Phony Debate, Phony Election

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Lost
in the current brouhaha over the Kerry-Swift Boat vets conflict
are some larger questions about military service in general, and
Kerry's military service in particular. But somehow this is not
surprising. Phony elections are bound to get caught up in phony
debates; there is so little real disagreement between the incumbent
warfare/welfare party and the wannabe party of the same ilk that
they're more likely to argue over 35-year-old events as anything
even remotely connected to what might be termed an election "issue."

The
larger truth about Kerry's military service is as apparent as it
is deeply disturbing: it was voluntarily undertaken as a self-consciously
political calculation, a nearly psychotic hunt for military honors
and decorations as future political currency.

Kerry
wasn't likely to get any combat citations serving in the engineering
department aboard the guided missile cruiser USS
GRIDLEY (CG-21)
, which didn't even have a main gun battery for
shore bombardment and where the Navy initially assigned him, so
he volunteered for swift boat duty, where he was sure to see some
action.1 What can one say about a
man who eagerly seeks the opportunity to engage in the use of lethal
force against others, and to have others use lethal force against
him? Is there a certain bravery there? Maybe. Mostly it is just
insanity, though.

The
doling out of medals and decorations is not usually a pure process.
Here's an example: one of the recent flaps involved the "revelation"
that Kerry had authored the text for his own citations. But anyone
who has been in the Navy knows that writing yourself up for a medal
is standard procedure: the recipient almost always writes his own
ticket, so to speak, unless the award is posthumous. Now, there
are practical reasons for this – after all, the recipient is
the one with the best, and often the only, first hand knowledge
of the events, and the superiors who have to approve the medal weren't
there, of course – but it does lend a certain perspective to
the phrase "decorated combat veteran." How meaningful
are military "honors" which are largely self-generated?

In
my own Navy experience, which included some time "on the gunline"
off Beirut in 1983, one of the ships noticed a stray mortar round
from shore, probably intended for the Marines camped out at the
airport, drop harmlessly into the water. I heard they put in for,
but were denied, a combat action ribbon, which requires having been
taken under hostile fire. Most of us found that quite amusing.

Kerry's
"Silver Star" apparently emanates from an incident in
which he, probably in concert with others, chased down a nearly
naked Vietcong teenager and shot him dead, as
even the Kerry-sympathetic Boston Globe can't seem to conceal
or refute
. Such are the vagaries of many "combat decorations,"
though: was it an act of heroism, or a war crime? I guess it … depends.
Maybe the guards at the Abu Ghraib prison could have been "decorated"
were it not for the nasty pictures.

Now,
I'm no fan of the Shrub, but if in the course of this phony debate
it becomes unavoidable to do some sort of "Vietnam era service"
comparison, I think this much can be said: nothing the Shrub did
or didn't do calls his sanity into question, and I don't think he
can be cited for being insufficiently brave, either: flying combat
aircraft is fairly dangerous work, no matter where it takes place.

Nevertheless,
the fact that Bush did not volunteer for combat duty in a strange
and only vaguely human effort to secure his political future, like
Kerry did, merely demonstrates that he is normal by comparison.
Or at least closer to normal, a quality which can be found in modern
presidential politics only in quite limited degrees, let's face
it.

So
far, the Bush operation is taking the position that Kerry dishonestly
embellished his exploits. There is a more rational argument for
Shrub and his handlers to make: Kerry's "war record" indicates
that he is dangerous, unstable, and more than a little weird. But
don't expect that argument to be made. The "war hero"
credential is and must remain unassailable, the pinnacle of qualifications
to "lead" the warfare/welfare apparatus.

So
that's what we're left with: a smaller phony debate in which the
real issue about Kerry's war service is untouched, within the larger
phony debate that makes it a campaign "issue" to begin
with. Otherwise, this laughable excuse for a political contest reminds
me of nothing so much as G.K. Chesterton's
trenchant observation
(paraphrasing): two alternatives so much
alike that the politically powerful would not mind choosing from
them blindfolded – and for a great jest the unwashed masses
are allowed to vote.

Note

  1. In a demonstration
    of how weirdly calculating he is, Kerry – according to the
    Boston Globe article cited elsewhere herein – has claimed
    at least once (in 1986) that his voluntary transfer to the swift
    boats from the GRIDLEY – which by the time he left her was
    back in the US after having completed an uneventful WESTPAC cruise
    – was not an effort to become more involved in "the
    war." The only motive for such an obviously ridiculous assertion
    is to deflect the anticipated criticism that he was quite self-consciously
    on a medal hunt, which subsequent events of course confirm beyond
    cavil.

August
24, 2004

John M. Regan, Jr. [send
him mail
] is an attorney and former naval officer living near
Rochester, New York, and is currently seeking publication of his
first novel.

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