Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Running the Swift Boat Battle to Ground 

In the midst of all the flying accusations, counter-accusatons, exagerations and flat-out lies, William Rood's Chicago Tribune editorial was a welcome objective piece that should serve to remind all of some important truths, both by what he did and didn't say.

First, he was clear and forthwright about that which he was and was not going to speak on, and with good reason. Those who are (rightfully so, I believe) questioning Sen. Kerry's claims and service history would be just as well served to be clear about what they are specifically addressing and the basis for which. While the majority of claims being made directly by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth adhere to this standard, many who are using their arguements second-hand play a bit looser with the "facts" and tend to engage in questionable segues. Likewise, Mr. Rood was very clear that he had no personal knowledge about the Purple Heart incidents nor the Bronze Star incident, so for Kerry supporters to parade this editorial as some sort of panacea to make all questions vanish is just wishful thinking. The basic truth is that Kerry, like any other human, is capable of acts both courageous and craven and that his service in Vietnam does not necessarilly have to be characterized by a single nature.

Another very important thing that is talked around but rarely given what I think is the appropriate consideration is the very real differences of experience between different people in a highly stressed situation. For a very clear sense of the complete lack of "big picture" experienced by those in a combat situation read this excellent write-up on a fire fight experienced recently in Iraq. Though I have never been in a like situation I have no problem believing that combat, even under the best of circumstances, is always a confusing jumble of sensory experiences informed by individual terror, confusion and mortal uncertainty. For multiple individuals to find themselves in their own Rashomon scenario is no surprise, especially 30 years later after fantasies, misunderstandings and confusion has had plenty of time to harden to a believable facimile of memory. For example, in the Bronze Star incident, the agreed upon "facts" are that PCF 3 was hit by a mine, the other boats opened fire on the river banks and Rassmann fell overboard. In the midst of the boats lighting up the shore, the natural confusion following an explosion and being in the river, I find it very believable that Rassmann might have thought he was under fire, even if he was not. Is it not a more reasonable conclusion to reach that he was, in a stressful and dangerous situation, mistaken rather than immediately believe that all the SBVT are maliciously lying for partisan political reasons?

Finally, it starts to shed a little light on one of the military's "dirty little secrets". Believe it or not, members of the military will sometimes exagerate their accomplishments to build up their records or garner awards. Now, I'm not talking about out-and-out lies, but for every mission, operation or examination that goes well, there are often many people whose award recommendations, evaluations or Fitness Reports (FITREPs) cite them as "essential" or "critical" to the success. Also, as is the case for all forms of written communications, there is a distinct military style that will sometimes emphasize certain things over others in order to achieve the desired effect. For example, the Silver Star incident, as described by Rood, clearly shows initiative and aggressive engagement of the enemy that meritted recognition. However, an award write-up that says "LTJG Kerry came up with a plan to agressively engage VC ambush points and directed the three boats of his group in closing and counter-attacking" just doesn't sound quite as heroic as one that decribes him beaching his boat and pursuing the enemy on foot. The action as described by Rood, in my oppinion, is much more deserving of recognition than simply shooting an individual VC and far better demonstrates the level of leadership one would want from a junior officer, but the more individually heroic write-up may have been done to better ensure those up the chain of command, who would have to be convinced of the incident's merit without any direct knowledge of it, would approve the award as written rather than down-grade or disapprove it. Did it deserve a Silver Star? Well, while I may have reached a different conclusion if I had been there, that was the call of the commanders present and the approving authority.

A correlary to this "dirty little secret" is that even if John Kerry wrote his own award recommendations, as many have opined, it would not be uncommon and not necessarilly be an indication of an untoward action. The unfortunate truth is that commanders who do a good job recognizing when their people do well and rewarding them properly are very rare compared to commanders who do a good job recognizing when their people screw up and chewing ass when it is needed. While I can't speak for the other branches, Naval Officers are routinely expected to draft their own correspondence for review. This is especially true for FITREPs, where the practice not only allows one to refine their skill in writing performance evaluations but also to ensure one's boss is fully informed of what the individual thinks their most significant accomplishments are. While there may be a few CO's who rubber stamp whatever the junior officer writes, in the vast majority of cases reports and correspondance is very carefully reviewed and edited to either correct factual errors, add the CO's personal appraisal or to add "key words and tricky phrases" that have special significance for selection and award boards. In fact,for the last award I received I drafted the entire package and justification (at the Captain's request) and was very proud to see that it made it all the way through the Admiral and approved without a major revision. I would be surprised if John Kerry didn't write most of his own after-action reports and award recommendations. This, of course, doesn't do anything to prove or disprove any accusations of polishing his own cannon ball, but it should caution those on both sides of the issue. Without even allowing for the very real possibility of confusion and errors that are a natural part of war, the obvious potential for intentional misrepresentation of fact should inform any attempt by Kerry supporters to use award citations and after-action reports to rebut multiple eye witess accounts. It is equally unfounded for those opposed to Kerry to attempt to discredit the same reports based solely upon their authorship. The bottom line is that honorable men will produce objective documentation in good faith while those less honorable will produce more self-serving subjective records. The real question, as is often the case, is not so much what a specific piece of paper says, but rather what is the demonstrated character of the one who wrote the paper. In this regard, I feel John Kerry is rapidly loosing ground.

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