his country.”
What the ad doesn’t argue, however, is that Kerry’s charges were false. It merely suggests he was unpatriotic for leveling them.
There is much more there, including what to make of the claims Kerry committed “atrocities.” When I say “read the whole thing,” I really, really mean it.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.