- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

Vietnam was a quagmire. Now, old ghosts from that quagmire are haunting Sen. John Kerry. His antiwar stance and testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1971, in which he alleged gross war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam, riled many veterans then and continues to do so today. And, in this presidential campaign, Mr. Kerry’s valor and integrity have beenchallenged with a vengeance.

That Mr. Kerryhas madeVietnam a central part of his campaign justifies close examination of his record. However, there is a clear line between tough questioning, including whether Mr. Kerry went too far in exploiting the war, and that of critics who are distorting or lying about events in efforts “to set the record straight” or are being used as political foils to discredit the senator.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole accused Mr. Kerry of “flip-flopping” by having first opposed the war and now using it in his run for the White House. Mr. Dole, himself badly wounded in World War II, pointedly noted that all Purple Hearts were not equal — all fair points. But those who cross the line by crying fire in a crowded theater, to use Justice Holmes’ metaphor, are not responsible. Too many enemies of Mr. Kerry, as well as President Bush, are crying fire.

In full disclosure, I admire John Kerry and occasionally advise him. We briefly met in Boston in the 1970s when I was at graduate school. I also was in the first batch of swift boat skippers sent to Vietnam, where I served in 1966 and 1967. I had direct knowledge of how he won his Silver Star from the very distinguished officer who awarded it to him — Adm. Bud Zumwalt. Since fair questioning of the senator’s record will turn on his antiwar stance and at least his first Purple Heart, let’s take a closer look.

All wars are dirty, even when journalists are embedded into combat units. Vietnam was especially dirty. Let us not forget that the enemy was tough, brave and ruthless. A key measure of success and often the basis for awarding medals was the infamous (and usually inflated) body count and rules of engagement that authorized “free fire zones,” which in essence granted licenses to kill based on intelligence that was never perfect. The shocking fact was that we expended far more ordnance in Southeast Asia than in World War II. One macabre result was that the troops cynically defined a Viet Cong as any “dead Vietnamese.”

Then there was Operation Phoenix, a CIA-run program of “targeted assassinations” of Viet Cong. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed, surely some of whom were innocent and were victims of vendetta or erroneous identification. As someone who observed a few of those operations, there were excesses.

I also spent more time than I wished in or near My Lai on the Cape Batangan peninsula when William Calley was probably still in high school. It was a bad and dangerous place then with the enemy largely invisible. The subsequent massacre was unconscionable. But it does not take a Freud to understand why it happened. Finally, 58,000 Americans and who knows how many Vietnamese were killed and to what purpose? In the broadest sense and in retrospect, that was the real atrocity, something Mr. Kerry understoodwellbefore America finally left Vietnam in 1975.

With full deference to former Sens. Dole and Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, all Purple Hearts are not equal. During my Vietnam tour, I dimly recall the response of one of our sailors winning the Purple Heart when asked by the awarding officer where he had been shot. The sailor held up an arm and pointed to a band aid covering a small wound.

But malicious attacks against both Messrs. Kerry and Bush do greater damage to America than the candidates. Imagine how Osama bin Laden views this. The fact is that either Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry will lead the nation, a nation that is at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against jihadist extremists. The economy is threatened by deficits, debts and liabilities. Making either candidate less credible for reasons of malice will not make his job easier.

So, what to do? Many will never forgive Mr. Kerry’s 1971 antiwar stance or believe his war record. Obviously, they should not vote for him. More importantly, Mr. Kerry’s responsible critics, including the president, should tell those who are crying fire to shut up.

John, like fellow war hero John McCain, must put Vietnam behind him. He needs to concentrate on the issues and his policy differences with Mr. Bush that will convince voters he will be the better president. Otherwise, the ghosts of Vietnam will impose double jeopardy on the nation, something — given the gravity of the dangers we face — America can ill afford.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. He served in swift boats in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 in more than 150 operations and missions.

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