Liar vs. coward in the Vietnam ad war.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Aug. 18 2004 6:57 PM

Unfriendly Fire

Liar vs. coward in the Vietnam ad war.

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"Any Questions" was produced for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by Stevens Reed Curcio. "Swift Response" was produced for MoveOn PAC by Zimmerman and Markman. To watch "Any Questions" on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Web site, click here. To read the script, click here. To watch "Swift Response" on the MoveOn PAC Web site, click here. To read the script, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

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The negative phase of the general election started early this year, so the traditional late-summer moral descent is taking us one step deeper, to the personally nasty. "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"—their Web site calls them Swiftvets—say Kerry lied about Vietnam. MoveOn PAC says the Swiftvets, with Bush's complicity, lied about Kerry lying.

The Swiftvets' allegations are deliberately blurred. Their ad starts with John Edwards urging people to talk to "the men who served with" Kerry. Several Swiftvets then appear on the screen, saying they "served with" Kerry. This is a semantic trick. Edwards is talking about crewmates who, at one time or another, accompanied Kerry on his six-man boat. The Swiftvets served with Kerry only in the sense that they manned other boats in Vietnam. It's a bit like saying you spent the night with Bill Clinton because you were on Martha's Vineyard, too.

Thirteen vets make 15 statements in the ad. Let's discard the unfalsifiable ones: "You could not count on John Kerry," "John Kerry is no war hero," "John Kerry has not been honest," "John Kerry cannot be trusted," "He is lying about his record," and "He lacks the capacity to lead." There's no way to fact-check these because they cite no facts.

Next, let's distinguish Kerry's statements about what he did from his statements about what others did. Most of the Swiftvets' material complaints address the latter: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam," "John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam," "He dishonored his country ... he most certainly did," "He betrayed all his shipmates ... he lied before the Senate." Phrases such as "what happened in Vietnam," "dishonored his country," "lied before the Senate," and "the men and women he served with" (there were no women on Kerry's boat) give away that these claims have nothing to do with Kerry's service. They're about his allegations afterward that American forces participated in war crimes.

The war crimes debate is murky. Kerry testified not about what he had seen but about what other servicemen had told him. And some war crimes clearly occurred. So at a minimum, in both spirit and substance, he didn't lie.

That brings us to the allegations that he misrepresented his own experiences. Here, Kerry's testimony was firsthand, so his veracity is on the line. Only two statements in the ad fall into this category. One comes from Louis Letson: "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." The other comes from Van O'Dell: "John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. ... I know, I was there, I saw what happened."

Letson loses credibility right away for implying that he has firsthand knowledge about his allegation. He doesn't. The allegation has to do with the source of Kerry's injury, not its severity. According to Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, Letson told the paper that after treating Kerry, "[Letson] learned from some medical corpsmen that other crewmen had confided that there was no exchange of fire and that Kerry had accidentally wounded himself as he fired at the guerrillas. Letson said he didn't know if the crewmen giving this account were in the boat with Kerry or on other boats."

That's third-hand testimony from somebody who doesn't even know the identity or location of the firsthand source. Pretty lousy stuff. Furthermore, the Times notes, "Navy rules during the Vietnam War governing Purple Hearts did not take into account a wound's severity—and specified only that injuries had to be suffered 'in action against an enemy.' … A Times review of Navy injury reports and awards from that period in Kerry's Swift boat unit shows that many other Swift boat personnel won Purple Hearts for slight wounds of uncertain origin." Case closed.

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