Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
The Swift Vets have done the damage they set out to do. By hurling unsubstantiated charges against John Kerry and accusing him of somehow obtaining medals for his Vietnam service that he did not deserve, this Republican-financed band of anti-Kerry veterans succeeded in making their questions about Kerry a media issue, and that accomplishment probably has affected how some voters view Kerry. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accomplished their get-Kerry mission even though the group could not prove many of its key accusations and the official record generally confirmed Kerry's account. (See my scoop on how Navy records undermined one of the Swift Vets' main allegations.) After losing skirmish after skirmish on the details--while perhaps winning the battle by shifting public opinion--the Swift Vets quickly changed course to attack Kerry for the antiwar activism he engaged in after returning from Vietnam, and that is their current focus.
But the group is still taking its shots at Kerry's combat record. Yesterday, John O'Neill, the Swift Vets leader who coauthored its primary indictment of Kerry, Unfit for Command, pointed to what conservatives have touted as a recently discovered document to substantiate one of the Swift Vets' original accusations: that Kerry has misled the public about the combat incident that occurred on February 28, 1969 and that earned Kerry his Silver Star. Claiming vindication, O'Neill crowed to the New York Post that the document shows Kerry "was pursuing a wounded man and not charging alone into superior numbers and intense fire," as his Silver Star citation claims. The Post headlined its article, written by Deborah Orin, as "New Kerry Medal Flap."
The problem for O'Neill and the Post is, this document--an after-action report written by Kerry--is not a new find. Kerry aides have been handing it out to reporters for several years. A Boston Globe columnist wrote about it in 2000. (The Kerry campaign says that this report was inadvertently left out of the war records posted on the campaign's website.) And there is another problem for O'Neill: this particular record also happens to undermine O'Neill's account of the Silver Star incident--as does another Navy record that came out recently but has been largely overlooked.
In the book promoted by the Swift Vets, Unfit for Command, O'Neill and coauthor Jerome Corsi (who was sidelined by the Swift Vets after news reports disclosed he had made anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments), zeroed in on the Silver Star incident in their effort to brand Kerry a phony. Kerry's citation for that medal notes that on that day Lt. Kerry, captain of Patrol Craft Fast 94, was in tactical command of a three Swift boats on the Dong Cung River. When all three boats came under "intense automatic weapons and small arms fire from an entrenched enemy force less than fifty feet away," according to the citation, Kerry "unhesitatingly" ordered the boats to charge the enemy and fired back. "This daring and courageous tactic surprised the enemy and succeeded in routing a score of enemy soldiers," the citation says. It then notes that Kerry's Swift boat and the Swift boat piloted by Lt. William Rood Jr. went up river to suppress enemy fire and again encountered enemy fire, with a B-40 rocket-launched grenade hitting Kerry's boat. Kerry again ordered a charge and beached his boat. Kerry then went ashore "in pursuit of the enemy," and the landing party he led uncovered an "enemy rest and supply area" that they destroyed. While ashore, Kerry chased down a Viet Cong who was armed with a rocket launcher, and he killed the man. The citation does not mention that part of the counterattack, but it refers to the "extraordinary daring and personal courage" displayed by Kerry "in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire."
In their book, O'Neill and Corsi claim "what happened that day differs from the retelling in the citation" and that Kerry did not engage in conduct that warranted a Silver Star. They note that Kerry's boat was not the first to beach in the ambush zone, and they write, "After the first boat beached, Kerry's boat moved slightly downstream and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in its aft cabin." They also maintain "there was little or no fire after" the first boat beached. O'Neill and Corsi say that the enemy soldier Kerry chased and killed was a "young Viet Cong in a loincloth...clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded," who was already wounded. The pair also dismiss this episode for being preplanned by Kerry as an effort to win a medal.
On August 22, William Rood, now an editor at the Chicago Tribune, published an article in his newspaper about what happened on the Dong Cung River. It was the first time Rood had addressed the matter publicly. Before doing so, he had been called by Kerry, who asked him to speak out. Rood's account backed up Kerry's citation. He noted that before this mission, Kerry had indeed discussed with him and Lt. Don Droz, who commanded the third boat, the option of responding differently than usual to an ambush. Swift boats routinely encountered ambushes in this area, and they generally fired back and kept moving. Kerry suggested that if they hit an ambush they should turn their boats toward the enemy, beach the boats, and fight back. Rood and Droz agreed. According to Rood, on the day of this particular ambush, after Kerry gave the order to "turn 90" all "three boats roared in on the ambush. It worked." Then Kerry ordered his and Rood's boat upstream where there was another ambush and another counterattack ordered by Kerry. "Again it worked," Rood wrote. And according to Rood, the VC soldier Kerry chased on shore was a grown man wearing traditional VC garb (not a "loincloth") and that Kerry returned holding a loaded B-40 rocket launcher.
When Rood published his account, it was a blow to the Swift Vets. O'Neill called Rood's article "an obvious political move." O'Neill defended his book's account of the Silver Star episode by claiming it "mirrors almost identically" to the accounts in other books, including Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty. But Brinkley's book does not contend--as does O'Neill and Corsi's book--that there was little or no fire after the first boat beached, that the order of beaching was significant, or that after the first ambush Kerry's Swift boat merely drifted down stream. O'Neill and Corsi's intent is to diminish Kerry's conduct. Rood's article disputed their characterization. And his recollections are supported by the citation for the Bronze Star he was awarded for his part in this operation.
His citation--which was posted by the Chicago Tribune yet drew little notice--says that the three Swift boats commanded by Kerry, Rood and Droz "came under a barrage of enemy small arms fire from the river bank" and "immediately responded and charged the Viet Cong positions, taking the enemy under devastating fire." It continues, "The Viet Cong, caught completely off guard by this tactic, stood up and began running from their positions. The fleeing Viet Cong were taken under fire by the three Patrol Craft Fast and three enemy were killed prior to the insertion of [Vietnamese] Regional and Popular Force troops." The citation does not distinguish between the Swift boats in terms of the order in which they beached. According to this account, they each participated in the daring counterattack.
Next, the citation says, Kerry's and Rood's boats "moved upstream to investigate an area from which gunshots were coming. Arriving at this area, both of the Patrol Craft Fast came under heavy enemy automatic/semi-automatic weapons fire from well fortified positions along the river bank." This account undercuts O'Neill and Corsi's assertion that Kerry and his crewmates encountered "little or no fire" following the first counterattack. It also shows that O'Neill and Corsi left out a crucial element of the tale, for the citation reports that Kerry and Rood again turned their boats and "charged directly into the enemy fire while summoning" Droz's boat to "come to the area and provide additional firepower." Then the three boats "saturated the area with gunfire and placed assault parties ashore in pursuit of the fleeing enemy." O'Neill and Corsi do not mention this second charge.
Nor do they note the additional attacks mounted against Kerry's boat and the two others. Rood's citation says that after the assault parties had returned to the three Swift boats--that is, after Kerry had killed that Viet Cong holding the B-40 launcher--"these craft again came under a hail of enemy fire, this time from the opposite river bank. Again, the three Patrol Craft Fast poured withering fire into the enemy positions and then cleared the area." But that was not the end of it: "Later...the Patrol Craft Fast were again taken under enemy fire. The three craft returned fire and silenced the enemy."
When you're done reading this article,visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Bush's most recent campaign-trail fibs, the flap over Bush's Air National Guard service, and Kitty Kelley's new Bush-bashing book.
O'Neill, as far as I can tell, has not commented publicly on Rood's citation, which was signed by Vice Admiral E.R. Zumwalt Jr. But after syndicated television commentator Mark Hyman, a conservative, posted the after-action report on this mission written by Kerry, O'Neill declared that his criticism of Kerry had been confirmed. But neither he nor Hyman seemed to realize that this after-action report--which Hyman obtained from Navy archives--has been in public circulation for years.
What excited O'Neill and Hyman was that the report notes that the enemy soldier killed by Kerry was wounded. The relevant--for them--portion reads:
"PCF 94 beached in center of ambush in front of small path when VC sprung up from bunker 10 feet from unit. Man ran with weapon towards hootch. Forward M-60 gunner wounded man in leg. [Kerry] jumped ashore and gave pursuit while other units saturated area with fire and beached placing assault parties ashore. [Kerry] chased VC inland behind hootch and shot him while he fled capturing one B-40 rocket launcher with round in chamber."
Hyman claims this report contradicts Kerry's depiction of this incident. "For more than 30 years," Hyman said in a commentary, "Kerry has portrayed a heroic version of a life and death struggle--of staring down a suspected guerilla who was about to fire upon Kerry's swift boat." But the document contradicts nothing. It does indicates that Kerry had a dramatic encounter with an enemy soldier (a man who jumped out of a spider hole ten feet away from the boat), that the Viet Cong soldier was able to flee, and that he was carrying a loaded weapon. In Brinkley's Kerry-friendly Tour of Duty, Kerry crewmate Michael Medeiros is quoted saying that this surprised enemy soldier tried to prepare his rocket launcher to fire at their boat but that he was too close to arm his weapon in time and ran off. And according to Brinkley's account, the man was hit by fire from the Swift's M-60. "The guy fell down," Medeiros said, "but he got back up with the B-40 rocket launcher in hand....[A]nd he ran down this little trail."
In their book, O'Neill and Corsi claim that Kerry shot the fleeing VC "in the back," yet this after-action report does not specify how or where the man was shot. Hyman noted that the after-action report calls into question "the Silver Star Kerry was awarded for killing a Vietnamese man." But Kerry's Silver Star citation only refers glancingly to this piece of the action, merely saying that Kerry "personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy." It does not cite Kerry's killing of this soldier. The Silver Star was awarded to Kerry for his actions during the entire mission.
Moreover, this after-action report corroborates much in the medal citations for Kerry and Rood--and contradicts O'Neill and Corsi's rendition of this episode. It notes that when the first ambush occurred, each of the three Swift boats--including Kerry's--"charged [the] ambush completely." It notes that Kerry's boat and Rood's boat then moved down the river to investigate reports of enemy gunshots, that "both units received heavy small arms fire," and that Kerry again ordered another counterattack. And according to this after-action report, the three boats did receive additional enemy fire after leaving the site of the second ambush--which the report characterized as a location "of considerable tactical importance" because the "area was major VC supply point and waystation for infiltration."
In their account, O'Neill and Corsi downplay the entire operation and make it seem that Kerry did little more than arrange a stunt designed to win him a medal. They give him no credit for ordering an untraditional move and participating in the initial counterattack. O'Neill and Corsi diminish the threat Kerry and his comrades faced by denying there was significant enemy fire. And they leave out entire parts of the story that are inconvenient for their anti-Kerry purposes.
The article Rood wrote was an effective counterattack to the Swift Vets' assault on Kerry's Vietnam record. But Rood's Bronze Star citation goes even further in rebutting O'Neill and Corsi's characterization of the Silver Star episode. And so does the not-so-new after-action report being hyped by O'Neill, Hyman and the Post. Once again, official records do not support charges made by the Swift Vets. With their book, O'Neill and Corsi were firing blanks, but, unfortunately for Kerry, those rounds still caused plenty of harm.
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