Contents | December 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on campaigns and candidates from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"A Race Too Far?" (August 1996)
Questions haunt the decision by Massachusetts's Republican governor, William F. Weld, to run against the incumbent Democratic senator John F. Kerry this year. Is Kerry the wrong target? By Jack Beatty
"Low Class Conclusions" (April 1993)
A widely reported new study claiming that all classes shared the burden of the Vietnam War is preposterous. By James Fallows
"The Road to Hill 10" (April 1985)
A veteran's return to Vietnam. By William Broyles, Jr.
"The Fight for the President's Mind—And the Men Who Won It" (October 1969)
Who got us into Vietnam? There is no way to say fairly now, for the responsibility is shared. By Townsend Hoopes
"How Could Vietnam Happen?—an Autopsy" (April 1968)
Drawing on five years of service (1961-1966) in the White House and Department of State, the East Asia specialist James C. Thomson traced the slippery-slope of decision making that led to America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "The Thoughtful Soldier" (March 10, 2004)
Douglas Brinkley, the author of Tour of Duty, on John Kerry's conflicted but heroic service in Vietnam
Flashbacks: "No Hard Feelings?" (July 11, 1995)
President Clinton has finally established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Atlantic articles explore Americans' ambivalence toward such a move.
The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
s he campaigns for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kerry often cites his experience as a U.S. Navy patrol-boat skipper in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. Next month the historian Douglas Brinkley will publish the first full-scale, intimate account of Kerry's Navy career. In writing that account Brinkley has drawn on extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry well in Vietnam, including all but one of the men still living who served under him. Kerry also turned over to Brinkley his letters home from Vietnam and his voluminous "war notes"—journals, notebooks, and personal reminiscences written during and shortly after the war. This material was provided without restriction, to be used at Brinkley's discretion, and has never before been published.
Tour of Duty
Senator John F. Kerry often cites his service in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. A new account of his time there—based on interviews with those who knew him well, and on his never-before-published letters home and his voluminous "war notes"—offers the first intimate look at a traumatic and life-altering experience
by Douglas Brinkley
John Kerry enlisted in the Navy in February of 1966, months before he graduated from Yale. In December of 1967 Ensign Kerry was assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley; after five months of service in the Pacific, with a brief stop in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and underwent training to command a Swift boat, a small craft deployed in Vietnam's rivers. In June of 1968 Kerry was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), and by the end of that year he was back in Vietnam, where he commanded, over time, two Swift boats. He received the Purple Heart three times for wounds suffered in action, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Navy's Silver Star for gallantry in action. Kerry was discharged from the Navy in January of 1970, and soon became one of the most prominent spokesmen for the antiwar movement.
The following excerpts are drawn from Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.
An Incomprehensible Moment
n the afternoon of February 26, 1968, the twenty four-year-old Ensign John Kerry was on watch on the bridge of the USS Gridley. His ship had just left Midway Island en route to the Philippines as part of a convoy that also included the USS Turner Joy, made famous by the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident. The Gridley's executive officer approached Kerry and asked if he had a friend named Pershing. There could be only one reason for the question, and Kerry did not want to hear it. His stomach went hollow, and he slumped onto a railing for balance. "I knew immediately it was all over but even when I read the telegram it took moments to sink in," Kerry wrote to his parents of the instant he learned—from his future wife Julia ("Judy") Thorne—that his close college friend Dick Pershing was dead. "Then I just ... cried—a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of feeling before—so numb."
The dashing twenty-five-year-old Pershing, a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, had been killed in combat on February 17 near the hamlet of Hung Nhon, 400 miles north of Saigon. His platoon had been slogging through mud in search of a lost comrade when the ambush occurred. "Shift over to the left!" Pershing was said to have shouted as he tried to wave his men away from the danger. Just then a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a dike a few feet in front of him, hurling Pershing into the air, his body torn apart by grenade fragments. He died instantly. The charmer of John Kerry's circle had become a statistic: another American soldier had given his life for his country.
Pershing's death brought out a profound sadness in Kerry. Memories of his liveliest friend kept flashing through his mind, especially of the boyish mischievousness that bordered on irresponsibility and had so perfectly balanced Kerry's serious leanings at Yale. In the pursuit of fun, nothing had been off-limits to Dick Pershing. Yet when it had come time for Pershing to serve, the life of the party had offered himself unhesitatingly. By the time he got to Vietnam, Pershing had remade himself into the perfect paratrooper, rock-solid in body and stalwart in spirit. And now he was gone—and for what? "Pershing's death was just one more major-league souring for John, of figuring out what the hell Vietnam was all about," explains David Thorne, another Yale classmate (and Julia's twin brother), who was still in Navy training off the coast of San Diego when he got the news. "Why did Dick have to die for this? That's what John wanted to know."
Kerry blamed the Johnson Administration. The very week Pershing was killed, General Earle G. Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his eleventh inspection tour of South Vietnam. Kerry suspected that Wheeler would return with the same message as always, telling the American people that their great nation was winning another war, and write up some overoptimistic reports for the White House. What Wheeler wouldn't mention was that 543 U.S. soldiers had been killed the week Pershing died. Nor would he note the 2,457 wounded.
It pleased Kerry, later, to learn that Dick Pershing had been buried next to his legendary grandfather, the World War I U.S. Army general John "Black Jack" Pershing, in a scenic spot in Arlington National Cemetery. That seemed right. It spoke of a great continuum of duty, honor, and country. But Kerry also could not help feeling that some in the Pentagon were doing their servicemen a lethal injustice by sending a new wave of young people to die in a conflict that at least a few in the Defense Department did not believe could be won—as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's resignation in November of 1967 clearly indicated.
Once the fact of Pershing's death had sunk in, Kerry, as he tended to do, poured out his feelings on paper. "With the loss of Persh something has gone out of me," he wrote to his parents at the end of February. "Persh was an unbelievable spark in all of us and we took for granted that we would always be together—go crashing through life in our unconquerable fashion as one entity. Now that is gone in one incomprehensible moment. Time will never heal this—it may alleviate—but it will never heal."
In a similar but even more passionate vein Kerry expressed his anguish in a letter to Judy Thorne.
There are so many ways this letter could become a bitter diatribe and go rambling off into irrational nothings. I don't know really where to begin—everything is so hollow and ridiculous, so stilted and so empty. I have never in my life been so alone with something like this before. I feel so bitter and angry and everywhere around me there is nothing but violence and war and gross insensitivity. I am really very frightened to be honest because when the news sunk in I had no alternatives but to carry on in the face of trivia that forced me to build a horrible protective screen around myself. Something that has never happened to my feelings before. I could not even allow myself the right to think about what was happening as much as everything inside me wanted to. I was standing watch on the bridge when the executive officer called me over and after an ominous pause asked if I had a friend called Pershing. I just stood there frozen and then read your telegram knowing already in my heart the Godawful wasteful stupid thing that had happened ...
Right now everything that is superficial and emotional wants to give up and just feel sorry but I can't. I am involved in something that keeps pushing on regardless of the individual and which even with what has happened must, I know deep, deep down inside me, be coped with rationally and with strength. I do feel strong and despite emptiness and waste, I still have hope and confidence. There is a beast in me that keeps pushing me on saying Johnny you can't let go because of this—Johnny you find some sense from this—Johnny you are too strong to stop now—something keeps me going harder than before. Judy, if I do nothing else in my life I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind. I don't mean this in an all-consuming world saving fashion. I just mean that my own effort must be entire and thorough and that it must do what it can to help make this a better world to live in. I have not lost faith—on the contrary—I have gained a conviction and desire greater than ever before—and now, a sense of inevitability—a weighty fatalism that takes worry out of the small actions of late and makes the personal much more important.
The world I am part of out there is so very different from anything you, I, or our close friends can imagine. It is filled with primitive survival, with destruction of an endless always seemingly pointless nature and forces one to grow up in a fast—no holds barred fashion. In the small time I have been gone, does it seem strange to say that I feel as though I have seen several years experience go by. Wherever we go we see B-52's flying overhead going and returning from strikes on the Guam-Vietnam route. Two aircraft carriers are now in port to reload ammunition, rest the crew, and repair airplanes and the talk is of pilots lost and [air] strikes that were successful for the number of lives taken or unsuccessful for the number of lives lost—both the same and both creating the same hole and sorrow for some unsuspecting person somewhere. Small boats tear around the harbor practicing maneuvers, we train nearly every day for any eventuality. Everything is hot and fast—there is no joking like there was back in California. No matter where one is—no matter what job—you do not and cannot forget that you are at war and that the danger is ever present—that anyone could at some time for the same stupid irrational something that stole Persh be gone tomorrow.
"Let Us Alone"
gentle wind blew across the harbor as Kerry's transport landed at the base of Monkey Mountain in the South Vietnamese port city of Danang. It was the spring of 1968. Kerry debarked anxious about the prospect of wandering around, yet quickly found himself at ease: the echoes of its colonial past made Danang a much less alien landscape to him than, say, the Philippines had been. Overlying the architectural remnants of French colonial rule were the unmistakable marks of the American empire. The handiwork of U.S. construction firms such as Raymond International and Morrison-Knudsen appeared everywhere. B-52 long-range jet bombers howled across the sky to the northeast, and U.S. Army helicopters touched down to the west. Pentagon-issue sandbags were stacked near the water, in case the tide rose too high. To Kerry's surprise, he saw far more barbed wire than bamboo.
The Americanization of South Vietnam was inescapable. But what really caught Kerry's attention was a fifty-foot American-made aluminum patrol craft fast (PCF), commonly called a "Swift boat" after the acronym for "shallow water inshore fast tactical" craft. Originally created as a water taxi to serve the offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the boat had been adopted by the Navy and turned into a light, twenty-three-knot patrol vessel, armed with fifty-caliber machine guns and an eighty-one-millimeter mortar. The boat Kerry saw gleamed with the possibilities of JFK's PT-109. "Tied up to the same wharf we got off at was a small swift boat and I thought jealously of my own desires to have one," Kerry wrote in a letter to his parents. "This one apparently had been given to the Vietnamese navy and they were using it for coastal surveillance." He had already applied for Swift-boat duty and was awaiting his assignment orders. Seeing the boat only confirmed his ambition to train at the top-notch Coronado naval station, back in San Diego.
Kerry had little company in his wish to volunteer for Swift-boat school. A number of the men on the Gridley had already seen enough of combat, and preferred to stay out of harm's way to whatever extent possible.
As he walked along the Danang waterfront, Kerry was startled to see Maoist graffiti spray-painted on walls, and shocked by the gruesome sight of a pile of dead Vietcong awaiting mass burial. "The thoughts of what must have taken place turned my stomach," he wrote in a letter to his parents. For 2,000 years the Vietnamese had been warding off invaders—Chinese, French, Japanese—and now he was one of the latest wave, one of what the novelists Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer had called Ugly Americans in their 1958 book set amid the conflict in Southeast Asia. Kerry had read history books about how Vietnam's would-be conquerors had always been vanquished in the end, and it seemed to him inevitable that his own nation was next in line to lose. The first U.S. Marines had landed at Danang in March of 1965, and now, some three years later, the United States was already losing its grip. Kerry watched the local peasants matter-of-factly going about their business of cultivating rice as deadly explosions of U.S. ordnance echoed off the nearby Marble Mountains. His letter to his parents continued,
Every so often, there would be an open field where there were a few huts and people working in it with their pant trousers rolled up and their large hats covering up expressionless faces. How could these people really believe we are helpin them? It seemed so utterly crazy—the idea of all this modern equipment fighting for an ideal that meant everything to those who were fighting but that could so obviously mean nothing to those ... whom the fighting was supposedly for. I know it is easy to be emotional but I can't help getting the feeling that their faces seemed to say go away and let us alone.
The main theme throughout Kerry's correspondence from Vietnam during that visit was how disturbing it felt to be an unwelcome soldier in a foreign land. What he found difficult to handle was the hostile stares at his uniform. One woman he met, who worked for the Red Cross, told him that more than a thousand Vietcong were living among them in Danang. Exaggerated or not, such reports made Kerry nervous, as he wrote home:
Wherever I went and young Vietnamese men would look at me I grew scared. There really was no way to tell who was who. You could be in a room with one and not know whether he was really a Charlie or not. It became easy to sense the distrust that must exist in the outlying areas. How could one really fight in the fields and know whether at any time the men beside you were not going to turn tail and train their guns on you. Whom did you begin to trust and where did you draw the line. Another ludicrous aspect of the war.
The Bounty Hunters
erry's first night on Mekong Delta river patrol found PCF-44, his first Swift boat, supporting a provincial reconnaissance unit (PRU), one of more than 200 such eighteen-man squads in a CIA-funded program aimed at destroying the Vietcong through assassination, kidnapping, and sabotage carried out by Vietnamese mercenaries. Paid four times what privates in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) received, plus hefty bounties per kill or captured prisoner or weapon, PRU members in many cases were hardened South Vietnamese criminals given a choice between life imprisonment and joining up; in others they were North Vietnamese and Vietcong defectors recruited for their willingness to do anything for a price. The commander of the PRU that Kerry's boat had been assigned to support boasted that five of his men had been decorated for bravery by Ho Chi Minh himself. Now, for money, they were shooting their former comrades-in-arms, local peasants, and anyone who broke curfew or trespassed. This policy of recruiting a mercenary army of proven traitors and vicious criminals instilled deep doubts in Kerry about the eventual success of the United States in Vietnam. The outright encouragement of enemy defections to the ARVN caused great resentment among many South Vietnamese army regulars, who were envious of the money lavished on the defectors by the U.S. government. Why should the regulars fight, if enemy deserters came out so far ahead? What's more, the regulars never knew if the defectors could be trusted—many defectors, in fact, later returned to the Vietcong. If "Vietnamization"—the phasing out of U.S. forces as their responsibilities were turned over to the South Vietnamese—meant stacking the army with enemy sympathizers, it hardly seemed likely that the South Vietnamese would ever be able to sustain, much less win, the war on their own.
Kerry wondered about all of this as he and his crew helped the mostly ex-Vietcong of the PRU land in a supposed guerrilla stronghold on his Swift's opening night in the riverine war. After the PRU had disappeared into the dense mangrove trees lining the bank, Kerry beached his boat on the mud, just a few hundred yards downstream from where the unit had landed. "There we sat silently, waiting to help if called upon," he wrote later in his war notes. "Hours passed slowly by. Then, late at night, a red flare shot into the sky from the PRU's position. It meant 'Emergency Extraction'—get the PRU's out as fast as possible." Two patrol boat river craft (PBRs) that were anchored close by also sprang into action. Before Kerry and his crew could get their Swift off the mud, "the PBRs had disappeared up a small estuary." The skipper of one was on the radio shouting to headquarters, "Emergency Extraction requested—moving in now—Emergency Extraction requested."
The Swift boat's young lieutenant had scant idea what he and his men were supposed to do. "The disorganization was incredible," Kerry wrote in his war notes. "We had never worked with the PBR's before. The Operation Order given to us that morning contained no contingencies for Swift boats." Kerry's Swift came under fire, but the crew couldn't tell from where. In the rush to get out of there, the boat ran aground. Finally the PBRs reappeared. Kerry's account of that night's events continued.
They had a sampan in tow and were moving very slowly, confident that the shooting was over for the evening. [Boatswain's Mate Stephen W.] Hatch nursed the Swift alongside the PBR. I jumped aboard to talk with the Chief Petty Officer in charge. "What happened?" "The PRU's were patrolling through the area when they came on a hut with two people in it. Man and a woman. PRU's went in and found the woman writing a letter to her VC boyfriend. So they took 'em into custody. As they were comin back they spotted a sampan with four people in it. They took 'em under fire and that's it." It seemed like an every day occurrence to him. "Were the people killed?" I ventured timidly. "Hell yes. PRU's don't miss when they shoot."
Then, Kerry wrote, he looked over at the young woman they had detained, "who was squatting in the rear of the PBR."
"But the people in the sampan didn't fire or anything?" Just shooting them seemed incredible.
The Chief talked on. "Doesn't matter. They shouldn'a been there. Besides, one of the PRU's says they had guns but that the sampan tipped over and the guns were lost in the water."
She was defiant. She sat very calmly, watching the movements of the men who had just blown four of her countrymen to bits. She glared at me. I wondered about her boyfriend who was fighting us somewhere else. The PBR crew said that the men in the sampan got what they had coming to them but I felt a certain sense of guilt, shame, sorrow, remorse—something inexplicable about the way they were shot and about the predicament of the girl. I wanted to touch her and tell her that it was going to be all right but I didn't really know that it would be. Besides, she wouldn't have accepted my gesture with anything but scorn. I looked away and did nothing at all which was really all I could do. I hated all of us for the situation which stripped people of their self respect.
Kerry returned to his boat, and as it moved out to the Soi Rap River, he looked back and saw the PRU mercenaries talking animatedly, no doubt discussing the lucrative killing they had just done.
One of them mimicked the expression and the position that one of the dead had assumed at the instant he had become one of the dead. It had been easy. No shot had been fired at them. Besides, the dead didn't matter at all. They were now just four more casualties of war. The United States would now pay each of the PRU's X number of dollars for the people they had killed. And the total body count was now four higher than before.
Death of a Tiger Scout
o matter how mentally conditioned a soldier may feel for combat, nothing prepares him psychologically for the sight of a violent death. Although John Kerry had heard about the deaths of many men in Vietnam, including Dick Pershing and others he had known in Boston and New Haven and Newport and San Diego, he did not actually see a man die firsthand until December 29, 1968. On that day he was taking his gunner's mate, Stephen Gardner, who had suffered a shrapnel wound to his arm, to the U.S. Army's Third Surgical Division. After their arrival at the makeshift hospital at Dong Tam, they came upon a handful of seriously wounded young South Vietnamese soldiers. Kerry wrote about one of these soldiers in his war notes.
He was Vietnamese. I didn't know his name. Nobody in the tent did, I think. He was completely nude and his bony, minute body was stretched out on the brown plastic mat covering the operating table. Figures in green pushed in and out through the two doors which marked the pre-operating section of the Third Surgical Division, U.S. Army. An eerie, fluorescent light shone down on his face. His chest moved up and down without rhythm and with very little strength, sucking breath in slow gasps. My eyes darted between the operating table and a huge plastic tube for air-conditioning which ran across the overhead. It dominated all the other sceptic [sic] trimmings of the emergency ward.
Nguyen's corpse was carried from the room. A nurse came in and with large wads of gauze mopped up the pools of blood darkening on the table. When the fluffy white wads turned to sodden red sponges, she tossed them into a nearby container and readied the table for the next patient.
I watched while a young medic worked to prepare a fourth pint of blood for transfusion. With a pump like those used to take blood pressure, he would squeeze the blood through a plastic tube and into the half-dead Vietnamese. Now and then the Vietnamese's feet would twitch and his arm would try to move up towards his head, movements which were strangely disconnected from the rest of his body and from normality.
I will call him Nguyen. He was a Tiger Scout, a forerunner for one of the platoon of infantrymen at Dong Tam, the Ninth Infantry headquarters. Someone whispered to me that he had been hit by a booby trap. Someone else said it was gunfire. No one knew obviously. From where I was I could see his neck bleeding. His head was arched back and his eyes, only half open and dazed, were searching for something. There was nothing close here for this man—his was a moment of complete loneliness, I thought. No one to hold on to. No one to talk to because he could not speak English and we could not speak Vietnamese and how, anyway, does one bridge the gap at a moment like this?
His left hand was wrapped in gauze. The gauze had turned almost completely red. A pool of blood had gathered on the table below the green army stretcher on which he lay. Everywhere there was blood pouring out of him. Even the transparent, plastic splints around both legs had assumed a red tint. I felt weak. My stomach began to twist and sweat poured all over me. I sat down on the floor because I thought I was going to be sick.
Suddenly Nguyen's right arm moved straight out, grasping towards the door. He grunted desperately. A doctor quickly took his pulse and his blood pressure. His toes, sticking out from the plastic splints, twinkled back and forth. He tried to raise his head and look—perhaps ask something—perhaps a last twinge of fight—and then he was quiet. His right hand, still reaching, came down slowly onto his chest and his other arm, bandaged and absent, lolled over the side of the stretcher. Nguyen was gone. No words. No cry.
It seemed absurd—a man dying alone in his own country. I wanted to cry but I thought that I couldn't let myself and so tears just welled up in my eyelids. Now I wonder why I didn't and I'm sorry.
After Gardner's x-rays were taken at Dong Tam, he and Kerry were directed across a helicopter pad to a building that housed an enormous outpatient clinic. While a surgeon cut into Gardner's arm, Kerry walked around and watched the streams of wounded coming in. The lines reminded him of those that he and his fellows had all waited in for physical examinations at boot camp, but instead of unscarred young recruits, here the queues consisted of patients with bloody bandages wrapped around their heads, legs, arms, chests, or stomachs. Kerry wrote in his war notes,
At the entrance to the building were boots and combat packs which were covered with mud, still wet. Some of the mud was mixed with red streaks of blood. Only minutes earlier those packs and boots had been stalking Viet Cong in a rice paddy or along a path a few miles away. Now the men who had worn them were waiting in the building to have someone dig around in their muscle to pull out pieces of grenades and bullets.
While Kerry was waiting, Nguyen's remains were carried out. Kerry watched in silence as the medics struggled to get the body into one of the dark-green rubber body bags used to transport the dead from battlefield to morgue. This body, like all the bodies Kerry would see in Vietnam, had taken on a surprisingly cumbersome, waxy quality; it rolled "uncontrollably" as the medics tried to lay it in the body bag. Then they zipped the bag up and Nguyen was gone, driven away to be buried along a riverbank somewhere in the land he had died for.
Zumwalt and Abrams
ike many of the junior U.S. Navy officers who applied for Swift-boat duty, John Kerry had assumed that he would be assigned mostly to relatively safe coastal patrols off South Vietnam. A month before he arrived back in-country to begin his second tour of duty, however, the Swift-boat mission had changed into far more dangerous riverine assaults on the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta. The new Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy—Operation SEALORDS—launched in November of 1968, just after then Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. took over the U.S.-South Vietnamese "brown-water navy." On January 22, 1969, some twenty Swift-boat officers from Coastal Divisions Eleven and Thirteen got a chance to air their views about the new policy at a very high level. They were flown to Saigon for a most unusual meeting with Admiral Zumwalt and U.S. Army General Creighton W. Abrams Jr., the overall commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
Upon arriving at the air base at Tan Son Nhut, MACV's headquarters on the outskirts of Saigon, the officers were driven to Vice Admiral Zumwalt's residence. To a history-minded junior officer like John Kerry, Zumwalt was already a legend at age forty-eight. He had graduated seventh in his class (1942) after just three years at the U.S. Naval Academy. Rushed into World War II service, he was assigned to the USS Robinson, a destroyer that saw action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service during a torpedo attack. He displayed similar valor while serving aboard the USS Wisconsin during the Korean War. Fiercely intelligent, hardworking, and exceptionally open-minded, Zumwalt was to become the youngest four-star admiral in American history. In September of 1968, just two months before Kerry returned to South Vietnam to command a Swift boat, Zumwalt had been given responsibility for the soon-to-be-launched riverine strategy. The aim was to strangle the Vietcong by choking off their waterborne supply network from North Vietnam and Cambodia.
That day at his residence Zumwalt faced a score of young officers who were in awe of him—but some of whom were angry, too. Kerry's war notes captured the moment.
The admiral took the stand and introduced General Abrams after we had been given permission to sit down and we listened with open ears for whatever special word the "man" himself could give us. For several weeks there had been conjecture that a major change in strategy was due and that we were going to be cut in on it here. But no. The general, in his portly manner, talked to us about the conduct of the war and told us how what we were doing was terribly important to the war effort. He congratulated us and expressed his admiration and then exhorted us to carry on and continue in our present vein. The talk lasted about twenty minutes and about the only impressive thing was the fact that we had been flown to Saigon to be exhorted by a four star general and the commanding officer himself. I turned with a questioning look to the officer next to me when it was over and we wondered together without saying anything what it was that we were meant to garner from this exhibition.
Kerry was hardly the only skeptic at the so-called Saigon summit. "They tried to pump us up," recalled his fellow lieutenant (junior grade) Bill Shumadine, who had been skippering Swifts in-country since June of 1968. "They didn't ask for our advice." Reflecting back on the event decades later, another lieutenant (junior grade) recalled the snowballing of dissent that had led to the meeting in the first place. "Our division commanders had grown tired of hearing their officers express concern about our mission," he explained. "Collectively, at least most of us felt that running rivers, showing the flag, and shooting things up was too imprecise. We were creating negative feeling among the good guys, the Vietnamese who farmed and fished and tried to raise a family. We wanted to win the people over, not have them hate us for destroying everything in sight."
What Kerry, Shumadine, and the other junior officers could not have known was that General Abrams—who had served as a tank commander under General George S. Patton in World War II—himself harbored deep-seated worries about the progress of the war. It troubled Abrams that every day, it seemed, the deadlines for what would become known as Vietnamization were being moved up as the U.S. government became more and more anxious to get out of Vietnam.
The Saigon summit did not leave the contingent of junior officers either less peeved or very impressed with Abrams; they were, however, glad to be informed that they might be getting Army helicopter support for their river runs. Kerry wrote,
Once the general had left we were shown over to the main part of the Naval Forces Vietnam Headquarters and there we were given an intelligence briefing. Again, we met with nothing that we didn't know and I suspect that any member of the officer corps in the division could have stood up and given a better presentation with no preparation at all. At the end of it, the admiral came back in and made a few more remarks—to the effect that the general had been very impressed with the cut ... of the men he had spoken to. The admiral [said he had] replied that he felt that in that room was a future Chief of Naval Operations which seemed strange to me because almost everyone that I knew was planning to get out. Perhaps the admiral was referring to himself?
After completing his remarks, Zumwalt opened the floor to questions. One officer asked the vice-admiral about Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Corson's book The Betrayal (1968), which argued that the United States would lose the war if it continued to prop up what Corson considered an utterly corrupt Saigon regime. "The people smell the decay of [the government's] corruption," Corson wrote, "which permeates all of South Vietnam and makes a joke out of activities urged by the United States in the name of promoting a democratic society." Zumwalt somewhat obliquely claimed that he had not read Corson's book, and then snapped, "First off, you've got to consider the source." He leveled a glare that said, "You'd better not have a follow-up question, buddy." Then John Kerry had a question. As he wrote in his war notes,
I asked how, if our job was ostensibly interdiction of the movement of supplies, they could justify offensive actions such as we had been sent on—attempts to draw the enemy into ambush and then destroy his ambush capability. He said that the purpose was to show the American flag—an answer that seemed very strange to me when I consider that it was the Vietnamese flag that we were supposed to be fighting for. Why didn't we show their flag or better yet, let them run up the rivers and show their own flag? Many friends of mine in the Marines told me about their operational orders and necessity for artillery wherever they go. The admiral went on to say that he knew Navy men found it hard to go out and find the enemy but that the army did it all the time and that we should get used to it. I wanted to point out that the army was equipped and trained differently than us and that they had some form of support beyond that which we had but then I thought better of it and silence was the better part of virtue.
After some more grilling the vice-admiral was finally rescued by an aide, who made a few remarks about the unavoidability of killing innocent people in Southeast Asia. Zumwalt declared this normal—the fortunes of war, as it were—and to be expected. Then he went on to laud the actions of a boat driver in Danang who had stumbled on some Vietcong near the coast of the Batangan Peninsula and killed them all. This was the aggressive kind of officer the riverine war needed. The aide "started quoting Winston Churchill, telling us Coastal Division Eleven was doing the most important work in the U.S. Navy," one of Kerry's fellow officers, Larry Thurlow, later recalled. "We all looked at each other and thought, 'What is this crap?'"
Kerry wrote in his war notes,
I left this whole Saigon operation just a little bit sicker and a little bit more depressed than when I came. Even the intelligence officer there told us he thought that what we were doing was a mistake but he couldn't control his boss and that was that. The unfortunate thing about advisors is that they tend to tell the advised what they want or need to hear—particularly if they want to move up.
A Child Is Killed
he Vietcong were not easily frightened—and not easily recognized. The battlefield was everywhere in Vietnam, and the enemy was sometimes a barefoot child carrying a bomb in a satchel. As a result, for the most part the rule on a Swift boat was "better safe than sorry." Every Asian was seen as a potential sniper. If a noise came from the thick mangrove brush on a riverbank, it was deemed wiser to spray the area with machine-gun fire than to make a closer investigation. And if in doing so one accidentally killed a civilian, it was better to keep it to oneself.
One of the most horrific moments of Kerry's tour in Vietnam occurred one day toward the end of winter, when the second Swift boat he commanded, PCF-94, and another Swift were patrolling the Cua Lon River in the southwestern delta region. The night was pitch-black, neither Swift's search or boarding lights were working properly, and both boats kept getting stuck on the bottom of a shallow channel. "Many minutes of silent patrolling had gone by when one of the men yelled sampan off the port bow," Kerry wrote in his war notes.
Everybody froze and we slowed the engines quickly. But the sampan was already by us and wasn't stopping. It was past curfew and nothing was allowed on the river. I told the after gunner to fire a few warning shots and in the confusion all the guns opened up. We moved in on the sampan and taking one of the battle lanterns off the bulkhead shone it on the silhouette of the craft that was now dead in the water.
Technically, the two Swifts had done nothing wrong. The sampan, operating past curfew, was undeniably in a free-fire zone. What's more, there had been several incidents of people in sampans trying to get close enough to U.S. Navy vessels to toss bombs into their pilothouses. But knowing they were following official Navy policy didn't make it any easier for the crews to deal with what they saw next. "The light revealed a woman standing in the stern of the sampan with a child of perhaps two years or less in her arms," Kerry wrote.
Neither [was] harmed. We asked her where the men from the stern were as one of the gunners was sure that he had seen someone moving back there. She gesticulated wildly and I could see traces of blood on the engine mounting. It was obvious that they had been blown overboard. Then someone said that there was a body up front and we moved in closer to see the limbs of a small child limp on the sacks of rice. She had already covered it and when one of the men asked me if I wanted it uncovered I said no realizing that the face would stay with me for the rest of my life and that it was better not to know whether there was a smile or a grimace or whether it was a girl or a boy.
Almost every American who served in Vietnam witnessed or heard about innocents' getting killed. The civilian casualties would haunt the consciences of many veterans, including John Kerry. It was impossible to rectify or rationalize a mistake that resulted in such a death. "The child was still dead," Kerry wrote of the accident on the Cua Lon River, "and we had done it."
"Good Hunting? Good Christ"
he longer he was in the Mekong Delta river system, the more Kerry's war notes reflected a distrust of his direct superiors. He also grew more and more uncomfortable with the tacit assumption that an American life was worth so much more than a Vietnamese life. Although he never saw the slightest evidence of bigotry, hatred, or cruelty of any kind in any of the men he served with on a Swift boat, or in any of his fellow Swift skippers, Kerry was troubled by the callous attitude he perceived coming from the top U.S. brass. Worse, it seemed to be trickling down into the enlisted ranks among men eager for promotions. He wrote in his war notes,
The popular view was that somehow "gooks" just didn't have very much personality—they were ignorant "slopeheads," just peasants with no feelings and no hopes. I don't think this was true among most of the officers and this made me wonder how much of it was feigned among the enlisted so that they would look good in the eyes of their more chauvinistic comrades.
Kerry was fortunate never to have a man of that disturbing ilk among his crew. He commanded five men on each of his boats. They could hardly have been more diverse in background, age (ranging from nineteen to thirty-seven), education, point of origin, or anything else except distance from their Yale-grad skipper's privileged upbringing.
"I know that most of my friends felt absolutely absurd going up a river holding a loaded weapon that was supposed to be used against someone who had never really done anything to you and on whose land you were now trespassing," Kerry wrote. "I had always felt that to kill, hate was necessary and I certainly didn't hate these people." In truth, he added, scanning the shore for suspicious movements to shoot at made him "feel like the biggest ass in the world." Kerry had explored similar feelings in a letter to his parents in December of 1968. Describing the sight of American soldiers and their Vietnamese girlfriends strolling down the streets of the U.S. rest-and-recreation-center city of Vung Tau one sunny afternoon, he reflected on the crucial difference between occupiers and liberators of war-torn places. "I asked myself what it would be like to be occupied by foreign troops—to have to bend to the desires of a people who could not be sensitive to the things that really counted in one's country," Kerry wrote in that letter. He had been considering Germany's occupation of France during World War II, he added, when "a thought came to me that I didn't like—I felt more like the German than the doughboy who came over to make the world safe for democracy and who rightfully had a star in his eye."
Less than three months later experience had brought him to another melancholy observation. He wrote in his war notes,
It was when one of your men got hit or you got hit yourself that you felt most absurd—that was when everything had to have a meaning in order for it all to be worthwhile and inevitably Vietnam just didn't have any meaning. It didn't meet the test. When a good friend was hit and perhaps about to die, you'd ask if it was worth just his life alone—let alone all the others or your own.
"But the ease with which a man could be brought to kill another man, this always amazed me," he went on. Even more troubling to him was the imprimatur the U.S. military accorded this coldheartedness. To illustrate his point, he referred to the messages that would come in from the brass at Cam Ranh, praising the Swifts' gunners whenever they had killed a few Vietcong, and ending "Good Hunting": "Good Hunting? Good Christ—you'd think we were going out after deer or something—but here we were being patted on the back and receiving hopes that the next time we went out on a patrol we would find some more people to kill. How cheap life became."
n several occasions Kerry's Swift boat was assigned to transport South Vietnamese forces drawn from the Nung, an ethnic minority group. Many Nung fought as mercenaries with U.S. and ARVN troops against the Vietcong. On March 12, 1969, Kerry's Swift boat and three others were ordered to take a squad of Nung mercenaries and a Green Beret adviser up a small canal and drop them off in a designated spot. The plan was for the Nung to sweep through the area, which was said to harbor a Vietcong tax-collection station, and then rejoin the Swifts a mile or so away. As the mercenaries made their way into the jungle, Kerry took his boat upstream to investigate an area that he and his crew had raided several weeks earlier. To his amazement, as the boat drew near, the crew could smell food cooking on open fires; the people had already moved back in. "It seemed to me to be testimony to the futility of what we were doing," Kerry wrote.
After some more reconnaissance the Swifts moved over to the rendezvous point. Called the north/south canal for lack of any other distinction, the narrow waterway joined the Cua Lon and Bay Hap Rivers, and along its banks Vietcong ambushes had already taken their toll. The setup was ideal: wooden fish stakes placed at irregular intervals required very slow and careful navigation through a space narrower than a single-lane highway. Lieutenant Larry Thurlow's boat went through first, whereupon a mine exploded off its right bow, giving the boat a good shake but causing no real damage. Kerry's boat, meanwhile, had stayed on the beach just down the canal to wait with another Swift positioned there for the Nung troops to emerge from the jungle. When the crews heard the explosion, however, they rushed to their stations and then moved upstream to help. Kerry's was the first Swift to reach Thurlow's, which approached from the other direction; the two met bow to bow on either side of the line of fish stakes spanning the long, thin canal. As they neared each other, the Swifts came under automatic-weapon fire from one of the banks. The bow gunner on Thurlow's boat was so distracted by pain from a wound that he didn't notice Kerry's boat coming and nearly pumped it full of machine-gun fire himself. "For some reason," Kerry wrote, "he looked up at the last moment and relaxed his finger on the trigger."
When the attack had been suppressed two of the Swifts left the scene with the wounded. Kerry's and the fourth stayed behind, not by choice but because they couldn't leave without the Nung troops, who were still ashore, out of sight and also temporarily out of radio contact. "This was absurd," Kerry wrote afterward, "because not knowing where they were going to come out could trigger anybody's finger seeing as we were all jumpy anyway." When the Nung finally did appear, they came sprinting down to the waiting boats, shouting that someone had been chasing them the whole way. "The sergeant who was in charge of them had an old man with him as a hostage and we hustled him aboard too," Kerry wrote. "Then we screamed balls-to-the-wall out of there."
No sooner were they back out on the main river than the Swifts were ordered to return to the canal and redeposit the troops on the shore near the site of the ambush. The crews were exhausted and not much in the mood to go back. But the boats turned around.
They dropped off the Nung troops and moved off a little way, where they waited in case the ground squad called for assistance. At that point, Kerry wrote, the Nung's Green Beret adviser, who had remained aboard Kerry's boat, turned to him and said, "I wouldn't be surprised if our prisoner tries to escape or if he falls on some pungi stakes in there." Kerry wrote,
For the first time I realized that they were planning to take the old man in with them to act as a human mine detector and also because he supposedly knew the area ... The certainty of his trying to escape or of his falling on some pungi stakes didn't mean anything to me until later when I had thought about it and it dawned on me what they meant to do.
The Swifts waited on the canal for about an hour, Kerry wrote, "and then the very tired group of mercenaries made their way back to the boat."
They related to us how they had seen armed VC walking around with impunity but that because the VC had been well equipped and it was late in the day they [had] refrained from making contact. I noticed that the prisoner wasn't with them and the Green Beret winked at me when I asked and said that he had tried to escape. With a smile on his face they boarded the boats and we left the area. For a few nights I wondered about the man—not what—but how they had done it and then one night we got drunk back at the base and I found out that he had been knifed by one of the Nungs and then sliced up and left with a note of warning to the VC.
Boots and Poncho
he very next day Kerry's boat was sent with four others on yet another mission to insert mercenaries at a designated point and then pick them up after they had completed a sweep of the area. Kerry found the drop-off point, and the boats nosed in to a small clearing and started sending the troops ashore. Several minutes after all the Nung had disembarked, the crews heard a booming noise that echoed up the river valley. The squad leader's voice came on the radio and said, "Can you come back in here and pick up a body. I've got one of my boys killed by a booby trap." That was all.
Again Kerry piloted the boat into the bank, where with one of his men, Michael Medeiros, and a few others he went ashore to retrieve the remains of the mercenary, whose name was Bac She De. He was someone they all knew. The squad leader radioed the exact location of the body. "Is it bad?" Kerry asked. The officer replied that Bac She De could be put in "a bucket." The Americans walked on gingerly to avoid triggering another booby trap. "I was almost fearing that Bac She De might suddenly appear and scare the living shit out of me," Kerry wrote in his war notes. "There is nothing worse than approaching a dead body when you don't know exactly what you're going to find."
About fifty yards down the path Kerry and Medeiros came upon the crumpled remains of Bac She De. "I never want to see anything like it again," Kerry wrote.
I remembered easily who he was—the loud, boisterous, fat, impish, man, who was something of a ring leader among the Nungs and who had endeared himself to everyone by his funny face. What was left was human and yet it wasn't—a person that had been only a few moments earlier and that now was a horrible mass of torn flesh and broken bones; bent and bloody, limbs contorted and distorted as they could never be alive. Most of his stomach was hollowed out and there was a huge hole that went through his mouth and nose and out the other side. I didn't really want to look and so I concentrated on working, avoiding contact with any personality.
They wrapped Bac She De up in a poncho, and one of the men started hiking down the path with the bundle of "parceled flesh on his shoulders." AK-47 fire suddenly erupted from their left. The men dove for cover into a gaping ditch next to a dike, and Kerry landed in water and mud nearly up to his waist, with the muzzle of his M-16 firmly planted in the swampy muck.
A whole line of mercenaries had already formed in the ditch, all shooting madly back at what seemed like nothing. However the whiz of bullets over our heads was clearly lethal. And Bac She De lay in front of us crumpled in the poncho while this holocaust went on. His feet were sticking out of one end and I couldn't take my eyes off the boots—one going one way and the other the opposite direction—and the whole thing just silhouetted where he had been dropped suddenly when the shooting began. The alive shooting over the dead to remain alive.
I was amazed at how detached I was from the whole scene. I just lay in the ditch, not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn't see what I was firing at and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schrafft's and had another ice cream sundae or while some fat little old man who made another million in the past months off defense contracts was charging another $100 call girl to his expense account. And then, when the shooting stopped, I came back to where I was.
Douglas Brinkley, a historian and biographer, is the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans. His most recent book is Wheels for the World (2003), a biography of Henry Ford.Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War will be published by William Morrow in January.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2003; Tour of Duty; Volume 292, No. 5; 47-60.