"Tour of Duty" by Douglas Brinkley

A new bestseller makes clear that John Kerry fought heroically in Vietnam -- and heroically against it once he got home. Is there anything else interesting about the guy?


Laura Miller
February 4, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

Late in "Tour of Duty," Douglas Brinkley's account of John Kerry's experience of the Vietnam War, the author describes a 1971 fundraiser for Vietnam Veterans Against the War held in the posh Washington neighborhood of Georgetown. Sen. J. William Fulbright turned up at the party, and one of the VVAW's more hot-blooded leaders, Scott Camil, cornered the Arkansas Democrat: "Here he was, bragging about how much he was against the war," blustered Camil. "So I just went up to him and said, 'Look, the Gulf of Tonkin [Resolution] gave the President the power to do what he did [i.e., dramatically expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict]. You voted for it. Why did you vote that way?'"

Brinkley sniffs at Camil's tactics, comparing them to the "nonconfrontational, pleasant demeanor" of Kerry, also a VVAW leader, who "circulated around the party with grace and dignity." Figuring Kerry for an eminently presentable spokesman for the cause, Fulbright invited him to speak to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the next day, and a star was born. Kerry's two-hour statement objecting to the thinking behind the war, the way it was prosecuted and the nation's neglect of the veterans who survived it was capped off with an unforgettable sound bite: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Kerry demanded of the senators.

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Brinkley writes that throughout his testimony Kerry maintained "a dignified calm," although he also describes the 27-year-old as "impassioned." Certainly no one could impugn the relatively clean-cut veteran's courage or patriotism. During Kerry's stint as a Navy lieutenant (junior grade) in Vietnam, he won the Purple Heart three times and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, both for exceptional gallantry in action. His testimony was devastating to the Nixon administration's ongoing efforts to discredit the antiwar movement.

But the story of how Kerry managed to get in front of the committee also poses the conundrum of his political career. Although he'll never be the kind of rabble-rouser many people want in an opposition leader, he can get through doors that brasher men can't. The question is: What will he deliver once he gets through? In 1971, Kerry's testimony made headlines and positioned the VVAW as, in Brinkley's words, "a kinetic grassroots veterans' movement" with serious claims on the nation's conscience, rather than a motley band of long-haired malcontents and would-be revolutionaries. Camil, by comparison, was more outspoken and accomplished little more than rubbing a powerful potential ally the wrong way.

So far, Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have endorsed Kerry's cautious, color-inside-the-lines approach; electability first. Once again, he's offering himself as the well-groomed, calmly dignified spokesman for a rambunctious and sometimes off-puttingly angry constituency. But refraining from scaring off centrist voters is a little uninspiring, as virtues go. So Kerry's campaign needs to flesh out its candidate's "story," that potted narrative meant to convey a politician's character, and that's where Brinkley's book comes in. Although Brinkley commences the book with an author's note explaining that Kerry gave him "complete and unrestricted access" to his journals and correspondence, and that Kerry exerted "no editorial control on the manuscript," it's hard to see what fault, if any, the Massachusetts senator and his backers could find with it.

"Tour of Duty" devotes few of its 500 or so pages to Kerry's work as a lawmaker or as Massachusetts' lieutenant governor. Instead, it zeroes in on his war experiences and the antiwar organizing he did once he got back from Vietnam. As records go, Kerry's is just about perfect. He was the scion of a semi-Brahmin clan of comfortable means. (Kerry's mother's family was old New England, but his paternal grandparents, it was discovered only last year, were Jews who fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire and converted to Catholicism in the U.S., concealing their roots.) As such, he could have done what many of his prep-school and Yale classmates (and fellow Yale man George W. Bush) did and used his connections to secure a safe, comfy billet far from the action in Vietnam. Instead, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and even volunteered for dangerous assignments once he landed "in country."

Eventually, Kerry became the skipper of a series of small Swift Boats (patrol vessels manned by a crew of six), and participated in the river raids of Operation Sealords in the Mekong Delta. Brinkley's descriptions of the "brown water," or riverine, warfare practiced in the delta are the most interesting passages in the book (although that's not saying much).

Kerry and his crew were charged with cruising up the delta's web of waterways and boarding and searching suspicious vessels in the effort to cut off Viet Cong supply lines. They also regularly got sent up canals into enemy territory with orders to "show the flag" and shoot up Viet Cong positions along the banks. The boats were loud (so everyone could hear them coming) and often had difficulty navigating the shallow, narrow canals. The lush foliage on the banks provided excellent cover for the enemy, and the Americans felt like targets in a shooting gallery.

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In this aspect, Sealords was a manifestly stupid operation, the pet of a gung-ho regional commander who was keen to make admiral. In a way, it was a quintessential Vietnam War operation: a highly dangerous endeavor serving no reasonable purpose with no measurable or meaningful goal. To his credit, Kerry repeatedly tried to explain this to his superiors, even when he was sent back to the U.S. after being wounded for the third time in four months. He also fought bravely and conscientiously, despite having doubts about the war even before he decided he was duty-bound to enlist. His crew respected and trusted him, and by all accounts still do; most have turned up to endorse his campaign. Recently, Kerry was publicly reunited in Iowa with an Army officer (a Republican) whose life he saved. A wounded Kerry had pulled the man out of the water under a hail of bullets.

Once honorably discharged, Kerry became a pro-veteran antiwar activist; improving the deplorable healthcare his fellow vets received was (and is) one of his favored causes. There were the usual gripes once Kerry became the most visible member of the VVAW (he was once applauded on a Manhattan street by people who recognized him from "The Dick Cavett Show"). Other members accused him of showboating and using the movement as a springboard for a political career. But Brinkley makes a solid case that Kerry's antiwar activism actually cost him his first political campaign, an early run at the congressional seat for Massachusetts' 5th District in 1972. His opponent reviled him as "a dressed-up Abbie Hoffman."

Kerry had been preparing himself for public office pretty much all his life, from prep school through the Yale debating club. In fact, to judge by "Tour of Duty," his antiwar activism seems like the only thing he's ever done that wasn't strictly part of the program. Yet if Kerry's patent ambition sometimes bothered people, Brinkley portrays it sympathetically, as part of an ethos of service Kerry acquired from his father and from his idol, John F. Kennedy. Even the stint on the Swift Boats seems a deliberate, even puppyish emulation of JFK's World War II PT-boat exploits.

The John Kerry Brinkley describes is a bit daring (he once tried to fly a small plane under the Golden Gate Bridge) but not foolhardy; cool enough to like rock 'n' roll and a drink or two, but indifferent to illegal drugs; from a good family but not too rich; well-read and comfortable rubbing shoulders with Kennedys, but able to connect with the working-class soldiers under his command; disgusted by the mistreatment of Vietnamese civilians by American troops, but exasperated by the South Vietnamese army's lack of gumption; outraged by the idiocies and excesses of the Vietnam War but no pacifist; fired up about injustice but able to keep his head while fighting it. He's neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft, a veritable Goldilocks of candidates, the essence of judicious moderation.

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Unfortunately for Kerry, while he was patterning his political career in the image of John F. Kennedy's, the nation's sense of what it wants in a president has undergone some unexpected changes. His middle-of-the-road voting record and bipartisan inclinations in the Senate leave him open to attacks from both the right and the left, but most senators are vulnerable to such criticism. The glowing war record he can hold up to Bush's Vietnam-era shirking no doubt strikes his supporters as a solid rejoinder to the fear that Democrats are slackers on national security. But in some ways Kerry is just too good.

For all its heroism, Kerry's "story" is not one of triumph over personal demons or the disadvantages of poverty, but one of exceptional rectitude. How many Americans can listen to it in total confidence that they, too, would have chosen to face the nightmares of Vietnam instead of opting for the easy out? His is a path to admire rather than a struggle to identify with. As a nation, we seem to have drifted away from wanting a president we can idealize to preferring one whose all-too-human foibles put us as ease -- he's just like us! A significant percentage of voters seem to pick the candidate they'd most want to have over for a backyard barbecue. On that score, John Kerry still has a long way to go.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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