Aug. 27, 2004

All Hat and No Cambodia

The Swiftvets controversy continues to rumble and roil for the simple reason that Sen. John Kerry and his campaign have committed the cardinal sin of muddling the matter. Consider a longstanding Kerry claim – that he spent Christmas, 1968, in Cambodia.

Over the years, the candidate and his campaign have produced at least eight versions of the story.

• The first appeared in 1979 when the future senator provided a somewhat surreal account in a letter to the Boston Herald (see text below). Likening the trip to a scene out of Apocalypse Now, Kerry described sitting on his boat as Vietnamese celebrants detonated fireworks, forcing him and his comrades to scramble for safety. He also described very precise coordinates – five miles into Cambodian territory.

• By 1986, the story had taken on a less jocular and more ominous feel: The young Swift Boat leader had to dodge not only fireworks, but also hostile fire from Cambodian and Khmer Rouge fighters. The placid, mildly comic first version had given way to something more colorful and deadly. “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared – seared – in me.”

• Young John Kerry, like many fighters, kept a diary of his experience at war. He let historian Douglas Brinkley see portions of the journal for use in Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, which turned into yet another account. This time Kerry describes Christmas eve spent aboard a boat 55 miles from Cambodia, reading and writing a letter to his mother and father.

• When confronted with that version, Kerry staffers hemmed a bit before asserting that their man could have, might have, could plausibly have made his way on Christmas into Cambodia.

• After sympathetic crew members confessed not only to having no experience in Cambodia but to having spent that Christmas with Lt. Kerry, the Kerry campaign suggested that the senator could have confused details (despite the “seared … seared” recollection in 1986), merely going “near” Cambodia at Christmas and moving over the border into Cambodia at some later juncture.

• A slightly different and geographically amusing account came from a staffer who suggested that Kerry had traveled “between” the Cambodian and Vietnamese border. As Joshua Muravchik noted in a devastating Washington Post op-ed piece, “There is no between; there is a border.”

• That produced a more concrete account: Kerry, the campaign said, actually traveled three or four times in January and February of 1969 to Cambodia. Historian Douglas Brinkley offered this account, only to find himself grasping at straws when Team Kerry produced account number 7.

• An official statement from the Kerry campaign announced that the Democratic presidential nominee “on one occasion crossed into Cambodia.” Gone is the Christmas date; gone are the recollections of hostile fire from three sides. In its place is a gauzy nothing.

• Yet, Brinkley himself offers a final bit of refutation in the form of Kerry’s Vietnam diary. Here is the relevant portion: “The banks of the [Rach Giant Thanh River] whistled by as we churned out mile after mile at full speed. On my left were occasional open fields that allowed us a clear view into Cambodia. At some points, the border was only fifty yards away and it then would meander out to several hundred or even as much as a thousand yards away, always making one wonder what lay on the other side.” As Muravchik notes, “His curiosity was never satisfied, because this entry was from Kerry’s final mission.”

There may be other versions, but this is enough to make the point: John Kerry long ago made up a story about Cambodia at Christmas, and the tale became more implausible with each new embellishment. Nobody much cared about inconsistencies when he was running for smaller offices, but the magnifying glass becomes far more discerning and powerful for people seeking the presidency. Now, the campaign offers only a foggy memory – and Kerry, a hat, which he says the anonymous CIA operative handed him.

This does not rule out the possibility that young John Kerry conveyed a covert agent across the Cambodian border – but infinitely variable accounts of the trip make even his supporters queasy, and make it much more difficult to dismiss the Swifties as a bunch of malevolent liars.

Boston Herald
October 14, 1979

Vietnam then was worlds apart from 'Apocalypse Now'

How "real" is the view which "Apocalypse Now" gives movie-goers of the Vietnam war?  The Herald American asked Vietnam veteran John Kerry for his first-hand opinion.  Kerry served in the Mekong Delta as a lieutenant j.g. Navy gunboat officer in 1968 and '69 and later became a spokesman for the anti-war movement.  In 1972, he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for the fifth Congressional District.  From 1976-79, Kerry was first assistant district attorney for Middlesex County.  He is now a private attorney practicing in Boston.


"Coppola's film is devoid of reality and feeling.  He only shows what he thinks it might have been like, never exposing the Vietnam heart." John Kerry (1971 photo)

Francis Coppola brings us "Apocalypse Now" the same way the politicians and generals brought us the war in Vietnam -- by spending a lot of money, displaying a lot of technological razzle-dazzle and by losing all sense of proportion and direction.

Both the generals and Coppola built their foundations on false promises -- the generals saying the war was about freedom and could be won; Coppola by saying this film was about Vietnam and would be an epic.

First, it should be said that obviously Coppola has a right to exercise artistic license with his own film.  And if it doesn't portray what one veteran thinks is his image of war, then too bad.  But in this instance, Coppola himself has set the standards by which "Apocalypse Now" must be judged -- and by which it fails.

In the eight-page program handed out at the theater, Coppola writes:  "The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of "Apocalypse Now" was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war … It was my thought that if the American audience could look at the heart of what Vietnam was really like -- what it looked like and felt like -- then they would be only one small step away from putting it behind them."

But Coppola's Vietnam is devoid of reality and feeling.  Far from showing up what Vietnam was really like, he showed us only what Coppola thinks it might have been like and he does it without ever exposing the Vietnam heart.  Ironically, those moments which come closest to achieving his goal of making the audience see and feel Vietnam reality are when he surrenders the film to the technology which so mesmerized our military strategists.  For a brief instant -- when Coppola fills the screen with grenade launchers, rockets, napalm and helicopters -- one might think that they understand what the war was all about.  But even then Coppola can't resist the urge to drive home the big moment as he sets the napalming and helicopter destruction to Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" which engulfs us in Dolby Stereo.  And with that lack of restraint, Coppola erases reality, replacing it instead with an unworkable collage of violent, surrealistic episodes.

And where was the sensuousness?  A few lonely sunset shots of jungle or trees?  Coppola's river journey totally missed that which was really sensual about the river life of Vietnam -- the barges, the floating markets, the sampans, the water buffalo, the ferries, the backdrop of green rice paddies and the stillness of river travel.

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of my service as commander of a gun boat in the Mekong Delta was our interaction with the people of the country.  The rivers were alive with people -- so much so that their presence and our communion with them brought home to us even more the absurdity of our effort.  One moment we were laughing and joking with passengers on a ferry or barge, or trading C-rations for shrimps from a local fisherman.  Ten minutes later, a quarter of a mile away, we would be ambushed and in a fight for our lives.  Coppola missed that very human part of the war -- the contradictions.  He missed the absurd juxtaposition of the river's tranquil beauty to the sudden eruption from its banks of instant death and chaos.

He missed the astonishing, ever-present horde of children who were always hovering around begging for candy or other handouts and who flattered their prey with the incessant refrain "You number one."  He missed the life of the villages and the confusion between enemy and ally.  He missed the intrigue of attempting to sort out VietCong from average citizen and the treachery of booby traps.  He missed the eerie silence of the river and the clumps of mangrove floating downstream after a B-52 raid, sometimes concealing a well-placed mine.  He missed the essence of the war.

On more than one occasion, I, like Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now," took my patrol boat into Cambodia.  In fact, I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas.  The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real.  But nowhere in "Apocalypse Now" did I sense that kind of absurdity.  And that is because everywhere Coppola got carried away with his own trip.  Scenes that had great potential were ruined because he did not know where to stop.

Coppola's vision of Vietnam is pure fantasy -- a celluloid acid trip which fails to satisfactorily convey the real craziness or the madness of the war.  Not content with rock background music and smoke bombs and unending river banks littered with bodies and burnt helicopter shells, Coppola reinforces his purely hallucinatory image of Vietnam by showing us some of the final moments of the river trip through the eyes of an acid-popping member of the patrol boat crew.  And then, adding insult to injury, Coppola, by introducing Dennis Hopper as a demented journalist, brings us the Easy Rider of the Cambodian jungle.

The vision with which Coppola began this movie seems to have eluded him.  Somewhere, just like this country in its involvement in Southeast Asia, Coppola got lost.

Copyright 1979 Boston Herald/Herald American.  All Rights Reserved.

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