The Thoughtful Soldier

Douglas Brinkley, the author of Tour of Duty, on John Kerry's conflicted but heroic service in Vietnam.

  Tour of Duty

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Douglas Brinkley
William Morrow
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."

He captained two Swift boats, and brought all of his men back alive, which in Vietnam, on Swift duty, was no easy thing. At the same time, he also recognized that the Vietnamese were people, and he encouraged his men to remember that fact, even when military policy openly allowed one to forget it in so-called "free-fire zones." Brinkley points out that even early on, Kerry showed the qualities crucial to a good leader:

He made his authority known clearly but unassumingly. He took a loose, commonsense approach to military roles and regulations. He put his men's safety far above the pursuit of medals or promotions. And perhaps most important, he showed his crew not only compassion but also that he knew how to have fun and considered both essential.

The portrait of Kerry that emerges in this book is complex and multifaceted. He is not necessarily easy to know, and his actions are not necessarily easy to predict, but in Brinkley's view he is a conscientious and thoughtful man, adept at seeing all sides of an issue and taking decisive action.

Perhaps most telling, Brinkley argues, is the fact that the men with whom Kerry served in Vietnam, many of whom are Republicans, continue to stand by Kerry today, speaking out on his behalf and making campaign appearances for him. After all, Brinkley explains,

They're proud of their tour of duty serving under Lieutenant Kerry, even though they may not agree with some of his Senate votes. They're raging Republicans, but they remember that this guy not only brought them home alive, but made them proud of their service.

Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans. His earlier books include Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress.

We spoke on February 25.

—Elizabeth Shelburne

Author photo
Photo credit

Douglas Brinkley

Why did you choose John Kerry as your subject? I know you started the project in 2002 before Kerry had announced his candidacy for President. What drew you to him?

I'm the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, and we have a longstanding World War II oral history project. We've interviewed thousands of veterans from D-Day, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Battle of the Bulge, and so on. A couple years ago, we shifted to the Vietnam War. Now we're interviewing Vietnam veterans. Our first project was interviewing 150 veterans of the Battle of Khe Sanh. The second project was interviewing all of the Vietnam senators: John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, John McCain, Max Cleland, Chuck Wild, and Chuck Hegel—and having them talk about how they served in Vietnam and then came back and ran for the Senate as veterans. That's what their main calling card was. I quickly saw that biographies or memoirs had already been written about most of these guys. But nothing had been written about John Kerry's experience—he was sort of a blank slate.

Also, when I interviewed him I learned that he had kept voluminous diaries and war notes—letters home, all of that. So I started thinking about him more and more, and it made perfect sense to do a book on him. With John Kerry, you not only get all the combat action sequences of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta, but you also get the anti-war movement. Vietnam is more than just a battlefield term. It defines an era of both fighting and protest.

Why do you think Kerry granted you the kind of access that he did?

Believe it or not, simply because I asked. He had all this material in his closet that he hadn't looked at for thirty-five years, and I think he had three choices. One was to keep it all in the closet. The second was to write a memoir himself. And the third was to turn it over to somebody else who would write about it.

This was not an immediate thing. I put in a request when I first heard about the existence of the material, and I was stonewalled for month after month. Finally, I went and interviewed him a second time, and I told him that it was killing me to know that those diaries were just sitting there and that I couldn't read them. He reconsidered and one day just said, "Go at it."

You have to remember that Bob Kerrey got completely pummeled for his service as a U.S. Navy Seal in Vietnam. He was run out of the Senate and run out of politics altogether, and lambasted everywhere from The New York Times to The Nation. So it was not clear that opening this vault, which included stories like the one about Kerry accidentally killing a young girl on a sampan, would be helpful to him. When the Atlantic Monthly article about him first came out a couple months ago, Senator Kerry was very nervous about it. Nobody knew how the media would judge it. But the article got a great response. People felt it showed how literate he was, how thoughtful—that it demonstrated a kind of intellectual angst. But you can never predict how these things are going to play in the culture.

By the second page, you have laid out one of the central themes of the book, which seems to be that John Kerry is this Boston Brahmin who often finds himself at a remove from the people around him, both in the military and in public life. But again and again he's able to cross the chasm. How does he manage to do that?

He really cares about the individuals that he befriends. He has a bond with this band of brothers from Vietnam. These guys are like true family to him. For example, in Vietnam, Kerry never liked to go to the Officers' Club. He would just go eat with the enlisted men. That's unusual. Most of the young officers liked getting away from the enlisted men and hanging out in the Officers' Club. Kerry enjoyed being with the enlisted men more. He just functions better with everyday working people—he doesn't condescend to them. He's not trying to wear blue-collar outfits; he'll wear his Hermès tie to go talk to steel workers. At first, it seemed to me like, God, he's dressed in this perfect suit, and he's going to a factory? But ultimately, the factory workers prefer that to his pretending that he's one of them. We can make fun of him for looking stiff, or for wearing a fancy suit, but it's much worse to seem like you're changing your clothes and your attitude just to be something you're not.

In your book, you mention that Kerry fancied himself more of a "liaison between the establishment and the have-nots, than a true member of either." Does he still have that vision of himself now?

Yes. That's very much in the aristocratic, democratic tradition of people like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy who were able to champion the underclass, even though they themselves came from the upper class.

Kerry volunteered for the Navy after Yale. What drove him to do that?

To understand John Kerry, you need to look at his father, Richard Kerry. During World War II, Richard was a test pilot. In fact, he flew planes at such a high altitude that he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a hospital in the Rocky Mountains. John Kerry was born in December 1943 in Denver, Colorado, while his father was thought to be dying of TB. Once his father healed, he was no longer able to fly planes at that altitude. He shifted from working in the U.S. military to working for the State Department.

The Kerry family had been stationed in Berlin, Oslo, France, and all over the eastern seaboard. They had a great sense of public service. Richard Kerry absolutely loved the American armed forces, and there was nothing that made him more proud than for his son to enlist. Richard Kerry was of the WWII generation, which felt that enlisting was how you showed your love for your country. By 1965, Richard Kerry thought Lyndon Johnson was making a terrible mistake in sending mass numbers of troops into Vietnam, and he was violently opposed to U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. But in spite of these feelings, he also thought his son should serve in uniform. People today have a lot of trouble understanding that. When you believe in your country and you want to wear the uniform, you go into the military even if there's turmoil, and you follow your commander-in-chief, even if you don't agree with him. There are plenty of young men and women in Iraq right now who don't think we should be there. But that doesn't mean they're not doing their duty in an admirable fashion every day.

If you were Kerry, how could you not serve? Was he going to live his life as a fraud—as somebody like Dick Cheney who finagled five deferments? Or was he going to try to use his father's influence like Bush to jump over a hundred thousand other people on a waiting list to get a National Guard billet? He couldn't live with himself if he did that. That's how one defines character.

You talk about Kerry's taking a shortcut through the Marine Corps recruit center when he was training in San Diego, and watching hundreds of men stabbing imaginary targets to the rhythmic cry of "Kill!" On another occasion, you tell the story of his seeing an officer berate two low-ranking men for seemingly no reason besides the fact that he could. You note that after seeing those things Kerry grew determined to remain true to himself rather than to the military system. Did he succeed in doing that?

Yes, he stayed true to himself by not believing everything that he heard and saw. He followed orders, but he constantly let his dissenting views be known. He would report to commanders, admirals, and others and tell them what he thought was wrong with what was going on. They always shot him down, but he always voiced what he really believed in anyway. His diaries are filled with his telling it straight about what was going on. His analysis of the problems of Operation Sealord is historically accurate.

Many men went to Vietnam and just got numb; they tried to live day by day, and not think. They believed that too much thinking was an enemy. It would destroy your morale and your inner peace—and in the long run it would have a negative effect. Kerry refused to believe that. He wanted to document his emotions and his responses to what he saw happening around him—and his analysis of the war was very astute.

During his time in Vietnam, Kerry seemed to struggle with a growing belief that the U.S. shouldn't be there, and also with the desire to do more, such as pursuing command of his own Swift boat. You quote him as saying, "On the one hand I wanted the Paris peace talks to end the war, on the other hand, I had trained to fight and I wanted to." How did he manage that uneasy balance between those two points of view?

He managed it the way most of the soldiers in Vietnam did—you'd have to have a screw loose if you enjoyed war and killing people. On the other hand, you're trained to do your best—to go on missions and to accomplish your objectives. That's what a good soldier does. As an officer, he was responsible for men's lives; he wanted to bring them all home alive. He also wanted them to be proud of their tour of duty, to not commit atrocities, and to feel that they were actually helping the Vietnamese.

There's a very poignant moment in the book where Kerry finds forty-two starving Vietnamese in a pit and radios back to tell headquarters about them. Headquarters told him, "Go on with your mission, leave them there." And Kerry felt that that was morally wrong, so he broke orders and got all forty-two Vietnamese to board the convoy of Swift boats and brought them in for immediate medical attention. He could have been not only reprimanded but court-martialed for that. But the men who were part of that episode said, "This is why we like John Kerry: we felt good about ourselves for that day. Sometimes we felt we were monsters in Vietnam. We would just see villages burned or Vietnamese people's lives being disrupted by us, but on this day we saved forty-two people's lives." That's the kind of thing that Kerry did to really gain their loyalty.

These men, most of them Republicans, are now following Kerry on the campaign trail and vouching for him. They're proud of their tour of duty serving under Lieutenant Kerry, even though they may not agree with some of his Senate votes. They're raging Republicans, but they remember that this guy not only brought them home alive, but made them proud of their service.

John Kerry went to Vietnam expecting to captain a Swift boat on coastal duties, but as policies changed, the Swifts were increasingly put on riverine duty—seemingly an entirely different beast. How did that affect Kerry's time in Vietnam?

Greatly. When Kerry signed up for Swift boat school at Coronado in San Diego, he was essentially looking to do Coast Guard duty in Vietnam. There are over twelve hundred miles of coastline in Vietnam, and at that point the U.S. Navy was implementing Operation Market Time. The job of a Swift boat commander was to stop a commercial vessel, inspect it for contraband, make sure all the papers were in order, and let it go, or else detain it if there was a reason to.

But when he arrived in Vietnam, Operation Market Time had morphed into Operation Sealords, which meant that these fifty-foot aluminum Swift boats were now going deep into the river system of the Mekong Delta and Ca Mau Peninsula near the Cambodian border. Their job was to destroy Vietcong base camps. The magnitude of danger was multiplied by a hundred, which is something that Kerry never expected. He was looking for some action in Vietnam by having his own command, but he thought he was going to be doing coastal duties in aquamarine water. Suddenly, he found himself in daily riverine warfare, which was something he had never reckoned with and not something he had volunteered for.

Why did he increasingly come to believe that riverine warfare was a mistake in policy?

Because the motors of the Swift boats could be heard from two miles away. If you were a VC with a D-40 rocket grenade launcher, you'd hear the humming of the Swift boats and you'd go and hide in mangrove thickets, and put the rocket launcher on your shoulder, and kaboom! You'd blow up the Swift boats. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Any time you went on a mission you had a seventy-five percent chance of somebody being killed. These were essentially suicide missions that they were being sent on.

Kerry emerges as a thinking man's soldier throughout the war. As you say, he wanted to know what was really going on, and he preferred to hear the story of Vietnam from the more skeptical journalists like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Stanley Karnow, as opposed to from John Wayne movies like The Green Berets. How did this quality serve him in Vietnam, and then later in life?

Nobody's ever accused John Kerry of not being exceptionally bright. He was the head of Yale's political union, gave the class oration at Yale, and was generally widely read in literature. He had memorized T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Prufrock. He knew all the World War I anti-war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Robert Graves was a great favorite of his. He understood that a lot of the best literature of World War I had been written by the soldiers. The anti-war literature of The Wasteland period and the Lost Generation came from people who served in World War I and were disillusioned by it.

Going into Vietnam with that literary background allowed him to feel that it was okay to have doubts about what was going on. He believed that keeping a constant awareness of reality was the way to stay alive. A part of being aware meant knowing, for example, that Captain Roy Hoffman, one of his commanding officers, was a bit mad. He had to be triple cautious because this guy had no sense of the preciousness of life. He was always willing to lose one American if you could kill fifty VC. Kerry didn't like the trade—he never wanted to lose any Americans.

That sense of intellectual awareness allowed him to not be a by-the-books kind of officer. He won the Silver Star for essentially disobeying orders: he saw a man in a spider-hole with a D-40 rocket launcher and instead of continuing upriver, he immediately beached the boat right on top of the guy. That was an instantaneous decision; he realized that to be good at war was to have a sense of spontaneous survival skills.

Throughout the book, you tell a lot of stories that show Kerry as a risk-taker, for example beaching the boat in order to find this guy…

I disagree with that—that's not risk-taking. That was saving lives. The risk would have been to not have beached the boat. He would have been dead.

Now, did he risk getting court-martialed or being reprimanded? Sure. But those are minor risks compared to saving lives. For example, when talking about the day Kerry charged up the river to save Army Lieutenant Jim Rassman who had been blown off a neighboring Swift boat by an explosion, and was taking sniper fire in the river, people say, well, he risked his life to save Rassman. He didn't risk anything. Kerry couldn't have lived with himself otherwise. Could you live with yourself if you saw somebody drowning and you didn't help them? It's not risk, it's just being human.

Other people in the military thought of the Vietnamese as "gooks"; they thought they weren't human—that they were like animals. Kerry saw each Vietnamese person as a human being. He believed in treating them as he would treat any other person. That was enlightened thinking in Vietnam in '68 and '69. From our vantage point today, of course they're humans, but they weren't being portrayed that way to the military at the time. And so all of those moments when Kerry had a chance to kill a Vietnamese person in a free-fire zone and he refused, that was Kerry determined not to become a monster.

Was Kerry's behavior in instructing his men not to shoot in free-fire zones, even though military policy was that you could shoot the Vietnamese without reason in these zones, unusual or common?

The Vietnamese were getting shot at all the time when they were in free-fire zones. But Kerry was always cautious. He didn't want to just assume that somebody was the enemy, and that you had to blow them up simply because you could and orders meant you wouldn't get into trouble. Kerry said to himself, I don't want to live my life knowing I blew up a bunch of civilians because maybe they were the enemy; only in the most dire and desperate circumstances will I shoot somebody. And that is the kind of caution he applied to saving human lives there.

I started my book convinced I was going to find some guys among the crewmates who couldn't stand John Kerry. I interviewed every single one of them, and they all said the same thing. All of the crewmen say that this guy constantly showed a humanitarian side combined with an ability to save his men's lives and to respond in an instant.

One thing you note is that "Kerry was opposed to overwrought rhetoric, adverse to the cultivated sloppiness of professional peaceniks, short-fused when it came to blowhard apparatchiks, and against extremism of any kind." But in the early seventies, as you mentioned earlier, Kerry was considered to be a real threat by Nixon. Could you talk about what sort of threat Nixon thought Kerry presented?

Kerry returned home in March of 1969 with three Purple Hearts. What people often miss is that he continued to serve in the U.S. Navy, as an aide to Admiral Walter Schlech in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He now was back home, living in New York City, and was very much opposed to the Nixon's Administration's incursions into Cambodia and Laos. But he refused to join the anti-war movement while still in uniform, because he respected it too much. It was only at Christmastime when he talked with his father and resolved that he wanted to run for Congress that he decided to protest the war. But he made a decision to ask Admiral Schlech to let him out early. It was fifty-fifty that Schlech would let him. If Schlech would not let him out early to run for Congress, Kerry was going to just stay in the military and not protest.

He did get out, and once he did, he became a vocal spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His true legacy with that organization was keeping their protests non-violent. In April of '71, Kerry came to Washington before the famous Senate testimony he made. He came for Dewey Canyon III, an anti-war march by over a thousand Vietnam veterans. He worked with federal judges to get permits to sleep in the parks, made sure they had the right parade routes, and formed relationships with the police. He was simply trying to hold a non-violent protest march. His number one objective with Dewey Canyon III was to not have anybody arrested—to not do something that was going to disrupt the flow of traffic or create an ugly scene. After he did a Meet the Press appearance, he went to the U.S. State Department and talked to them about what was happening in Vietnam, and he testified at the Senate. He was working from within the system. He quit the VVAW in October of '71 because the organization became too radical.

Wasn't it when he was with the VVAW that Nixon made threats against Kerry?

Nixon made the threats starting in April of '71 when he heard Kerry testify in front of Senator Fulbright. Richard Nixon was afraid because this guy was six feet four, handsome, articulate, a blue-blood, Yale degree, Skull and Bones, with a father who was a well-known diplomat and former WWII test pilot—and this guy could influence Middle America. You couldn't write John Kerry off as a Haight-Ashbury hippie or a Greenwich Village beatnik. His eyewitness testimony about what was going on in Vietnam would be very damaging to the Nixon Administration's foreign policy. So they went after Kerry any way they could. The FBI infiltrated the VVAW, and Kerry was starting to be followed. He believed his telephones were tapped for that year and beyond. In '72 a brick was thrown through the window of his house and almost hit his first child. There's the President of the United States telling his senior advisors, "Let's destroy the young demagogue." John Kerry? Geez.

Throughout the book, you present a very human picture of John Kerry: someone who hammed it up for laughs with high school friends and played in the band—someone who, to the laughter of his crew, pulled on two pairs of flak pants "to protect the family jewels." Do you think he's going to show that lighter side to the American public?

John Kerry is not a person you get to know easily. He's somebody that keeps a bit of himself private and always will. He refuses to let people know him fully. That's the way he has chosen to live his life. I think if he ever lost that sense of the private John Kerry, he would feel he had become a political monster of some sort. He would have lost his reflective side. He likes his time by himself: listening to music and reading books. He's uncompromising on keeping that. It frustrates a lot of people around him because they want him to be more gregarious and emotionally available. But he calls time-outs a lot and retreats into John Kerry private time. I don't think that will ever change. If you're going to vote for Kerry, you have to understand that part of him.

I was interviewing him in Boston to get material for the book right before Christmastime, and he forgot he had an appointment at the eye doctor. We went over to the eye doctor's together so I could continue asking questions. These two maintenance men at the building were so excited to see their Senator. They said, "Merry Christmas, Senator." Any other politician would have gone over there and hugged them. Kerry did a kind of formal bow to each of them. I said to him, "They were so excited to see you. Why didn't you go over there and pat them on the back more?" And he said, "I respect them too much. I don't like people to come and paw me. If I really respect what they do and their work, why would I go over and just paw them?"

That's Kerry. Clinton and Edwards would have been all over those guys. Kerry's way of respecting them was by showing some distance.