The producers of ABC's Nightline have an interesting idea - go to Vietnam to research some of the questions about Kerry's medals. Since the folks who participated in his battles as spectators, or from the other side, may not have any axe to grind in this election, ABC News may be able to confirm or refute the allegations made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
With that thought, ABC hired some translators and sent a crew up the river. Brilliant. Of course, we have our own questions. First, if ABC is so interested in Kerry's war record, maybe they could send a crew to Kerry's campaign headquarters and ask him to sign a Form 180 authorizing the release of his military records. And they wouldn't even have to hire a translator. But I doubt they are really that interested.
Secondly, and I ask this without having read the story, what are the odds that ABC will run a Kerry-basher three weeks before the election? We know the score - if what they hear confirms the Swift Vets account, ABC will put the project on hold while they await feedback and response from the Kerry campaign, research unanswered questions, look for more witnesses, and run out the clock. That they are airing this story tells you that they think it is good for Kerry.
Third, what has ABC left on the cutting room floor? When CBS perpetrated the Killian forged documents debacle, they actually interviewed the son of the purported author of the forged documents. Killian's son told CBS he doubted the authenticity of the documents, and SNIP! - he was gone. Do we have confidence that ABC will hold themselves to a higher standard? We do not.
And on that point, did ABC check out all the medals, or just this one? What else did they find? What did they decide was not newsworthy? Where is my trust?
Finally, what did ABC expect to find? Did they really think they would uncover witnesses who would say, "Sure, I remember - when the Americans showed up, I grabbed my rifle and ran like hell. Didn't look back until I reached Cambodia (and got John Kerry's autograph)". Or are they more likely to find folks who remember fighting furiously that day, full of vim and vigor and pride? It is not ABC's fault that human nature is what it is.
OK, we probably ought to read the story. And for cross-reference purposes, here is Kerry's account as told to the Boston Globe, and his Silver Star citation. (See page 7 of the .pdf; this is the Zumwalt version). I picked through this in August, but here we go again. [William Rood was a skipper of a second Swift boat there that day - here is his account].
We are off to a barrel-fishing start:
Members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group have charged that the Viet Cong fighter was a teenager who was alone, who was not part of a numerically superior force, and who was already wounded and running away when Kerry shot him.
Do they charge all that? The Swift source is basically the Boston Globe story, which relied on an interview with Kerry as well as other crew members. An excerpt from the Globe, with emphasis added:
Beach the boat, Kerry ordered, and the craft's bow was quickly rammed upon the shoreline. Out of the bush appeared a teenager in a loin cloth, clutching a grenade launcher.
An enemy was just feet away, holding a weapon with enough firepower to blow up the boat. Kerry's forward gunner, Belodeau, shot and clipped the Viet Cong in the leg....
In an interview, Kerry added a chilling detail.
"This guy could have dispatched us in a second, but for ... I'll never be able to explain, we were literally face to face, he with his B-40 rocket and us in our boat, and he didn't pull the trigger. I would not be here today talking to you if he had," Kerry recalled. "And Tommy clipped him, and he started going [down.] I thought it was over."
Instead, the guerrilla got up and started running. "We've got to get him, make sure he doesn't get behind the hut, and then we're in trouble," Kerry recalled.
So Kerry shot and killed the guerrilla. "I don't have a second's question about that, nor does anybody who was with me," he said. "He was running away with a live B-40, and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it." Asked whether that meant Kerry shot the guerrilla in the back, Kerry said, "No, absolutely not. He was hurt, other guys were shooting from back, side, back. There is no, there is not a scintilla of question in any person's mind who was there [that] this guy was dangerous, he was a combatant, he had an armed weapon."
I have absolutely no problem with Kerry shooting the guy in the back, and my position is fully in the mainstream of most of the commentary I have seen on this. That said, what does Kerry mean by "He was hurt, other guys were shooting from back, side, back."? It happened. It's Kerry's own story. No problem.
Nightline has this:
Her husband Tam said the man who fired the B-40 rocket was hit in this barrage of gunfire [from the boats as they approached the beach]. Then, he said, "he ran about 18 meters before he died, falling dead."
Was the man killed by Kerry or by fire from the Swift boat? It was the heat of battle, Tam said, and he doesn't know exactly how the man with the rocket launcher died.
And a bit later:
None of the villagers seems to be able to say for a fact that they saw an American chase the man who fired the B-40 into the woods and shoot him. Nobody seems to remember that. But they have no problem remembering Ba Thang, the man who has been dismissed by Kerry's detractors as "a lone, wounded, fleeing, young Vietcong in a loincloth." (The description comes from "Unfit for Command," by Swift boat veteran John O'Neill.)
"No, this is not correct," Nguyen Thi Tuoi, 77, told ABC News. "He wore a black pajama. He was strong. He was big and strong. He was about 26 or 27."
Fine, he was 27. "Kerry's detractors" are basing their ABC-debunked claim about a teenager in a loincloth on the account provided by the Boston Globe after it interviewed Kerry and his crew. Go figure.
We should also note that Vietnam had been at war for years - standards for "big and strong" can slip a bit when war makes food supplies erratic. And the Vietnamese don't tend to run large.
Here is some compelling testimony:
Her husband, Nguyen Van Ty, in his 80s, had a slightly different account of how Ba Thang died.
"I didn't see anything because I was hiding from the bullets and the bombs," he said. "It was very fierce and there was shooting everywhere and the leaves were being shredded to pieces. I was afraid to stay up there. I had to hide. And then, when it was over, I saw Ba Thanh was dead. He may have been shot in the chest when he stood up."
He also said the Swift boats were coming under attack from the Viet Cong fighters on shore. "We tried to shoot at the boat," he said, "but we didn't hit anything."
And the conclusion to the ABC story:
But John O'Neill, the officer who took over command of Kerry's swift boat after Kerry left Vietnam, raised some specific questions about the incident for which Kerry received his most significant award, the Silver Star:
"In the Silver Star incident, John Kerry's citation reflects that he charged into a numerically superior force, and into intense fire," O'Neill told ABC News in an August 2004 interview. "But the actual facts are that there was a single kid there who had fired a rocket, who popped up, and John Kerry with his gunboat, with or without a number of troops, depending on who you talk to, plopped in front of the kid. The kid was wounded in the legs by machine gun fire, and as he ran off, John Kerry jumped off the boat and shot the kid in the back."
Does ABC think they have rebutted this? And if so, do they realize that they have rebutted Kerry and his Band of Brothers?
Honestly, now - did ABC read the Globe account, or the Brinkley "Tour of Duty" account? Neither is cited in this story. Just what is going on here?
MORE: The "Tour of Duty" account differs only slightly from the Globe version. Here, Kerry jumps off the Swift boat and chases the already-wounded VC guerilla, followed closely by Belodeau and Medeiros. According to Medeiros, the VC was standing on both feet, about to fire, when Kerry shot him. Not in the back. Fine.
According to Brinkley, Kerry, Belodeau, and Medeiros then swept the area, and collected some VC supplies. There is no mention of coming under enemy fire, although we are told that "in the distance they could see VC running toward a tree line out of range, looking for cover in the U Minh Forest."
Yeah, ABC really put the wood to the Swiftees, didn't they?
UPDATE: Oh, boy - Andrew Sullivan heartily endorses the ABC report. I don't know if he gets embarrassed, but this just might do it.
LATE ADDITION: Kevin Drum has an update.