Kerry's Cambodia question
Wednesday, August 11th, 2004
John Edwards is supposed to be a great lawyer but at the recent Democratic convention he made a rookie mistake: He raised a question without knowing the answer. "If you have any questions about what John Kerry's made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him," he said.
Edwards meant Kerry's "band of brothers" - the small entourage of vets who served under him in Vietnam and now strongly support him for President.
Evidently, Edwards did not know at the time that almost every officer who commanded Kerry or served alongside him opposes his candidacy. Worse, they have formed a group, Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, that claims more than 250 members.
Their case against Kerry is set forth in a new book, "Unfit for Command," co-written by longtime Kerry critic John O'Neill, and in a TV ad from the group.
Kerry's critics in arms allege that he didn't deserve one of his Purple Hearts and his Bronze Star. They make these claims on the basis of firsthand knowledge. But combat is notoriously confusing, and soldiers in the heat of battle make poor witnesses. Kerry deserves the benefit of the doubt. If the Navy says he won his medals fair and square, that's good enough for me.
What Kerry did (or didn't do) in Cambodia is a different matter.
On March 27, 1986, Kerry told his fellow senators: "I remember Christmas of 1968, sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia.
"I have that memory, which is seared - seared - in me."
Here's the problem: Kerry's commanding officers and some of his crew members reportedly deny that he was in Cambodia on Christmas 1968. They say he was stationed near the town of Sa Dec, 55 miles from the Cambodian border.
Kerry's people are trying hard to discredit his discreditors. They call "Unfit for Command" co-author O'Neill a Republican hack with a decades-long grudge against Kerry. They say Texas moneymen close to Karl Rove are behind the TV spots and are warning TV stations, in writing, not to air them. They maintain that the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth are motivated by jealousy of Kerry or anger at his post-Vietnam anti-war activities. They want to dismiss all questions about Kerry's war record as sleazy slander.
Sorry, but that's not going to wash. The issue is not whether the charges against Kerry are politically motivated (they obviously are) or who is paying for them. There's just one relevant question: Are the allegations true? Specifically, is it true he lied about being in Cambodia.
Unlike the debate over Kerry's medals, this is a matter that can be checked and verified. If it turns out Kerry was there, the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth are liars and their charges are, in the words of Kerry's friend John McCain, "dishonest and dishonorable." But if he wasn't there, the Kerry campaign is saddled with a problem it can't solve by calling Republicans names, threatening TV stations or even bringing up President Bush's less than stellar war record.
Kerry has staked his candidacy on Vietnam. His running mate has publicly invited the country to judge Kerry by listening to his comrades in arms. A lot of them, to Edwards' obvious chagrin, are saying that John Kerry is unfit for command.
If it turns out he made up the story of Christmas in Cambodia, they could very well be right.
* Zev Chafets was born and raised in Pontiac, Mich. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to Jerusalem, where he spent 33 years in politics, government and journalism. Chafets is a founding editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine and the author of nine books of fiction, media criticism and social and political commentary. His column in the Daily News began running in the fall of 2000. He now lives in the New York area. E-mail: zchafets @yahoo.com