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History or Hagiography?,
This review is from: Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (Hardcover)
When excerpts from Douglas Brinkley's forthcoming book on John Kerry and the Vietnam War appeared in The Atlantic in December 2003, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the author. Obviously he had spent a lot of time researching and writing a book that would be forgotten before the ink was even dry. Of course, at that time Senator Kerry's campaign for the presidency was dead in the water, while the supposedly smart money was accumulating around Howard Dean.
Now Douglas Brinkley has the last laugh. His time spent on "Tour of Duty" looks like a shrewd bet. Not only has Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination to challenge George W. Bush--his experiences in the Vietnam War have become central to the campaign in a way few could have predicted.
Anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the veteran senator who would be president should start here. Brinkley shows Kerry's growth from youth to manhood through the harrowing crucible of the Vietnam War. Anyone who doubts the genuine courage and skill that Kerry showed as a Navy lieutenant in that conflict must contend with the evidence that Brinkley has amassed. With the cooperation of his subject, he has also produced a highly intimate portrait of Kerry's thoughts and writings at the time. Brinkley thereby succeeds in warmly humanizing a public figure often criticized for aloofness.
Brinkley's Kerry is a compelling Renaissance Man: brave soldier, compassionate friend, charismatic politician, agile intellectual, avid sportsman. In short, he's a little too good to be true. And that's where one begins to have some doubts about this book. An associate of the late Stephen Ambrose, Brinkley seems to be a serious historian. And one might expect him to be broadly sympathetic to his subject--if he weren't, I doubt that Senator Kerry would have offered him access to his private papers.
Still, Brinkley seems reluctant to criticize Kerry or even raise questions about his motives or judgment. This becomes more apparent when the narrative shifts from Mekong Delta war stories to antiwar protests and political campaigns. The final chapter, a glowing description of Kerry's presidential announcement in September 2003 (an event which seemed to fall flat at the time), reads like a ghostwritten hack campaign biography.
It's too bad, because Brinkley was ideally situated to place the strengths and weaknesses of Kerry's candidacy in the context of his past. (A first-class example of this type of book is David Maraniss' biography of the young Bill Clinton, "First in His Class".)
Brinkley's book also seems to have been rushed a bit into publication. Editors of political books ought to be able to spell Rep. John Dingell's name right, for example, and to know that Chuck Hagel is a Republican Senator from Nebraska, not a Democrat.
That being said, Brinkley has produced a truly useful piece of work. Both Republicans and Democrats will be studying it carefully--the former probing for weaknesses, the latter looking for reassurance. But if John Kerry is half the man Doug Brinkley seems to think he is, the Republicans should be worried, and the Democrats should be proud.
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Initial post: May 22, 2007 7:20:07 PM PDT
Does he mention how Kerry tried to get out of going to Nam by requesting to study in Paris? Or that he chose to enlist in the Navy in a war with an enemy that had no navy, because he figured (wrongly, as it turned out, which is why his colleagues there say he was such a whiner) it'd be the safest branch in which to serve?
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2007 12:21:08 PM PDT
Well, no, these things are not mentioned in Brinkley's book, probably because they are right-wing talking points, not facts.
The "safest branch in which to serve" would surely have been the Texas Air National Guard.
Regardless of whether you think the U.S. Navy is full of cowards (I've sure there are several hundred thousand veterans out there who would be happy to set you straight on that), it is also clear from the historical record that Lt. Kerry volunteered for Swift Boat duty, which involved patroling the very hazardous Mekong Delta. It is equally clear from the historical record that he participated in extensive combat, was wounded three times and received the Navy's second-highest combat decoration.
There were plenty of sound reasons why you might not have wanted John Kerry to be your president. You might not like his policies. You might even speculate that he joined the Navy out of ambition, to emulate his hero JFK and boost his own future political career. Fine. But the idea that he was some sort of coward is ridiculous.
Your comment is simply a testament to the power of lies. Notwithstanding the availability of well-researched books like Brinkley's, the right-wing noise machine was able to peddle nonsense about Kerry's military record, and the media swallowed it whole. Every claim of the "Swift Boat" group organized to slander Kerry was thoroughly refuted by the historical record and true eyewitnesses.
But now that 2004 is behind us, why don't you do yourself a favor and read Brinkley's book?
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 15, 2010 5:19:55 AM PST
K. Corbman says:
Actually - It was John Kerry telling Brinkley that he wanted to defer his service for a year to study in Paris that was twisted to become somehow a negative. He asked, was told no, and he went to officer's training - this in spite of having move strings than Dick Cheney to use to avoid the war due to other priorities.
As to joining the Navy, he considered both the air force, which his father had been in, and the Navy. He was both a skilled pilot and a skilled seaman while at Yale. In the book, his father is said to have encouraged him to join the Navy over the air force.
Still, the safest thing to have done was what Bush, Cheney, Quayle, and Clinton all did in one way or other - avoid joining any of the active services. Kerry, like Bush, had more than enough strings that he could have found a US based service or avoided serving at all.
It was not his "colleagues" who called him a "whiner", he isn't - it was politically motivated people paid by Texans allied with Bush.
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