Men Without Honor–The Most Bizarre Campaign
Becomes the Most Revolting
For a while we could have some fun with this presidential campaign, laughing at, not with, these two Yale frat boys and their improbable running mates. But the Swift Boat Affair is just down right sleazy–on both sides.
You have to say the Democrats opened the door. The liberals have long blasted administration "chicken hawks," such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, heading up the present war effort after successfully dodging any military service of their own. Early on they conducted high profile investigations into Bush’s dubious Vietnam era service record in the Texas Air National Guard. By the time of the Iowa caucuses just about everyone in America knew Kerry had three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and had rescued a fellow sailor at great personal risk. You had to figure that some rain was eventually going to come down on this long parade.
As Yogi would say, Bush might be dumb but he’s not stupid. He knows he can only lose in a kettle vs. the pot skirmish about war records.
But 180 million buys a lot of surrogates and a lot of research. Eventually they came up with the Swift Boat Veterans. Fueled by venom aged for 35 years, this unsavory group has splattered the prim junior Senator from Massachusetts like an ATV going through the compost pile. Kerry was a coward. Kerry was an incompetent. Kerry didn’t deserve his Purple Hearts. Kerry endangered his men. Kerry slandered everyone in uniform with his testimony before congress. It’s hard to keep up on all their charges–and even harder for Kerry to avoid any of it sticking.
Just when some of their most outrageous charges were beginning to die down fresh reinforcements appear. Former Senator and presidential loser Bob Dole took some time off from shooting Viagra commercials to join the fray. Everybody knows Dole suffered crippling injuries in Word War II combat. He stepped up to sneer at Kerry’s "superficial" wounds that earned him enough Purple Hearts to go home.
If you are really interested there are some objective looks at the charges, the best appearing in the Washington Post. They have concluded that Kerry has never actually lied about his Vietnam record, that he pretty much always went by the book.
Was Kerry a hero? He certainly didn’t set out to be one. This rich kid came out of college NROTC to enter the Navy as an officer and gentleman. He volunteered for the Swift Boats at a time when they were used almost solely for coastal patrol and rarely encountered enemy fire.
It was Kerry’s bad luck that some desk bound Admiral came up with the brilliant idea of sending the Swift Boats into the shallow waters of the Mekong Delta. A cush duty suddenly became one of the most dangerous.
Were Kerry’s wounds superficial? Certainly none were life threatening, none resulted in long term serious disability. The infantry grunt that spent weeks recovering from a serious wound only to be sent back into combat might feel resentful that this naval officer got to go home after three relatively minor wounds. But there is no doubt that Kerry’s wounds qualified him for his Purple Hearts and his ticket home.
Personally I can’t fault Kerry for taking advantage of the rules to get the hell out. Only a saint or a lunatic would say don’t send me home on a technicality, I want to stay and get shot up some more. But it probably is in bad taste to flaunt these medals as if he were a mighty Klingon warrior.
Now when Kerry got back state side he did carry out perhaps the one truly courageous and progressive act of his life: he condemned the Vietnam war publicly and in no uncertain terms. The Swift Boat Veterans brand this as betrayal but most GIs on the ground at the time were happy to hear some one speaking truth to power. I recall being greatly impressed at the time with his congressional testimony. He was a hero to a lot of us then.
It’s hard to describe my feelings when I heard him respond to questioning about this congressional testimony on Meet the Press earlier this year. He all but repudiated it, sloughing it off as a foolishness, immaturity of youth.
And that brings us back to the sleaze factor. While all this attention is being focused on Kerry’s war record of 35 years ago, men and women are dying right now in similar war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe the slacker in the White House has no personal experience with combat. Kerry does. Kerry once spoke up for the grunts. No more.
No, it’s not funny any more. These men with their unprincipled ambition and penchant for mud slinging have no honor. In fact they have no redeeming personal, much less political, qualities of any kind. I’m sick of looking at them and sicker yet at the prospect that one of them will be residing in the White House the next four years.
What I Did During the War
Since I am part of the Vietnam generation in the interests of full disclosure I should say what I did during that war.
Over the course of that war–more than seven years–I was active in the antiwar movement in first Chicago, later St Louis, and the Twin Cities as well. I was part of the wing of the movement that focused on organizing legal, peaceful, mass protests around the demand to Bring the GIs Home Now!
I was also active in those days in the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who played an important role, both as strategists and activists, in the movement against the war.
While many antiwar radicals of the time preached "resistance" to the draft, and searched for ways to avoid it, the SWP-YSA had a different approach–it was called the Proletarian Military Policy. Essentially the policy said as long as the majority of the working class accepted the draft we should accept it as well. But we reserved our democratic rights to oppose the unjust war, and advance our socialist views. We would obey legal orders, and carry our load. But on our own time we would try to win over our fellow GIs to our perspective.
During World War II, when there was virtually no antiwar movement, the military paid little attention to the socialists. Virtually all draft age male members of the SWP were either drafted or worked in the merchant marine. Some of them never returned. Others were highly decorated, at least one more so than Bob Dole.1
But during the Vietnam era the brass were nervous about radical troublemakers finding fertile ground in the Army. They devised a system to keep us out. 2
Among the mound of paper work every conscript was expected to sign was a "Form 98." This form asked if you were a member of any group on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. It also wanted to know about any relatives you might have living in foreign countries.
It was the policy of the SWP-YSA–prominently featured on the subversive list--to decline to fill out such forms. We didn’t agree that we were subversive and were not going to sign a sworn statement that we were. On the other hand, to deny membership would open us up to charges of perjury, or worse. So, we just returned them blank.
I got my letter from President Johnson telling me my country needed me in the summer of 1965. I packed an overnight bag and reported at the instructed time. I got finger printed, scolded, and lectured for several hours. A captain was preparing us to be sworn in when a sergeant interrupted him with a message that one of us was a "qualified 98." The Sarge pointed in my direction and all eyes in the room focused on me. I was undoubtedly the only one in my class that had an idea of what a "qualified 98" was. They wondered whether I was being singled out for VIP treatment–or taken out to be shot.
After accompanying Sarge to his desk he told me that I apparently had not filled out the Form 98. I assured him that was not an oversight; I had no intention of filling it out.
"Are you refusing to go into the Army?" he asked. I replied I was here to comply with my draft notice, ready to go. I would answer any questions relevant to my service as a soldier. But I wasn’t going to answer any questions about my political views or where my relatives live. Respectfully, that was none of the Army’s business.
I wasn’t sworn in. I was sent home and told to remain available. Subsequently I was summoned to an interview with two Army intelligence investigators. They asked me some pretty sophisticated political questions, such as "If this country was at war with Red China whose side would you be on?" Resisting the temptation to engage them in witty repartee, I declined to answer any of their questions.
A few weeks later I received in the mail a quite thick dossier prepared by Army intelligence. They had done their home work and had obviously touched base with the various FBI and Chicago Police Red Squad informants infiltrating the SWP and the Chicago Committee to End the War in Vietnam. They listed just about every meeting I had ever attended–plus a few that I hadn’t.
Their concluding recommendation was that my service in the U.S. Army would not be in the best interests of the United States. I was given thirty days to appeal this finding to Fifth Army headquarters in Chicago. However, procrastinator that I am, I missed that deadline. Later I got a new draft card–classifying me as 4-F. 4-F meant that I was considered either physically or mentally unfit for the Army–not the best recommendation on a job application.
I had–and continue to have–mixed feelings about this whole episode. Of course, I naturally felt relieved that I wasn’t going off to that bloody, unjust war. But I had no illusions that my absence in any way hampered that war. They just took another working class kid to fill that slot.
I made the best choice I could in the lose-lose situation our generation faced. I wasn’t a hero but I’m not ashamed. While my absence from the Army didn’t affect the war I dedicated most of my available time and energy to the movement that did eventually help end that war. Unlike Lt. j.g. Kerry I'm also working to end the current war.
1. Jimmy Kutcher, an SWP rank-and-filer drafted into the infantry, lost both legs in the battle of Anzio. Coming home with a chest full of medals and two artificial limbs the Veteran’s Administration gave him a low-paying file clerk job. When Truman’s Attorney General issued the first subversive list Kutcher was the very first government employee to be fired. This led to such an outcry, with angry resolutions adopted in virtually every trade union and veteran’s group, the government finally had to reinstate him with full back pay.
2. There were cases where the Army screwed up and drafted SWP members. Howard Petrick was one of these. In another screw up Petrick was given an MOS that actually suited one of his considerable talents–he was an excellent cook. His C.O. took a liking to him and made him permanent party at Ft Hood, Texas to train others in this important craft. On his leave time Petrick became quite active in the local area antiwar movement, sometimes appearing at meetings and demonstrations in full dress uniform. When the brass got wind of this they tried to throw him out of the Army. Petrick objected, pointing to his exemplary service record. His dad’s union, the United Electical Workers (UE) got lawyers and congressmen involved and there was a big story in the Wall Street Journal. Finally a settlement was reached giving Petrick an honorable discharge, entitled to GI benefits.