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Charles Kopp - Contributor

Charles Kopp is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. He is a composer and musician, and an ardent lover of poetry. He has been a teacher and a systems analyst. In Lafayette, California, he now designs websites and works on creative projects. He can be contacted at [go to Kopp index]

Terrible Swift Sword of Truth
Vets deserve answers, not attacks...

[Charles Kopp] 9/8/04

To those of us who have watched the Swift Boat Veterans, and who have read Unfit For Command, these men have understandable motivations of their own. They have honorable credentials. Their questions deserve answers. This much at least is simple truth. As with any allegation against anyone, there are possible responses of a tactical nature, such as “all the men who were in the boat agree with Kerry” (not true) or “the ads were paid for by Texas Republicans” (not relevant). But these are not really answers. Kerry supporters (or Bush haters) would be more impressive if they gained an understanding of these veterans and made a meaningful reply.

Several brilliant and learned liberals of my acquaintance seem to believe quite firmly the John Kerry assertion that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are a “fear and smear” campaign orchestrated by the Bush campaign, probably by that evil genius- Mr. Rove. None of these individuals have read Unfit For Command, or watched some of these veterans on various interview programs dating back to their initial press conference in May of this year. This is natural. How many of us subject ourselves to thoughtfully reading books with which we expect to disagree?

Clearly, combative responders such as Chris Matthews and James Carville have not read the book, and they are working off talking points from Kerry partisans. It is understandable that those who hope for a Kerry victory are uncomfortable with the Swift Boat Veterans. They would like to see these Veterans as conniving political hacks. But they will never be able to make a persuasive response, unless they first understand who these men are, what they are saying, and how they feel about John Kerry.

Liberals are underestimating and misunderstanding these veterans in several important ways. To begin with, when Kerry returned from Vietnam, he did not only say that the war was wrong, or bad policy, or not in American interests- he said that he and his fellow soldiers were sadistic monsters. That war crimes were casual everyday activities, endorsed by the whole chain of command. If you yourself were one of the veterans about whom he was speaking, how would you have felt? Add to this, perhaps, that you were still in Vietnam fighting, listening to Kerry’s words on the radio. Go even further, and imagine you listened to his testimony on a radio provided by your tormentors in the Hanoi Hilton. How would you have felt?

What makes you think you’d need a conspiracy of Karl Rove and Texas Republicans, to persuade you to take offense to John Kerry, under these circumstances? On the contrary, there is a simple human basis for understanding the Swift Boat Veterans.

Here is a second scenario to imagine. Suppose that you served in the military decades ago. You had a comrade there- perhaps you liked him, perhaps you didn’t. Suppose you served your time, survived, went home and went on with your life. Thirty odd years later your old comrade is running for the Presidency, and he’s arranged with a biographer to publish his account of the time you shared together, way back when. Suppose you read this book, and discover that he has said things about you and your actions. For example, in the March 13 1969 episode, he has said that after one Swift Boat hit a mine which exploded, you sped away from the scene in your boat. How would you feel, reading these words? Especially if you had not fled the scene of the explosion. Especially if it was your old comrade’s boat that sped away from the scene.

In such a case, would you need a vast right wing conspiracy to persuade you to respond to the charges he made against you in his book? The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can be understood in this simple and plain light: the desire to let the truth be known about events in which they were personally involved. They feel Kerry misrepresented their actions, and want to set the record straight.

There is a third problem presented by the Swift Boat Veterans, and perhaps this is the one that Kerry supporters are most unwilling to face. The Swift allegations are not harming Kerry because they are campaign mud-slinging by conservatives who lack the scruples and ethics liberals believe they exemplify. Americans have heard volume upon volume of campaign accusations. These allegations are harming the Kerry campaign because they ring true. If you read this book, if you listen to these veterans talk, and then you watch Kerry reply with indignation rather than substance, watch the film Kerry took of himself in Vietnam, watch Kerry’s Senate testimony, the truth is: a coherent picture emerges.

The pieces fit together. Kerry is a man with grandiose notions about himself and his entitlement to privilege and power, notions that don’t readily fit together with the truth. I suppose on some level all politicians have an unusual capacity for self-promotion, but even among such as these, to ordinary Americans John Kerry stands out. I do not understand the military process for awarding medals, and I do not know what to make of these specific details. But it is easy to picture Kerry and his typewriter, perhaps filing himself the accounts which came to form the official Navy records which Kerry has released so far.

I doubt that John Kerry and his associates will ever attempt a sincere, meaningful reply to the Swift Boat Veterans. While much has been made of the President’s perceived awkwardness in identifying his own mistakes, there is also here to consider the quiet fact that John Kerry has not said he was ever wrong about anything he has ever done or said. It is unlikely he will start now. And perhaps he cannot reply, and still have any chance for the Presidency. Perhaps he cannot sign a Form 180 because of what he knows the still-hidden official records would show.

Evidently Team Kerry plans something quite the opposite of a reply. We’ve heard about the 1000 pages of “opposition research” on the personal lives of the Swift Boat Veterans. Clinton operatives are on board, who had practice persuading various women in Clinton’s wake to keep quiet. It will not be so easy to persuade these veterans to shut up; they’ve faced worse things than James Carville.

I do know what a reply would look like. First of all, Kerry would make a sincere straightforward apology for his 1971 Senate Testimony, to all those veterans who clearly were deeply, understandably hurt by his words. He would acknowledge that it was his own behavior that created the animosity that has burst forth against him now, and not a “fear and smear” scheme invented by Republicans. Then, if he can do so, he would sign the Form 180. In one manner or another, he would face questioning- not only from friendly reporters. He would give meaningful answers and details, and not evasions like “30 years ago the Navy decided to award these medals.” After that questioning, he’d be within his rights to decline to discuss these issues any further.

Until then, he will be on the defensive, and his failure to answer will grow larger, until it is the deepest and truest thing about him. CRO

copyright 2004 Charles Kopp



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