Sunday, August 22, 2004
  Kerry and Vietnam

The Kerry/SBVT fracas continues apace. From my perspective, this is hurting him badly. The allegations are widely known, despite the attempts of the mainstream media to suppress them, and they are starting to gain traction. Most of the Americans I know in Costa Rica are fairly die-hard Democrats (the letters page of the local English-language rag makes Mother Jones look like Frontpage Magazine), but they are aware of the allegations and on the whole are not simply dismissing them as partisan propaganda. I detect a certain sense of buyer's remorse.

There's an old adage in politics: it's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover-up. But there's an even older one: the truth will out. That's a lesson that Micah Ian 'Sgt. Crock'(1) Wright found out, and I think that Kerry's about to find it out too. It's remarkable that his fabulations have taken this long to come to light (as an aside, I dismiss the idea that these are confabulations in the psychological sense, i.e. that the memories are genuinely "seared, seared" into Kerry's brain but didn't actually happen. I just think he's a lying sack of crap.)

One of the most contentious issues surrounding Kerry's service in Vietnam is his decorations. In particular, there are questions about his eligibility for one or more of his Purple Hearts. Chris Matthews on Hardball ambushed Michelle Malkin and asked her if she was suggesting that Kerry deliberately wounded himself in order to get a medal. To be fair, from my reading of the transcript, Michelle dropped the ball a bit (and I say that as a Malkin fan of long and loyal standing). She should have stated, as John O'Neill did, that there has never been even the slightest intimation that Kerry deliberately wounded himself. There's been a lot of confusion over the term 'self-inflicted'. All that 'self-inflicted' means in this sense is a wound sustained through your actions without the direct involvement of enemy forces. The fact that a wound was self-inflicted does not directly affect its eligibility for a Purple Heart. Furthermore, an injury inflicted by the actions of your own side can also still qualify. The criterion is whether the wound was sustained under combat conditions.

If you're receiving fire from enemy troops, and an artillery observer calls down a fire-suppression mission, and he reads his map wrong, and you get a lump of shrapnel in your leg, then you'll get a Purple Heart. If your buddy mistakes you for an enemy soldier in the middle of a firefight and shoots you: Purple Heart. If he's dicking around on patrol and shoots you in a negligent discharge incident, no Purple Heart (if you shoot yourself accidentally: court martial). An extreme example is someone throwing himself on a live grenade in a firefight to save the lives of his comrades. That's about as 'self-inflicted' as you can get, but a Purple Heart is probably the most minor decoration you will (posthumously) receive. This means that the precise details of what occurred during the incidents for which Kerry was decorated are important. This is not mere nit-picking. If Kerry got a bit of steel wire coming back at him, while taking out a stash of rice in the middle of a firefight, then he gets a Purple Heart and the thanks of a grateful nation. If a fragment hit him while he was blowing it up under non-combat conditions, then he was not eligible, and in fact ran the risk of censure for negligence. Senator Max Cleland lost three limbs to a grenade explosion. Did he get a Purple Heart for it? Nope. It was back at base and was a tragic accident (and despite my execration of his politics, I have to salute his courage in overcoming his injuries). But this is the bone of contention: not whether Kerry sustained an injury through his own actions of those of others, but under what conditions.

The Armed Forces generally take a dim view of self-inflicted injuries. You belong to the Army, and getting yourself hurt or killed is damaging a military asset. But intentionality is vital. Shooting yourself in the leg to get out of a war-zone will very likely work; it will also very likely get you a billet in a military prison. Getting some metal in you from one of your rounds in the thick of a firefight is on the other end of the spectrum. Jumping on a grenade, as mentioned above, is clear out the other side. Having said that, what Kerry did sounds pretty careless. PinguidPundit, AKA "Like Krispy Creme to Atkins" AKA Oliver "whatchoo talkin' 'bout?" Willis had a particularly unpleasant post about Ms. Malkin's appearance on Slimeball. A commenter calling himself 'oxymoron' criticises another commenter called 'rogersnowden'. The 'nuanced' exchange is up near the top of the comments on this low-fibre fecal bolus. [warning: Fat Albert has seen fit to put some godawful chunk of QuickTime video at the top of his post which will load every time you view this page]. Note how commenter 'oxymoron' ridicules 'rogersnowden'. He states that the 'effective' range of the grenade is 15 metres. Obviously a combat veteran, yes? Google's IPO might not be going exactly as planned, but assuming Kerry was using an M79 grenade launcher firing an M406 projectile, here's what happens when you enter a search into everyone's favourite search engine for m406 grenade danger radius. The first hit is a USMC Sergeant's course training document, in which it clearly states that the danger radius for the M406 projectile is 130 metres. Fifteen or so metres is the 'casualty radius'. In other words, if you are closer to the explosion of the grenade than this and you're not behind cover, you are going to get a bit (or several) of pre-fragmented steel wire travelling at supersonic velocities embedded in you, which will like as not render you hors de combat (technically, it's called the 'debris hemisphere', and at a given range from a given thing-that-goes-bang, you get a certain flux(2) of fragments moving at some speed). But it's not like these things suddenly stop at 15 metres and drop to the ground, like Neo halting the bullets in The Matrix. Grenades are divided into categories, like 'offensive' and 'defensive', largely based on how far away you have to be when they go off to avoid dying. It's all very boring, but suffice to say getting a bit of your own back is not unknown.

A qualification here is necessary. I am not a soldier. I have never served in the active armed forces of any country. I have never experienced the heat of war. I have never seen my friends and colleagues die in combat or on exercise. But I know lots of people who have. And practically to a man, they think Kerry is a poseur at best and a fantasist at worst. Kerry was in a hazardous environment, to be sure. He could have been killed or maimed. No-one can gainsay that. But millions of people have been in similar situations and they do not harp on about it to the almost total exclusion of everything else. What the hell has Kerry been doing in the thirty years since America's involvement in Vietnam ended?

A cartoonist by the name of Pat Oliphant drew a sickening and reprehensible cartoon which ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Ed at Captain's Quarters has a piece on it here. It's a true piece of black propaganda, inasmuch as it denigrates the service of both those in the logistical tail who support the combat arm, and the Swift Boat Vets themselves, who certainly were not in the rear echelon. The most foul aspect of it is the suggestion that a person who joins the Armed Forces but is never deployed into a combat role is somehow a lesser being. My father never saw combat in WW2 (although had Hitler broken through into the Caucus or Los Alamos not delivered the atomic bomb when it did, that might have changed.) He spent most of the war in the Middle East (coincindentally, for a large part of it, where the British Army segment of ICF is right now). Just because he wasn't in the thick of things does not mean he did not see his fair share of blood and horror. He makes light of his reminiscences, but sometimes, usually when we've drunk a bottle of Scotch down to the label, some of the other stories come out. Like the time he cradled a dying GI's head in his lap, while the guy's insides were spilled over the ground nearby after an accident in a marshalling yard. One of his best friends died at Arnhem. My mother lived through the Blitz. She knew some of the 175,000 British civilians who were killed by enemy action. Both my parents are 'veterans', my mother having served as a Captain in the army during the Cold War in Germany. Neither of them would dream of using their military service as a prop, especially were it such a nugatory term as Kerry's. Of course Kerry doesn't have anything else to run on.

(1) This sobriquet thanks to Jim Treacher.

(2) Flux: sharp chunks of red-hot hypersonic metal per metre-squared per second. So for a given target area at a given distance from the explosion, you can calculate statistically how many fragments you're going to get, at what speed, how messy that would be, how many plastic tubes you will have in you, and how long before Hallmark Channel makes a TV movie about your convalescence/family coping with bereavement.

UPDATE: Yes, I know Max Cleland got a Purple Heart. But he himself has stated that he was not entitled to it as his injuries were not the result of enemy action.

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