You may have heard that John Kerry has been telling a story that he was sitting in a boat upriver in Cambodia on Christmas Eve in 1968. In fact, he testified on the Senate floor in 1986:
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, [...] I have that memory which is seared–seared–in me[...]“
He told the Boston Herald this version in 1979:
“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 versions vary, and seem to get more fantastic with time.
But still, a couple of thoughts remain in my little brain that I haven’t seen elsewhere, so I must share with you. First, what rhetorical purpose did Kerry’s dramatic flourish, “seared [pause for impact] seared in my brain” serve? Its purpose is the same as typical playground asseverations: “Cross my heart, and hope to die!”; “Man, I was so scared, I’ll never forget it!”; “You gotta believe me!” It’s a bald attempt to gain credility in support of obviously tall tales. It’s an assertion that, above and beyond normal statements of fact, this one is really, honest-to-goodness the God’s-own-TRUTH of the matter. “Trust me, I wouldn’t lie and I’m definitely not wrong,” it assures.
Of course, while playground tall tales are quickly forgotten, Senate testimony and carefully crafted campaign legend is not. To handle those things, one has to send out campaign flunkies to float the new story, then trot out one’s pet hagiographer to “amend” the record. I wonder, do they give Brinkley some quiet time with the Congressional Record and some liquid paper?
Anyway, point the second is this – Kerry says not only that he was upriver on a boat in Cambodia, but that he was being shot at. And not only shot at, but shot at by the Khmer Rouge, the N. Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and drunken South Vietnamese soldiers celebrating Christmas (a curious venue for holiday fun for South Vietnamese, and a curious holiday to celebrate, since Vietnam is overwhelmingly Buddhist, from what I have read). How he identified these combatants from his gunboat under fire in the middle of the river is not clear.
At any rate, this was surely an epic conflict, as we now have combatants from 5 different groups meeting in a firefight over John Kerry’s gunboat. In this version, there was even mortar fire.
Given that this may or may not have been a secret CIA insertion mission (code-name “Lucky Hat”), it was a miserable failure if they were drawing fire from 4 different combat units, representing 4 discrete political entities.
At the very least, it’s curious that Kerry remains the only Swift boat captain or passenger to recall this, or any other, Swift boat foray into the fiercely contested border rivers of Cambodia, where fierce fighting obviously raged. Mightn’t such experiences have been seared — seared on the brains of somebody else with him on Christmas Eve, 1968? Or January, 1969? Or whenever his current spin doctors finally decide to place it?
But that’s the trouble with a lie: it just keeps growing and twisting until one day you find it’s wrapped so tight around your ankles that you fall flat on your face.