Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War
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by Douglas Brinkley
546 pages, $25.95
Within a five-year period from 1966 to 1971, John Kerry gave a college graduation speech denouncing the Johnson Administration's policies in Vietnam, voluntarily entered the United States Navy, requested duty in Vietnam, won three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, became the most prominent spokesman for the anti-war group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and quit the organization because it had became too radical.
Though no one questions Kerry's bravery during the war, he has been criticized for flip-flopping back and forth between positions. That he is capable of such twists and turns concerns some people and, no doubt, delights Karl Rove. But in his new book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, Douglas Brinkley suggests that Kerry's decisions during those years were based on thoughtful principles and are not evidence, as some critics have argued, of a lack of conviction. Brinkley's book, an excerpt of which was The Atlantic's cover story for December, is based on Kerry's diaries and letters, as well as interviews with Kerry and the men who served with him. Brinkley offers a comprehensive picture of Kerry as a young soldier seeking to reconcile his sense of duty to his country with his belief in the importance of speaking out about his convictions. On one occasion, upon learning of the death of his best friend in Vietnam, he wrote to his girlfriend:
I just stood there frozen and then read your telegram knowing already in my heart the Godawful wasteful stupid thing that had already happened ... 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.
However wasteful Kerry found the war to be, after his friend's death, he was even more prepared to play his part in it. As Brinkley notes, Kerry "felt readier than ever to take on the Viet Cong. They had killed his friend, and he was ready to kill them if he had to."