Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Curious Case of Kerry In Cambodia

A dispute is brewing over the upcoming book "Unfit for Command," in which the "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" are contending that Kerry's story of his Vietnam service has holes, omissions, and outright lies. To date, most of the flames have been over whether Kerry deserved the medals that he received in combat, and my view has been that there is a difference of opinion between the other Swift Boat commanders (who were near Kerry, but not with him) and his own crewmen (who were with Kerry, but might be beholden to him).

But there is a more interesting, and more troublesome issue brewing, regarding Kerry, Christmas Eve, and Cambodia. It has already become ridiculously tangled and overblown among those who see it as proof positive that the Democratic candidate has lied about his war record, so it makes sense to first lay out exactly what was said and then talk about the accusations that have been leveled against Kerry.

In 1986, during a Senate debate over support for Nicaragua, Kerry made the following statement:

Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict.

The Congressional Record quote is here. Note something very important, and often misunderstood. What is "seared -- seared" in Kerry's mind is his recollection of Nixon saying there were no incursions into Cambodia, or his memory of being shot at and hearing that Nixon said we were not in Cambodia. The "seared" is not his recollection of Christmas Eve specifically.

In 1992, the AP ran a story on possible MIAs in Cambodia containing this passage:

But for Kerry, who spent six violent months commanding a patrol boat on the Mekong River, there's always been a ring of truth to allegations of abandoned Americans. By Christmas 1968, part of Kerry's patrol extended across the border of South Vietnam into Cambodia."We were told, `Just go up there and do your patrol. Everybody was over there (in Cambodia). Nobody thought twice about it," Kerry said. One of the missions, which Kerry, at the time, was ordered not to discuss, involved taking CIA operatives into Cambodia to search for enemy enclaves."I can remember wondering, `If you're going to go, what happens to you,"' Kerry said.

A similar story at the time reported:

Kerry, who served in Vietnam on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta from 1968 to 1969, said he was involved in a "black mission" near Cambodia. "On Christmas Eve of 1968, I was on a gunboat in a firefight that wasn't supposed to be taking place," Kerry recalled. "I thought, if I'm killed here, what will my family be told?"

In 1979, Kerry wrote a article in the Boston Globe that said:

"I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real."

In 1994, The Providence Journal-Bulletin carried a story with this passage:

Some relief came from home. "I got a great package around Christmas," he says. "Filled with stale brownies. Broken, stale brownies. It was great - they were homemade. Came back in from a five-day patrol. Christmas Eve I was up getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia. Stupid Vietnamese were celebrating Christmas by shooting tracers, fifty-caliber, right up into the air, and the goddamned things were coming right over our head. That was a wild night. That was a night like right out of Apocalypse Now. It was just surreal. Mortars going off. Tracers piercing the sky. People crazy. Flares.

A fawning 2003 article in the Boston Globe contains this passage:

The Christmas Eve truce of 1968 was three minutes old when mortar fire exploded around John Forbes Kerry and his five-man crew on a 50-foot aluminum boat near Cambodia. ''Where is the enemy?'' a crewmate shouted. In the distance, an elderly man was tending his water buffalo -- and serving as human cover for a dozen Viet Cong manning a machine-gun nest. "Open fire; let's take 'em," Kerry ordered, according to his second-in-command, James Wasser of Illinois. Wasser blasted away with his M-60, hitting the old man, who slumped into the water, presumably dead. With a clear path to the enemy, the fusillade from Kerry's Navy boat, backed by a pair of other small vessels, silenced the machine-gun nest. When it was over, the Viet Cong were dead, wounded, or on the run. A civilian apparently was killed, and two South Vietnamese allies who had alerted Kerry's crew to the enemy were either wounded or killed.

On the same night, Kerry and his crew had come within a half-inch of being killed by "friendly fire," when some South Vietnamese allies launched several rounds into the river to celebrate the holiday. To top it off, Kerry said, he had gone several miles inside Cambodia, which theoretically was off limits, prompting Kerry to send a sarcastic message to his superiors that he was writing from the Navy's "most inland" unit.

Back at his base, a weary, disconsolate Kerry sat at his typewriter, as he often did, and poured out his grief. "You hope that they'll courtmartial you or something because that would make sense," Kerry typed that night. He would later recall using court-martial as "a joke," because nothing made sense to him -- the war policy, the deaths, and his presence in the middle of it all.

Kerry's own diary of the time has an entry for Christmas Eve, 1968, in which he states that he spent half a day at Sa Dec, 55 miles from Cambodia. He wrote:

Visions of sugarplums really do dance through your head and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real. It's Christmas Eve.

The book "Tour of Duty," the biography of Kerry's service by Douglas Brinkley, contains this passage:

Christmas eve, 1968, turned out to be memorable....the crew headed their Swift...only miles from the Cambodian border. Because they were only an hour from that country, Kerry began reading up on Cambodian history.

A 2000 U.S. News and World Report article says:

Sen. John Kerry made his first forays into Cambodia during the Vietnam War as a Navy lieutenant on clandestine missions to deliver weapons to anticommunist forces.

A 2003 Washington Post article, carried on Kerry's own website, says:

A close associate hints: There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attaché everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.

"Who told you?" he demanded as he reached inside. "My friends don't know about this."

The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.

"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."

Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn't complex after all; it was Kerry.

He smiled and aimed his finger: "Pow."

[Kerry has elsewhere referred to his "lucky hat" from Vietnam.]

There are several accusations that have been leveled at Kerry over these statements.

I. The Statements Are Inconsistent

The most common accusation -- though not the initial one -- is that these statements are inconsistent. I cannot agree. The statements can be pieced together into a complex timeline.

1. Kerry and his crew were at Sa Dec on Christmas Eve, 1968, which is an hour from the Cambodian border (55-60 miles). He ate brownies, wrote in his diary, and read up on Cambodian history.

2. Shortly after the 1968 truce took effect, and while in RVN waters, he engaged a Viet Cong group that took cover behind an old man and his water buffalo. Sadly, the old man was apparently killed in the engagement.

[Kerry does not claim, apparently, that he remained in Sa Dec for the whole time. The Swift Boat folks claim that his "sugarplums" quote proves that he was in peaceful territory, but I think otherwise. Nothing would make me think of "sugarplums" quite as much as being under fire on Christmas Eve.]

[This may be the "firefight that was not supposed to be taking place," because it was after the Christmas truce began.]

3. Later that same night, Kerry went upriver. His boat was nearly hit when South Vietnamese soldiers carried on a rowdy Christmas celebration. This engagement was "somewhere near Cambodia," though not necessarily in Cambodia itself.

[To detour for a moment. This may seem to contradict the 1979 Boston Globe article, which connects being across the Cambodian border with the South Vietnamese celebration incident. I think this is not necessarily incorrect, in that the RVN "attack" could have come during the trip into Cambodia. That is, the RVN soldiers were part of his trip upriver into Cambodia. Kerry has said that the "black mission" was "near Cambodia," and that he actually went into Cambodia that night.]

4. At some point during that night, Kerry crossed into Cambodia itself. He sent a sarcastic message back to base that he was now the Navy's "most inland" unit. There is no indication of why he was in Cambodia, except his statements that his "patrol" regularly extended that far.

5. Kerry may or may not have taken fire while there. He said he was shot at by "Khmer Rouge and Cambodians," which may or may not be on Christmas. The Senate speech was focused on Nixon's later declaration that there was no incursion into Cambodia, so his statement that he was attacked does not necessarily mean that he was attacked at Christmas. Rather, (1) "I was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve." (2) "I was shot at by RVN and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians." (3) "Thus, Nixon's lie was seared in my mind." This is a reasonable reading of the words of the speech, though not the most natural one. Perhaps the discrepancy comes because this was a transcription of an oral speech; Kerry could have used vocal emphasis to indicate a separation between the two.

Kerry also said that on Christmas Eve he was involved in a "firefight which was not supposed to be taking place." If this is a Cambodian firefight, it would indeed be "illegal." If not, the "illegal" firefight could be the attack on the VC earlier that evening, and the "Cambodians" reference could refer to later incursions into Cambodia with CIA agents.

[By the way, Kerry's comment about "Khmer Rouge and Cambodians" is highly unlikely; the Khmer Rouge were not a significant force in South Cambodia at that time. I think the explanation here is that because this came as part of a speech in the Senate, he used "Khmer Rouge" to refer to "hostile Cambodian forces" and then realized that "Cambodians" was more accurate. This is a misstatement, but I do not consider it worthy of vitriol.]

6. Nixon later claimed that there were no incursions into Cambodia. Kerry did not claim that he was thinking of Nixon while he was in Cambodia, only that he was shocked to hear Nixon make those claims later. This was "seared" into his mind.

7. At other points during the war -- possibly during Christmas 1968, but not necessarily -- he carried CIA agents into Cambodia. He also ferried weapons to anti-Communist forces. The two could be part of the same mission, or not.

So, I have come to the conclusion that all of this can be combined into one coherent narrative. The question that remains is whether it happened.

II. The Swift Boat Vets Claim It Never Happened

The same Swift Boat vets that claim Kerry didn't deserve his medals also claim that Kerry never went into Cambodia. They have an affidavit saying that boats were never sent into Cambodia, and that gunboats at the border would have turned any such craft around.

Of course, the problem with this statement is that it is based on supposition, instead of first-hand knowledge. If Kerry really were authorized to do a "black op" into Cambodia, then he would have had permission to go past the "blockade" to do it. The claim that Americans were not in Cambodia at the time is ludicrous, though that is only made by careless bloggers and commentators. The more thoughtful and informed criticism is that the Swift boats in particular were not in Cambodia at the time.

Another persuasive criticism comes from one of Kerry's crew, who said that it would have been physically impossible to get a Swift boat past the concrete pilings placed on the Cambodia/South Vietnam border. I suppose it is possible that Kerry was going through some other route (his crew has confirmed that the area was filled with twists and turns), but there is just no evidence that Kerry had some "back door" route into Cambodia other than the river itself.

Another strong attack is from the Washington Times, which quotes the chain of command as saying that Kerry was never ordered into Cambodia, and quotes three of his own sailors, who say they never went into Cambodia.

All the living commanders in Kerry's chain of command--Joe Streuhli (Commander of CosDiv 13), George Elliott (Commander of CosDiv 11), Adrian Lonsdale (Captain, USCG and Commander, Coastal Surveillance Center at An Thoi), Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann (Commander, Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam, CTF 115), and Rear Admiral Art Price (Commander of River Patrol Force, CTF 116)--deny that Kerry was ever ordered to Cambodia. They indicate that Kerry would have been seriously disciplined or court-martialed had he gone there. At least three of the five crewmen on Kerry's PCF 44 boat--Bill Zaldonis, Steven Hatch, and Steve Gardner--deny that they or their boat were ever in Cambodia. The remaining two crewmen declined to be interviewed for this book. Gardner, in particular, will never forget those days in late December when he was wounded on PCF 44, not in Cambodia, but many miles away in Vietnam.

The chain of command statements are troubling, but not definitive in my mind. If the action was a "black op," then there is every reason to suspect that they would not have "authorized" an incursion into Cambodia. As one blogger sarcastically put it, Kerry could have indeed been on a double-secret mission. This does not solve the problem of Kerry saying that "everyone" was over there, or that his "regular" patrol included five miles of Cambodian waterway.

The more devastating problem with the Kerry narrative is that his own crew does not confirm that they were in Cambodia that night, though one Kerry supporter confirmed that they were the farthest inland on Christmas Eve 1968. He just didn't know where they were.

The obvious rejoinder is that the Swift Boat Veterans are (1) partisan, and (2) have a long-standing grudge against Kerry. That is true. But the greater question is whether these men are actually lying in order to destroy Kerry. This is the same gang that tried to destroy McCain, so I hesitate to say that it is impossible. But no one from the crew has countered their statements.

Fox News asked the Kerry campaign to answer these criticisms. They first said that Kerry had only claimed to be "near" Cambodia, and then when confronted with the Congressional Record quote, the campaign failed to respond. No other crew member has come forward to confirm that he was in Cambodia that night. It may be that Kerry was with a different crew, though that seems like a real stretch, and contradicts the statements by one crew member who attested that he was with Kerry on Christmas Eve 1968, far upriver, just not in Cambodia itself.

One could always find it unlikely that John Kerry was one of those who were involved in the Tom Clancy side of the war, but that comes from your own view of Kerry as a man.

III. It Is The Plot of "Apocalypse Now," Which Came Out At About The Same Time

The final criticism is that Kerry has apparently co-opted the plot of "Apocalypse Now," which came out in 1979, the same year that Kerry first claimed to have actually entered Cambodia.

There is a chicken and egg problem here. Did "Apocalypse Now" reflect actual actions during Vietnam, or did it induce Kerry to fudge his own memory?

Mostly, it's just a funny coincidence that can be used by those who are inclined to see Kerry's statements as a lie.


There are three possibilities, as I see them:

1. Kerry actually went into Cambodia on Christmas Eve, with a different crew, and without the knowledge of his superiors.

No proof, absolutely contradicts the statement of the one Kerry-supporter crewman who was with him that night.

2. Kerry actually went into Cambodia on Christmas Eve, with his regular crew, and the Swift Boat Veterans are all lying.

No proof, doesn't match the statement of the Kerry crewman -- if one assumes that even if he did not know where they were, he would have taken note of their (politically significant) crossing into Cambodia.

3. Kerry was way upriver on Christmas Eve, illegally attacked by VC after the truce started, and got shot at by RVN soldiers. He didn't actually go into Cambodia that night, or engage Cambodian soldiers that night, though he did in early 1969. He knew that Americans were conducting incursions into Cambodia and was outraged when Nixon claimed otherwise.

Matches all known proofs, without putting stress on the crewman's memory. Flatly contradicts Kerry's Senate speech, in which he said he was in Cambodia. Kerry lied, though it may be worth noting that this proves that Kerry lied only once as opposed to the claims of the bloggers.

There are other issues that are not directly connected to Christmas Eve -- whether Kerry ever went into Cambodia (his superiors and crewmen say no), whether Kerry got his lucky hat from a CIA agent he was ferrying into Cambodia, whether he actually has a secret compartment in his suitcase for his "lucky hat," and so on.

All in all, the bloggers are bungling the story -- but John F. "Kurtz" still has some 'splaining to do.

 12:11 PM

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