WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The television ad that aroused the wrath of John McCain and journalist supporters of John Kerry just begins deconstruction of the Democratic presidential candidate's war record. "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," a 214-page critique of his performance in Vietnam and the antiwar movement, is off the presses ahead of schedule.
I have read the book and found it is neither the political propaganda nor the urban legend that its detractors claim. It is a passionate but meticulously researched account of how Kerry went to war, what he did in the war and how he conducted himself after the war. The very serious charges by former comrades deserve answers but so far have produced only ad hominem counterattacks.
Why should details of what Kerry did more than 30 years ago be part of this election campaign? Only because the senator has made them integral to his strategy. Kerry as war hero received more attention at the Democratic National Convention than plans for the future. Thus, what he did in his shortened four months of combat becomes a valid campaign issue.
John E. O'Neill, co-author of "Unfit for Command," replaced Kerry as commander of Swift Boat PCF 94 in 1969 and has been confronting him since 1971. O'Neill told me he is no George W. Bush partisan and probably would have supported John Edwards had he been nominated for president, but is committed to keeping Kerry out of the Oval Office. Thus, reversing the usual formulation, the assault on Kerry is personal but not political.
O'Neill told me neither he nor his co-author (Jerome R. Corsi, a writer and expert on the Vietnam antiwar movement) has had contact with the Bush White House or the Bush-Cheney campaign. He said he and Corsi, on their own initiative, went to conservative Regnery Publishing to offer the book.
The co-authors paint Kerry as a reluctant warrior. Contrary to claims by Kerry's supporters that he served two combat hitches in Vietnam, his one-year term aboard a guided missile frigate was far from action. His four months in the brown water navy were terminated eight months early by a third Purple Heart wound, none of which required hospitalization.
The book's strength is the vehemence of testimony by swift boat veterans, alleging that Kerry "gamed" the system to win decorations and later betrayed comrades by charging war crimes. Typical is the quote by Bob Hildreth, commanding an accompanying boat: "I would never want Kerry behind me. I wouldn't want him in front of me, either. And I sure wouldn't want him commanding our kids in Iraq and Afghanistan." Some 200 "Swiftees" on May 4 signed a letter to Kerry demanding full release of his service records.
The book's weakness is support for Kerry's presidential campaign by his swift boat crewmates, presumably people who knew him best. O'Neill told me that these former sailors served with Kerry no more than five weeks. Jim Rassmann, now part of the Kerry presidential campaign, was a Special Forces lieutenant spending a few days with Kerry when he fell or was knocked off the swift boat while under fire and was fished out of the Mekong River by the future candidate.
The "band of brothers" was organized by Kerry, according to this book. It tells of a 2003 telephone call to Adm. Roy Hoffmann, who commanded swift boats in Vietnam, telling him he was running for president. Hoffmann, mistakenly thinking it was former Sen. Bob Kerrey, "responded enthusiastically." Once the admiral realized it was John Kerry, "he declined to give Kerry his support." Hoffmann is quoted as saying, "I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States."
"Unfit for Command" sends a devastating message, unless effectively refuted. Perhaps most disturbing are allegations that Kerry's combat decorations are unjustified. His first Purple Heart, the book alleges, was accidentally self-inflicted. His commander, Grant Hibbard, is quoted as saying: "I didn't recommend him for a Purple Heart. Kerry probably wrote up the paperwork and recommended himself." Full release of documents demanded by his critics could settle this claim quickly if it is unwarranted.