Tour of Duty

Although somewhat too uncritical as befitting its release in the midst of a presidential campaign, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War is reminiscent of Robert J. Donovan’s PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WW II (1961). Based largely on Kerry’s wartime letters, journals, and notebooks, it provides answers to innuendoes raised by Republican partisans out to discredit the Democratic standard bearer. Less clear is why Kerry sought to participate in escapades he came to realize were morally indefensible. The former lieutenant (junior grade) clearly deserved his five combat medals (three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Navy’s Silver Star), which, despite rumors to the contrary, are still in his possession (in 1971 he parted with his ribbons during protests conducted by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War). He was a moderating force within that organization and left its ranks when he perceived its leaders embracing a radical ideology.

Author Douglas Brinkley draws attention to the close bond Kerry shared with his crews and with Senate Vietnam veterans, in particular John McCain and Max Cleland. McCain and Kerry traveled to Southeast Asia several times to check out reports about possible MIAs still in captivity. Indeed, Brinkley concludes that Kerry’s “tour of duty” did not end until 1995 when President Bill Clinton established diplomatic relations with Hanoi’s communist regime. Fittingly, on September 2, 2003, the fifty-nine-year-old junior senator from Massachusetts kicked off his presidential quest in Charleston, South Carolina, on a stage in front of the U.S.S. Yorktown (which saw service both in World War II and Vietnam). Many old PCF-44 (patrol craft fast) and PCF-94 comrades were there to flash him the thumbs-up.