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Kerry In Vietnam

by Alexander Cockburn

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kerry can be found describing his role in free fire zone attacks in a June, 1971 debate on the Dick Cavett Show currently being rebroadcast on C-SPAN, where he says participants in Operation Sea Lords -- including hinself -- committed war crimes as defined by the Geneva Conventions.

In his senior year at Yale in 1966, John Kerry enlisted in the U.S. Navy, with his actual induction scheduled for the summer after his graduation. Despite this commitment, Kerry kept a vigilant eye on the political temperature and duly noted a contradiction between his personal commitment to go to war and growing antiwar sentiment. At the graduating ceremonies he made a fiery denunciation of the war and of LBJ. Then Kerry presented himself for military service.

After a year's training and a spell on the USS Gridley, Kerry reassignment was to the Swift boat patrol. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong's Tet offensive had prompted a terrible series of search and destroy missions by the United States, plus the assassination program known as Phoenix. As part of the U.S. Navy's slice of the action, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and his sidekick, Captain Roy "Latch" Hoffman, had devised "Operation Sea Lords," in which the Swift boats would patrol the canals and secondary streams of the Mekong Delta, with particular emphasis on the areas near the Cambodian border. The basic plan, explicitly acknowledged by many Swift boat veterans, was to terrorize the peasants into turning against the National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong (V.C.). The entire area, except for certain designated "friendly villages," was a free fire zone, meaning the Americans could shoot at will and count anyone they killed as V.C.

Day after day, night after night, the Swift boats plied the waters, harassing and often killing villagers, fishermen and farmers. In this program, aimed at intimidating the peasants into submission, Kerry was notoriously zealous. One of his fellow lieutenants, James R. Wasser, described him admiringly in these words: "Kerry was an extremely aggressive officer, and so was I. I liked that he took the fight to the enemy, that he was tough and gutsy -- not afraid to spill blood for his country."

(Douglas Brinkley's recently published and highly admiring bio, "A Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," offers many telling vignettes to an assiduous reader. It's based almost entirely on Kerry's diaries and letters of the time.)

On Dec. 2, Kerry went on his first patrol up one of the canals. It was near midnight when the crew caught sight of a sampan. The rules of engagement required no challenge, no effort to see who was on board the sampan. Kerry sent up a flare, a signal for his crew to start blazing away with the boat's two machine guns and M16 rifles. Kerry described the fishermen "running away like gazelles."

Kerry sustained a very minor wound to his arm, probably caused by debris from his own boat's salvoes. The scratch earned him his first Purple Heart, a medal awarded for those wounded in combat. Actually, there's no evidence that anyone had fired back or that Kerry had been in combat. He got two more Purple Hearts, both for relatively minor wounds. Indeed, Kerry never missed a day of duty for any of the medal-earning wounds.

Craving more action, Kerry got himself deployed to An Thoi, at Vietnam's southern tip, one of the centers for the lethal Phoenix sweeps and the location of a infamous interrogation camp that held as many as 30,000 prisoners.

Christmas Eve, 1968, finds Kerry leading a patrol up a canal along the Cambodian border. The Christmas ceasefire has just come into effect. They spot two sampans and chase them to a small fishing village. The boat takes some sniper fire (or at least Kerry says it did).

Kerry orders his machine-gunner, James Wasser, to open up a barrage. At last there's a note of contrition, but not from Kerry. Wasser describes to Brinkley how he saw that he'd killed an old man leading a water buffalo. "I'm haunted by that old man's face. He was just doing his daily farming, hurting nobody. He got hit in the chest with an M-60 machine gun round. It may have been Christmas Eve, but I was real somber after that ... to see the old man blown away sticks with you." It turned out that Kerry's boat had shot up one of the few "friendly" villages, with a garrison of South Vietnamese ARV soldiers, two of whom were wounded.

Contrast Wasser's sad reflections with Kerry's self-righteous account in his diary of such salvoes, often aimed into Cambodian territory. "On occasion we had shot towards the border when provoked by sniper or ambush, but without fail this led to a formal reprimand by the Cambodian government and accusations of civilian slaughters and random killings by American 'aggressors.' I have no doubt that on occasion some innocents were hit by bullets that were aimed in self-defense at the enemy, but of all the cases in Vietnam that could be labeled massacres, this was certainly the most spurious."

It's very striking how we never find, in any of Kerry's diaries or letters cited by Brinkley, the slightest expression of contrition or remorse -- and Brinkley would surely have quoted them had Kerry ever written such words. Nor did Kerry, in his later career as a self-promoting star of the antiwar movement, ever go beyond generalized verbiage about accidents of war, even as many vets were baring their souls about the horrors they had perpetrated.

When Kerry was awarded his Silver Star (in one episode he had it pinned on by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and at the ceremony had the opportunity to meet Commander Adrian Lonsdale, the operational commander of Seas Lords), Kerry seized the chance to criticize the conduct of the war: "What we need, Sir, are some troops to sweep through the areas and secure them after we leave; otherwise we're just going to be shot to hell after we go through, and there'll be nothing gained."

Yes, this is the same Kerry who today is calling for 40,000 more U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor March 24, 2004 (

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