Badgering Honor

By Kathleen Peratis

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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Such a fuss! The Republicans set out to rob John Kerry of his heroism, and it appears that in the public mind, they have succeeded. Now, when we read of the senator’s Vietnam heroism, or lack thereof, it is usually juxtaposed against President Bush’s service, or failure to serve, in the National Guard.

The score? A scoreless tie, maybe; at best, a squeaker for Kerry — surely not the anticipated grand-slam home run against a president who had never even stepped up to the plate.

All of which got me to wondering about those famous medals, the Silver and Bronze Stars and the three Purple Hearts. What are these that we should be mindful of them?

For one thing, medals are like report cards: The score you get has a lot to do with how every body else did. But the controversy around Kerry’s medals has ripped them from their natural context and subjected them to stand-alone scrutiny. Imagine being handed an essay and trying to figure out if the assigned grade is correct.

Military medals are, and always have been, sitting ducks for challenge. The attributes that must be established for entitlement to bronze and silver stars are about as vague as language gets — “gallantry,” “heroism” and “distinction.” What could be easier to second-guess? (“How could you say it was ‘gallant’ to charge into that hut? It clearly constituted only ‘distinction.’”)

As for “proof,” although there must be at least one “eyewitness” to the underlying events, the witness appears by written statement only, not in person. He is not cross-examined, nor is there even a “devil’s advocate” to challenge the assertions of the “eyewitness.” (Eyewitness testimony is among the easiest to rip apart. Remember “Twelve Angry Men”?)

The recommendation is usually drafted by an officer who vouches for information he himself knows only second hand. If the written presentation results in approval, the many levels of review that follow are, by and large, rubber stamps.

The complaint filed in August by the conservative legal action group Judicial Watch with the Naval Inspector General requesting an investigation of Kerry’s Bronze Star, Silver Star and all three Purple Hearts takes advantage of exactly those vulnerabilities. For example, it states that “Commander Elliot indicates that he would not have drafted Silver Star recommendation had he been aware of the actual facts.” And it argues that the Bronze Star was not deserved because Kerry’s action took place in the presence of only an exploding land mine, not hostile fire.

The Navy quickly dismissed the complaint and announced there would be no investigation. If a court challenge follows, the result will be the same — not because the medal award process is so “due,” but because, so far at least, our courts and our culture defer to military judgment.

Attacking medals is new, but ridiculing the war record of presidential candidates is not. Cowardice in war has been charged in at least four presidential campaigns, though the charge has not been featured in the mainstream press since 1864, when Abraham Lincoln’s surrogates called General George McClellan a “coward and a traitor” for his “bloodless” strategy in the 1862 siege of Yorktown.

Why are such attacks so rare now? Many presidential candidates have received military medals, so it is not as if there was no opportunity. Besides Kerry, medal winners among recent Democratic presidential contenders include Wesley Clark (Purple Heart, Silver Star, Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal); Bob Kerrey (Medal of Honor and Bronze Star); George McGovern (Distinguished Flying Cross), and Fritz Hollings (Bronze Star). The Republican list, which is a bit shorter, includes John McCain (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross) and Robert Dole (two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star).

And it is surely not the case that the public is convinced that all military medals are deserved. Although formal revocations of military medals are rare — the last large-scale one was nearly 100 years ago — public skepticism has never been entirely absent. In the novel “Bronze Star” by military popularizer Jay Riker, one of his Navy Seal characters says: “Ah, the whole medal bit is getting FUBARed, y’know? Sometimes I think all the brass does anymore is award each other medals for things they never did in places they’ve never been.” Kerry’s Vietnam War commanding officer, George Elliot, said, “The Purple Hearts were coming down in boxes.” Today, according to Air Force magazine, there is more “fruit salad” available to service members than at any other time in history.

The surreal element is this: John Kerry’s attackers love military judgment. But their hatred for what he did when he returned from Vietnam blinds them to their own long-term interest. And there is this: They will do anything to win.

Kathleen Peratis, counsel to the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, is a board member of Human Rights Watch.

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