Saturday, August 21, 2004

Swift Boat liars and intentional contexts

What did John Kerry actually say about bad things that went on in Vietnam? Here's the section of his 1971 testimony that the Swift Boat liars quote from:

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago, in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit--the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam,in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

Here's the text of the ad:

John Kerry: “They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads. . .”

Joe Ponder: “The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.”

John Kerry: “. . . randomly shot at civilians. . .”

Joe Ponder: “It hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.”

John Kerry: “. . . cut off limbs, blown up bodies. . .”

Ken Cordier: “That was part of the torture, was, uh, to sign a statement that you had committed war crimes.”

John Kerry: “. . . razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan. . .”

Paul Gallanti: “John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I, and many of my, uh, comrades in North Vietnam, in the prison camps, uh, took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us.”

John Kerry: “. . . crimes committed on a day to day basis. . . ”

Ken Cordier: “He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?”

John Kerry: “. . . ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

Paul Gallanti: “He dishonored his country, and, uh, more, more importantly the people he served with. He just sold them out.”

Announcer : “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.”

See how the "They told stories that..." is completely dropped? The ad makes it look like John Kerry was the original source of the claims about people's ears being cut off, rape, beheading, etc. But Kerry was merely repeating the testimony of 150 other veterans, and conveying it to Congress. Furthermore, the charges that Kerry repeated were true. (At least, this account of My Lai covers the raping, randomly shooting civilians, and Genghis-Khan-like razing. I can't vouch for ear removal or genital zapping.) I can imagine how a shoot-the-messenger irrational hatred of Kerry could have developed in the Swift Boat Liars. But there's nothing here for which he can be blamed, and the Swift Boat Liars' decision to express their irrational hatred by distorting his words is contemptible.


Brandon said...

Right on. These guys need to be attacked and discredited mercilessly by the Kerry campaign. Josh Marshall and now the NY Times have both pointed out that Kerry could be hurt as badly by being perceived as weak for not responding as he could by the actual charges.

Anonymous said...

The charges were true?

Which? You can't pin My Lai on those who "testified" in Detroit. Rather, you'd have to say that those told their stories in Detroit actually committed the crimes they said they committed, and that those crimes were committed "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."

How do we deal with the fact that some who told their stories in Detroit weren't actually honorably discharged, and hadn't actually served in Vietnam? Are their charges still true? Are they made true by My Lai?

Neil Sinhababu said...

I'm just trying to rebut the Swift liars' argument against Kerry in this ad. There may be other arguments against Kerry out there, and I'm not intending to rebut those.

If I understand the thrust of this ad, it's that Kerry unfairly accused veterans of doing bad things. But if he merely cited descriptions of events that really happened from people whom he had some reason to trust, it's hard to see how he did anything unfair.

If you're going to say that the people Kerry cited were lying, please cite evidence to that effect.

Anonymous said...

Neil, I think you understand the ad, and we agree on the meaning: Kerry unfairly accused American soldiers (in general) of doing bad things.

And I think we'd both agree that if Kerry actually did that, then the criticism of him is appropriate.

What would make Kerry's criticism "fair"? I don't think it is enough for Kerry merely to have "some reason" to trust the people who told him these stories. Kerry is accusing these soldiers of atrocities, an extraordinary charge. It seems to me that he'd have to have good reason for thinking the accusations are true, and thus good reason for thinking that the stories he'd been told were true.

Now, as it happens, the stories weren't, in most cases, true. That was the determination of the US military investigation, at least. That investigation revealed (according to what I've read--I'll distance myself more than Kerry did) cases of individuals who had never been to Vietnam claiming they had been there, and of individuals using an assumed identity to claim the veteran status of someone who had served in Vietnam.

I don't think the fact that some atrocities were committed is enough to save Kerry's testimony. My Lai is irrelevant to the charges that Kerry presented; he didn't claim that My Lai had occurred, he claimed that the acts he enumerated were committed by the particular people he'd heard from, and that similar acts took place every day with the awareness of all levels of command. My Lai isn't evidence for those propositions.

Kerry repeated what were, as it turns out, outrageous and untrue allegations. Did he gave good reason--as opposed to some reason--to think that those accusations were true? I'll leave that to you and the Swift Vets to argue out, but it sure seems to me that even if you believe the Swift Vets to be wrong in their conclusion, their conclusion is still a reasonable and defensible one. (That is, I don't see how the conclusion that Kerry's attack was unfair is something that is unreasonable or indefensible, even if it might be disputed.)

Anonymous said...

Just jumped over from another blog - sorry, I don't have a login!

I'm not sure what to think on the Swift Vets' thing, but I don't think you've quite disproved what they're alleging. I take your point in the "Kerry was not claiming to have witnessed it himself, but rather was repeating stories that people had told him" but it seems to me that where the problem lies is that they are saying these stories were *not* told to him in that way or with that sort of magnitude. I think what they're saying is that he took a few questionable braggadocio-type stories (and every war gets jag soldiers who get off on such stories, most of which happen solely in their heads) and then presented them as something reliable and *commonplace* in a very public venue.

I mean, think back to WWI. If some soldier had heard a few stories from his less-stable mates "Yeah, I saw those Germans bayoneting Belgian babies!" and proceeded to present these statements as reliable and common evidence for German atrocities in a national venue - well, actually, that did happen. Result, massive hatred for Germans and lot of bloodshed that might well have been avoided. People need to be responsible with what they say and do a little research, especially when their words might carry such weight. But it doesn't seem that Kerry ever dug deep; "Really, a necklace made of human ears? Maybe I could *see this*?" or "Why the hell did you do that? How?" When people's tall tales are questioned, they tend to unravel or be backed away from. There's no indication that Kerry ever did anything except collect every anecdote tossed into the pot and present it in a very lurid light in a venue which meant that quite a few vets would suffer (probably undeserved) backlash. I'm not crying for him on this just yet :).

Anonymous said...

Now what would make Kerry do that? Stand up and fight like a cornered dog to resist his government's policy and practice in Vietnam even though he was a decorated war hero? When if he was actually thinking about the future and a political career he would have kept his mouth firmly shut and traded on the glory.

Could it be that he believed it? That he knew, as someone who had officered his way around the joint at the time, that bad bad things were being done?

They were, you know. The US army was debauched by Vietnam. Small groups of scared kids with heavy weapons moving through scalpcrawling danger, totally beyond their experience of the world, thinking "commie" and "gook"... or bored shitless, hopped up, badly led and cynical.. while bad, bad men with knives slid through the night bringing terror back to the villages sheltering Victor Charlie..