Winter Soldiers

With the recent emergence of John Kerry as a frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination, his involvement with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the Winter Soldier Investigation are surfacing, as well they should, since it was clearly a defining period in John Kerry’s life. The transcript of John Kerry’s testimony before congress can be found here.

But a flagrantly unverifiable falsehood seems to be emerging, as well: namely, that the testimony of soldiers in the Winter Soldier Investigation were falsified. For example, Rich Lowry, an editor at The National Review, has blatantly denounced the investigation. From an article in the NRO (my emphasis added):

In his famed 1971 anti-war congressional testimony, Kerry cited the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation, which gathered falsified testimonials of atrocities committed by American soldiers. Kerry regurgitated stories of rapes, beheadings, torture and pillaging (“in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan”) as part of his indictment against the Vietnam War.

This is a statement shot through with mendacity. Let’s take it sentence by sentence: 1) The Winter Soldier testimony was not “highly documented,” but – as Mack Owens of the Naval War College and NRO has reported – totally unsubstantiated. The fantastic stories of atrocities should have been unbelievable to any Vietnam vet. 2) Kerry didn’t “help people understand what was going on,” but rather helped publicize lies.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, also from an article in the NRO:

In fact, the entire Winter Soldiers Investigation was a lie. It was inspired by Mark Lane’s 1970 book entitled Conversations with Americans, which claimed to recount atrocity stories by Vietnam veterans. This book was panned by James Reston Jr. and Neil Sheehan, not exactly known as supporters of the Vietnam War. Sheehan in particular demonstrated that many of Lane’s “eye witnesses” either had never served in Vietnam or had not done so in the capacity they claimed.

This is a pretty serious accusation, it seems, and a pervasive one, too. This accusation is echoed all over the media and is considered a factual talking point on the right. A quick survey of some of the right-leaning blogs I read:

Bill Hobbs calls Kerry’s testimony “slanderous” and claims that Kerry “described events he had not witnessed and which, in fact, were later shown to be falsified, undermining the war effort while giving hope to the enemy. It was consistent with his future votes to gut U.S. intelligence services and the military.”

“AlphaPatriot” calls Kerry a compulsive liar.

You get the idea. But where did this accusation come from? Owens’ accusation is a classic bait-and-switch, as he actually only cites the WSI as being “inspired” by Mark Lane’s book, which he then attempts to shoot down. Fallacious or not, Lane’s book is not the Winter Soldier Investigation. I have searched extensively on trying to find a shred of real evidence that the WSI testimonies were fraudulent, but I can’t find it. Of course, google is hardly a comprehensive source.

So, when faced with a question, I find that it’s best to try to find a concrete answer rather than speculate. I contacted Fritz Efaw, a representative of VVAW here in TN, who also relayed some information from VVAW national coordinator John Zutz. I asked them if they knew if these accusations were true, and if not, what evidence they had to refute the claims. Here’s what Fritz had to say:

The claims that the WSI hearings contained falsified testimony from men who were not veterans is an old one, and it’s definitely false. The testimony was startling even at the time it took place: startling to the general public, startling to the military and the Nixon administration, and startling to those who participated because each of them knew a piece of the story, but the hearings brought a great many of them together for the first time and provided a venue in which they could be heard for the first time. It’s hardly surprising that those on the other side would set out almost immediately to discredit them.

He also included a letter from John Zutz, in response to a similar, but more direct question: “Do you require members to show a copy of their DD Forms 214 in order to become a member?” A question hinting, obviously, that some of the testimony was from civilians, not veterans, and therefore not trustworthy. Zutz’s response:

First, the accusations in “Stolen Valor” that guys who testified at Winter Soldier weren’t vets isn’t true. I personally talked to one of the VVAW members who examined every witness’s DD214 and compared it to his ID (some civilian, some military). I can tell you they were all vets with Vietnam service.

Second, VVAW is a non-profit organization. Non-veterans are allowed to become members. However the fact is the overwhelming majority of our members are veterans. Vietnam, certainly. Gulf war, a few. Korea and WWII as well. And don’t forget all those little expeditions like Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Bosnia, etc, etc.

We realize there are some who will try to use this policy to smear us. On the other hand, I am happy that my wife has as much voice in VVAW as I do. In my mind she is a Vietnam vet too. When I’m awake prowling the house at 3 a.m. she’s awake too. When I’m crippled by my service connected disability she cares for me. When I had my Agent Orange caused cancer surgically removed she was at my bedside. When I do veterans related stuff she supports me.

You could say everyone in the US is a Vietnam veteran. It affected everyone who lived through it. We just finished paying for all those bombs and boats and boots and guns and canteen cups last year. It’s still affecting our politics today.

So, that clears up a few things right away. Namely, that the VVAW at least compared ID with DD214s to verify. Yes, it’s possible that the VVAW were duped, or even lied themselves, but I find no evidence as such.

To summarize:

The argument you usually hear put forth is, basically, “John Kerry slandered/betrayed his fellow soldiers with false accusations.”

This, clearly, is false, since we know that Kerry was simply paraphrasing testimony from veterans themselves in the Winter Soldier Investigation.

The next rebuttal is usually that “Well, the Winter Soldier Investigation was a fraud, perpetrated by civilian members of VVAW”, or as I like to refer to it, the “damn dirty hippies” defense.

Mr. Efaw and Mr. Zutz both put forth a pretty convincing argument that this testimony was legitimate and delivered by veterans. I have been able to uncover no credible evidence that a fraud was perpetrated.

Seeing as how these testimonies were entered into the congressional record by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, I find it difficult to believe that all of this testimony was falsified without greater controversy. Some, perhaps, but that eliminates the force of the argument: Despite the possibility that some testimony may have been falsified, the evidence of atrocities committed on both sides in Vietnam is irrefutable, and we have verifiable, documented examples such as My Lai as examples that bad things did happen. Vietnam was a war, and war is hell. There’s no rational reason for doubting this testimony.

Furthermore, I think it’s also important to note that the mention of these atrocities is a very small part of Kerry’s testimony. The bulk of his testimony was spent questioning the motives for the war and wisdom of continuing it. The wisdom of asking young men to “die for a mistake”, as Kerry put it. This is hardly slanderous.

There’s also a deeper fallacy at work here. Another argument frequently put forth is that John Kerry and anti-war activists like him were responsible for the demoralization of our forces in Vietnam, and by extension, responsible for the loss of the war.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, the argument that criticism of a war effort back home has any impact on a soldier’s actual motivation to not get shot is specious at best. But, even taking it as a given, if there is a sizeable opposition to a war such that it results in the demoralization of our forces, does that justify being silent? My answer to that is a resounding “Hell, no”. If a war’s motives are so doubted back home that they have such a substantial effect as causing the war to be lost, we should be rethinking our involvement in the first place.

Bill Hobbs quoted an article in the LA Times where Vietnam veteran Dewey Brown is paraphrased:

Good soldiers do their duty and keep their mouths shut. They don’t come home to criticize their country’s mission while others are still fighting. But that, in his view, is what Kerry did.

I couldn’t disagree more. John Kerry did his duty as a soldier, and he did it honorably. He then came home, and did his duty as a responsible citizen of this country. He spoke out. I think Dwight D. Eisenhower put it best:

Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, we may never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.

UPDATE: More details here.