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How the war shaped the man

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War; Douglas Brinkley; William Morrow: 546 pp., $25.95

February 22, 2004|David J. Garrow | David J. Garrow is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bearing the Cross," a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

John Kerry enlisted in the Navy four months before graduating from Yale University in 1966. With U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalating rapidly, joining voluntarily offered more attractive options to a young college graduate than did waiting to be drafted. After completing officer candidate school, 23-year-old Ensign Kerry was assigned to the guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Gridley, based in Long Beach.

In early February 1968, a day after the Gridley set sail for Southeast Asia, Ensign Kerry requested reassignment as a small-boat commander in Vietnam. "I didn't really want to get involved in the war," Kerry said in 1986 during his first term in the U.S. Senate. "When I signed up for the swift boats, they had very little to do with the war. They were involved in coastal patrolling and that's what I thought I was going to be doing."

Two weeks after that request, Kerry learned that one of his closest Yale friends, Richard Pershing, grandson of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, had died in a Viet Cong ambush while serving as a lieutenant in the 101st Airborne. Pershing's death traumatized Kerry. "With the loss of Persh, something has gone out of me," he wrote his parents. "Time will never heal this. It may alleviate -- but it will never heal."

Even 3 1/2 decades later, the four-term Democratic senator from Massachusetts vividly remembers getting the news. "The loss of Persh hit me like a ton of bricks," he told historian Douglas Brinkley in 2003. "The Vietnam War suddenly came into focus like it had never before. It wasn't a distant thing. It wasn't a newsreel or news report or newspaper story. It wasn't at arm's distance that you were able to grapple with -- it was right inside your gut."

Brinkley, a prolific author who has profiled such diverse figures as Dean Acheson, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks and Henry Ford, was given 12 hours of reflective interviews with Kerry, plus unrestricted access to his trove of Vietnam-era personal papers and diaries. "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War" is the informative result, a serious book enriched by additional interviews with more than 100 of Kerry's shipmates, friends and critics. Brinkley emphasizes that Kerry, who was preparing his presidential bid, exerted "no editorial control over this project whatsoever." While some conservative pundits may allege that "Tour of Duty" is simple hagiography by a scholar with hopeful dreams of following Kerry into the White House, Brinkley's portrait of Kerry is more mixed than either the critics or the author himself probably realize.

Kerry's first exposure to Vietnam came when the Gridley, stationed off the Vietnamese coast, made a brief port call at Danang. Kerry reacted like the green rookie he was. "Wherever I went and young Vietnamese men would look at me I grew scared," he wrote his parents. "There really was no way to tell" who was a harmless civilian and who could be an undercover foe.

After the Gridley sailed home, Kerry was reassigned; he returned to South Vietnam in November 1968 to the huge American naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. Initially he had little to do. "I wondered naively where the war was," he told Brinkley. "It seemed dull." He sought a transfer to a more front-line locale.

Brinkley asserts, with no supporting statements from Kerry, that "if he was going to avenge the death of Dick Pershing, he needed to see combat." Kerry "felt inexplicably drawn to combat," writes Brinkley, who portrays Kerry as ambitiously driven since his teenage years.

Such characterizations go significantly beyond Kerry's contemporaneous words. Brinkley describes Kerry as "enlisting in the Navy for a combat assignment," but neither Kerry's 1966 enlistment nor his 1968 reassignment request necessarily represented any desire for combat. Indeed, his appeal for transfer somewhere other than Cam Ranh may well have signified a wish to command a ship rather than a revenge-based desire for physical combat.

All too soon, however, Kerry did see action. One night in early December while on a small-boat mission just north of Cam Ranh, Kerry received a minor shrapnel wound; a few days later he was given command of his own swift boat, PCF-44, for "patrol craft fast," and sent south to An Thoi in the Mekong River delta.

Over the next 10 weeks, Kerry would encounter more intense combat than most Vietnam-era sailors ever saw. The Mekong Delta, Brinkley writes, was "the most impenetrable part of South Vietnam," with "more than four thousand miles of inland 'water roads.' " Kerry's six-man, shallow-draft patrol craft, armed with three heavy-caliber machine guns and a mortar, would sail up various rivers and canals, often in tandem with other swift boats, to seek and destroy suspected Viet Cong encampments.

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