Senator Kerry, supposedly defending Rep. John Murtha, said, "I won't stand for the Swift-Boating of Jack Murtha!" As one of the 254 members of Mr. Kerry's unit in Vietnam who belonged to Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, I found Mr. Kerry's comments most ironic.
To us, Mr. Kerry's comments meant that no one should do to Mr. Murtha that which Mr. Kerry did to all of us and our fellow Vietnam veterans, living and dead. Mr. Kerry's disgraceful comments on many occasions in 1971 (while we were locked in combat), claiming falsely that we were "murdering" hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and committing rape and mayhem on a daily basis, are a part of the public record for which he has never apologized. This might be called "Kerrying" our soldiers.
In his own strange way, in his recent comments, Mr. Kerry was trying by implication to compare himself to Mr. Murtha - the gravest of insults to Mr. Murtha, who was given a standing ovation by the House of Representatives (which then properly buried his immediate pullout suggestion 403-3). Mr. Murtha's long military record stands in stark contrast with Mr. Kerry's continuous self-promotion of his short and controversial service in our unit. More importantly, Mr. Murtha has never compared our troops in the field - now or then - to the "Army of Genghis Khan" or claimed our adversaries, whether the bloody communists and Khmer Rouge or the butchers of Al Qaeda, were simply democratic reformers. Can anyone - even in the cocoon of Washington or the incestuous world of Mainstream Media - imagine either side of the aisle spontaneously rising to clap for anything that Mr. Kerry ever did or said?
Mr. Murtha's distinguished military record does not mean he is not wildly and completely wrong in his pullout proposal. Despite Mr. Murtha's effort to present himself as speaking for our troops, all serious data is to the contrary. Thus, for example, an Army Times poll of October 3, 2004, found Mr. Bush beating Mr. Kerry among active duty troops by 74% to 18%. Other polls were similar. While there are a few active duty or retired personnel like Mr. Murtha on the pullout side, they are not as numerous as, say, Yankee fans in Boston. It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of military personnel simply wish to be left alone by the Kerrys and other politicians to finish a job which they believe is nearly done and which they know the John Kerrys and Nancy Pelosis of Washington are totally incompetent to direct and even understand.
The Democratic Party (notwithstanding its cynical expressions of concern for the same troops it periodically seeks to label as engaged in widespread crime) is regarded with intense distrust by many active duty and retired military personnel. They have been Kerried once too often. It was once the majority party that stopped the Nazis, Fascists, and North Koreans and that in words of a far different Kennedy summoned us "to fight any battle" for freedom. Sadly, the party of Henry Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt has become the party of retreat - from the Iranian Hostage Crisis to the retreat from Mogadishu; to opposition to the 1991 Gulf War; to the failure to avenge the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the USS Cole bombing or the murder of our own troops and embassy personnel around the world. Indeed, this past Thursday night, the nation watched the bizarre spectacle of a Democratic Party speaking in favor of immediate withdrawal but too afraid to even cast a vote recording for posterity these convictions. And the drift from American values to the party of Mr. Kerry and Michael Moore has been matched by its shrinking base. Recent polls, for example, show vastly lower approval ratings - in the low 20s - for Congressional Democrats than even the low rating of Mr. Bush. As for many veterans and military personnel, they remember well the politicians who voted to send us to war then "Kerried" us while we were locked in combat, dishonoring both our service and our dead.
And they ask - is this all to happen to our soldiers again? Are the politicians like Mr. Kerry who led the campaign to send our kids to war (when it was popular) now to withdraw support while they are locked in combat and apparently succeeding because the task is difficult or unpopular? Will Mainstream Media "Kerry" our troops by portraying Abu Ghraib or isolated cases of prisoner mistreatment as the rule to demoralize our troops and nation, while ignoring the beheadings and butchery of those peacefully praying in Mosques or shopping in a Bazaar? Will the press's selective glorification of isolated figures such as Cindy Sheehan, Mr. Kerry, or Mr. Murtha drown out the actual voices of the large majority of our servicemen? I hope not. We pay our troops little and subject them to considerable danger. We can at the very least support them with stability of mission and honesty of reporting.
Likewise, we ought not to "Kerry" our troops with after-the-battle second-guessing. The fog of combat produces in any war mistake and folly. Both World War II and the Korean War began with wholly avoidable military disasters - Pearl Harbor and the retreat to Pusan. Likewise, the Iraq War has had its share of mistakes and miscalculations (along with brilliant successes). But it simply Kerries our troops in the field to elevate network newsmen (who have likely never even spent a night in a tent) or self-promoted Congressional military heroes with two months of 35 years ago combat in a much different world into armchair Napoleons. That is why we rely instead upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the best professional military establishment in the world (when they are left alone). And we should remember the words of Thomas Dewey declining to make Pearl Harbor a campaign issue in 1944: "I would rather lose the presidency and win the war than the reverse."
On December 23, 1776, with Washington's army freezing in tatters at Morristown, Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." He noted many mistakes by the American army, but noted that "tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered" and that heaven charges a high price for freedom because it is so precious. It was a time when "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot shrink ... " but those who stood firm would someday receive the love and appreciation of the nation.
Our nation and our soldiers, who have shown their courage, decency, and worth in desperate fighting on dozens of battlefields, deserve our support for their mission and themselves. They deserve infinitely more than summer soldiers, sunshine patriots, and armchair Napoleons, whose determination and purpose melts with the first winter storm.
Mr. O'Neill, an attorney in Houston, Texas, coauthored the no. 1 bestseller, "Unfit for Command." After graduation from the Naval Academy, he served as a Swift Boat officer in Vietnam, and later, as a law clerk to Justice William Rehnquist.