John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi's book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry is divided into two parts, each with five chapters. O'Neill is the author of Part I, "John Kerry in Vietnam." Corsi appears to have written Part II, "Antiwar Protester." This review is a detailed rebuttal/debunking of Part I followed by a few comments on Part II. Each element of the smear is exposed, chapter by chapter, from deliberate omissions and distortions to red herrings and outright lies.
Unfit for Command uses John Kerry's honesty about his experience in the Vietnam war against him. He kept a detailed journal and wrote long letters home to his friends and family. These materials from the period, like military records from the period, are what historians call "primary sources." O'Neill's answer to this powerful documentary evidence is that Kerry "invented a 'war hero' persona ... intended to advance his future political ambitions." [p. 51] The essential flaw (among many) in O'Neill's argument is that he denies the truth that, like all combat veterans, Kerry was changed by his experience in the war.
The lynchpin of the book's argument is the claim that Kerry wrote the Navy after-action "spot" reports for each of the missions that resulted in his medals. It is true that he was the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) for the operation that led to his Silver Star. According to the basic order for normal operations, the OTC was responsible for the spot reports. Kerry had been at An Thoi longer than the other two PCF (Patrol Craft, Fast) Officers in Charge (OinCs), Donald Droz and William Rood. As a result, he had the most practical experience navigating the rivers in the area and it makes sense that he would have been OTC that week, even though both Droz and Rood had been in Vietnam longer than Kerry. They appear together in the photograph above, taken at the medals ceremony on March 6, 1969. Since Kerry was OTC, he would have been responsible for the spot reports, but it doesn't matter. There were at least 25 Americans there that day. Not one of them has ever disputed any aspect of the account presented in the reports or any of the other contemporary documentation surrounding the operation. As for the spot report from the mission that resulted in Kerry's other medal for valor, the Bronze Star, there is no reason whatsoever to think that Kerry would have written it. Indeed, there are good reasons to think that he did not. Larry Thurlow was the OTC and thus responsible for its content. Moreover, George Elliot, the commander of Coastal Division 11, was directly involved in the mission.
Don Droz graduated at the top of his class from the United States Naval Academy. He was OinC of PCF-43 when it was destroyed in an ambush on April 12, 1969. He and two other men were killed. To learn more about him, see the film by his daughter, Tracy, Be Good, Smile Pretty, and the statements by his widow, Judy. [New York Times] Droz and Kerry were friends in Vietnam, and he was present for many of the actions that O'Neill calls into question. He was there at Cam Ranh Bay after Kerry departed for An Thoi. He might have known how and why Kerry's first Purple Heart was awarded. There can be no question that he would have strongly objected to Roy Hoffmann's lies about Kerry's Silver Star award, since he was there along with Rood, Charles Gibson, and Peter Upton, the other Naval officers present, all of whom have come forward in no uncertain terms to defend the mission. Nor could Adrian Lonsdale have so easily denied meeting with Droz and Kerry, since Droz was also there. Nor could Thurlow have so easily gone along with Elliot's disgraceful attempt to shirk responsibility for the spot report and other Navy documentation with regard to the mission that would result in Kerry's Bronze Star, since Droz and PCF-43 were, again, there.
The book that started the controversy, Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, does not always clearly identify the sources for the Kerry quotations and paraphrasing woven into the narrative, making it difficult for the reader to assess the material. Tour of Duty would be stronger if Kerry's Vietnam journal were presented intact. It is the primary source here, a basic historical document that is overshadowed by Brinkley's narrative. Nor is Brinkley much interested in the tactical details of the missions. He does not provide a single map or chart. For an analysis of the Sealords campaign, see William McQuilkin's SEALORDS: A Front in a Frontless War. For an up-to-date bibliography, see Edwin Moise's Vietnam War Bibliography: The Naval War. For a set of detailed maps, see Jim Henthorn's Maps of South Vietnam.
John Kerry still carries shrapnel in his thigh. The fact is that each of his wounds met the "heat of battle" standard for a Purple Heart. He was lucky. As he put it, "We learned that pieces of metal flew at one indiscriminately. One time they could land in flesh and one could laugh. The next time it would be the brain or the eye." [Brinkley, p. 220] Nonetheless, the issue that resonates most with veterans stems from the fact that Kerry chose to accept a "thrice-wounded" reassignment based on his wounds. He has never ducked this question. In his 1971 debate with O'Neill, he explained it as follows:
"The fact of the matter remains that after I received my third wound, I was told that I could return to the United States. I deliberated for about two weeks because there was a very difficult decision in whether or not you leave your friends because you have an opportunity to go, but I finally made the decision to go back and did leave of my own volition because I felt that I could do more against the war back here." ["Debating Kerry"]
Kerry was wounded for the third time on March 13, 1969. He departed An Thoi on March 26. ["Coming Home"] He did not abandon his unit when he left—his crew was dismantled and he made sure that the two men who were not going home were reassigned to safer duty elsewhere. One can disagree with Kerry's reason for his decision to leave Vietnam early, but there is no reason to question his honesty about his motives or his loyalty to his crew, then or now.
A lot has been made of the photograph of a group of Coastal Division 11 officers outside Saigon on January 22, 1969. [swiftvets.com] Unfit for Command shows only Skip Barker in support of Kerry. Since the book's publication, the authors have acknowledged that Rich Baker and Rich McCann also support him. In addition, Michael Bernique went on the record in 2003, saying, "John was a very courageous man. If you wanted someone to watch your back, John was the man. He was one hell of a leader." [Brinkley, p. 373] Bernique opposed Kerry's presidential bid in 2004 because of his 1971 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations [Part II], not because of anything that happened in Vietnam. In fact, Bernique severed his ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth precisely beause he was not willing to participate in the misrepresentation of Kerry's military record. How many of the other men in the photograph feel the same way?
More importantly, the photograph doesn't include the enlisted men who served with Kerry. They are overwhelmingly in favor of him, ten to one.* These are the men who best knew him as a commander. O'Neill describes them as "a handful of crewmen" [p. 8] who were "swayed by Kerry during his many post-Vietnam years of solicitation aimed at gaining the support of his crew." [p. 72] Not only is that a lie, but it also disrepects these veterans, all of whom volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Most returned home to civilian life. Where would the admirals and captains that form the core of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth be, were it not for the enlisted men who fired their guns, drove their boats, and operated their radar? When I roll my mouse over the photograph, I see Kerry, Baker, Barker, and McCann with a caption mocking them as "John Kerry's Band of Brothers ..." What's wrong with that picture?
John Kerry has not forgotten the enlisted men who served with him, but the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have!
* Thomas Belodeau, a Massachusetts native, died in 1997, but he actively defended Kerry against similar attacks in his 1996 campaign for Senate, so I have counted him here. [Boston Globe, October 28, 1996] [Belodeau_eulogy.pdf]