Monday, February 16, 2004

I recently read an article on John Kerry, and his service in Viet Nam, that has left me with more questions than answers. Particularly regarding the details of what he did to be awarded a Silver Star:

"PCF-94 soon encountered small-arms fire that day, and Kerry put the boat's bow on the shoreline to allow the South Vietnamese troops ashore. A little farther up the river, a rocket attack suddenly blew out the vessel's port side windows.

Kerry ordered helmsman Del Sandusky to steer PCF-94 directly toward the point of ambush on the shoreline, where the crew spotted a "spider hole," a narrow sort of foxhole where the enemy Viet Cong often stashed food and other supplies.

"Standing in this particular hole, to the horror of the Swift crew, was a VC guerrilla holding a B-40 rocket launcher aimed right at them," writes Douglas Brinkley in his new book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. "With the grace of God he was more startled than they were."

The Viet Cong soldier fled. A bullet from an M-60 machine gun hit him, but he continued down a trail, rocket launcher in hand. Kerry grabbed an M-16 rifle, jumped off the boat and pursued him, followed by crewman Michael Medeiros.

"With my adrenaline racing, I started following him off the boat," Medeiros recalls in Brinkley's book. "So I was right behind him. . . . As the VC guerrilla got 20 or 30 meters down the path, just about in front of a lean-to, the (future) senator shot the guy. He had been standing on both feet with a loaded rocket launcher about to fire. He fell over dead."

"I don't have a second's question about that, nor does anybody who was with me," Kerry told the Boston Globe last year. "He was running away with a live B-40, and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it."

Huh? It seems like he was awarded a Silver Star for shooting a wounded Viet Cong in the back! While I'm certainly not, from the safety of my house, going to second guess the decision to shoot someone in the back when this happened in the middle of a war zone (and immediately after having been attacked), I can't imagine why this would actually merit any medal, much less a Silver Star.

Interestingly, his Divisional Commander also had misgivings, though for a completely different reason:

Referring to the February 1969 incident, Division Commander George Elliott told the Boston Globe last year that he initially wondered if Kerry should be commended or disciplined. "When (Kerry) came back from the well-publicized action where he beached his boat in the middle of an ambush and chased a VC around a hootch and ended his life, I said, John, I don't know whether you should be court- martialed or given a medal, court-martialed for leaving your ship, your post.

"But I ended up writing it up for a Silver Star, which is well deserved, and I have no regrets or second thoughts at all about that." A Silver Star commends distinctive gallantry in action.

This reminded me of something written by the great Robert Heinlein, who was not so incidentally a graduate of the US Naval Academy:

"Very well. It was one of those bush wars that hared up on the edges of
the Napoleonic wars. This young officer was the most junior in a naval
vessel -- wet navy, of course -- wind-powered, in fact. This youngster was
about the age of most of your class and was not commissioned. He carried the
title of temporary third lieutenant' -- note that this is the title you are
about to carry. He had no combat experience; there were four officers in the
chain of command above him. When the battle started his commanding officer
was wounded. The kid picked him up and carried him out of the line of fire.
That's all -- make pickup on a comrade. But he did it without being ordered
to leave his post. The other officers all bought it while he was doing this
and he was tried for `deserting his post of duty as commanding officer in
the presence of the enemy.' Convicted. Cashiered."

I gasped. "For that? Sir."

"Why not? True, we make pickup. But we do it under different
circumstances from a wet-navy battle, and by orders to the man making
pickup. But pickup is never an excuse for breaking off battle in the
presence of the enemy. This boy's family tried for a century and a half to
get his conviction reversed. No luck, of course. There was doubt about some
circumstances but no doubt that he had left his post during battle without
orders. True, he was green as grass -- but he was lucky not to be hanged."

So, should Kerry have been given a medal, or should he have been instead court-martialed? As best I can determine, his actions in this instance, if truly objectionable would fall under the Universal Code of Military Justice Article 99 (3):

?Any member of the armed forces who before or in the presence of the enemy? .... (3) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property;

This is explained in more detail further down:

(3) Endangering safety of a command, unit, place, ship, or military property.

(a) Neglect. ?Neglect? is the absence of conduct which would have been taken by a reasonably careful person in the same or similar circumstances.

(b) Intentional misconduct. ?Intentional misconduct? does not include a mere error in judgment.

So do the actions of the commander of a boat who beaches it in the middle of an ambush to personally go haring off after a singe wounded enemy, leaving most of his men behind, rise to the level of "neglect"?

Let's just say that I don't believe that a "reasonably careful person" would perform as John Kerry did.