John F. Kerry and Wesley K. Clark were both war heroes as junior officers in Vietnam. Clark, gravely wounded in a firefight, stayed on his feet and rallied his troops to fight off the enemy. Kerry, commanding a small fleet of gunboats on the Mekong River, organized a daring and successful counterattack on ambushers who were firing on his vessels from the shore, and then personally ran after and shot one of the ambushers.
Each was awarded the Silver Star. Each had other moments of heroism: Kerry won a Bronze Star in Vietnam for rescuing a comrade at risk to himself, and Clark in Kosovo climbed 1000 feet down a dangerous hillside to try to rescue the occupants of a car that had run off the road.
After the Vietnam War, Kerry left the military, founded the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and entered electoral politics. Clark stayed in the Army, formed part of the cadre of young Vietnam-veteran officers who rebuilt that institution into the fighting machine that won the Gulf War and the War and Iraq, rose to the rank of full (four-star) General, served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and led a successful war.
That’s the background for the latest tempest in a teapot. Here’s the New York Times’s account of what what seems to me a totally unexceptional and unobjectionable exchange, published under the inflammatory and factually incorrect headline Clark Takes Aim at New Rival:
During an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” as the Iowa results rolled in, former Senator Bob Dole said to General Clark that he thought the success of Mr. Kerry, also a decorated Vietnam War veteran, might have turned the general into a colonel.
“Well I don’t agree,” General Clark said. “Senator, with all due respect, he’s a lieutenant and I’m a general. You’ve got to get your facts right.”
Asked later about the exchange, General Clark acknowledged Senator Kerry’s military background. But, he added: “Nobody in the race has got the kind of background I’ve got. I’ve negotiated peace agreements. I’ve led a major alliance in war. It’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He’s done that and I respect him for that. He’s been a good senator. But I’ve had the military leadership at the top as well as at the bottom.”
Well, right. Kerry was a hero, which establishes his personal physical courage and his patriotism, but doesn’t make him an expert on the military or on national security affairs. Clark was a hero, which establishes his personal physical courage and his patriotism, and then rose to be a four-star general, which does make him an expert on the military and on national security affairs.
Kerry has an edge in political experience, which Clark wouldn’t deny; Clark has the advantage in military experience, which no one in his right mind could deny.
Later, in New Hampshire, Clark said the following:
“I stayed with the military all the way through,” Clark told reporters after rallying volunteers at his headquarters. “I stayed with the United States Army through Vietnam. I was company commander there. I fought and I was hit by four rounds.”
“I’m only saying I stayed with the United States armed forces. I’m proud I did. Lots of us did,” said Clark, answering a question about his and Kerry’s military service.
A spokesman for the Kerry campaign tried to pretend that Clark somehow denigrated Kerry’s heroism. “We didn’t expect General Clark would question John Kerry’s courage and commitment to country given his record under fire.”
Well, I’m glad they didn’t expect it, because it didn’t happen. Clark said, without being prompted, that Kerry was a hero, and acknowledged his service in the Senate. (To be fair, it’s entirely possible that the reporter, playing “Let’s you and him fight,” somewhat misquoted Clark in asking the Kerry people to comment.)
Note that the Union-Leader, like the Times, has a headline that implies that Clark went after Kerry, when the text of the article makes it clear that the “contrast” was set up entirely in the reporter’s mind, and by the reporter’s own question.
Tacitus is echoing the Kerry line:
Am I reading this correctly? Is Wesley Clark really obliquely belitting John Kerry’s war service? Is he really denigrating mere junior officers as compared to exalted generals? Is he really implying that there’s some moral failing in not pursuing a lifetime mililtary career?
Answers: No, No, No, and No.
C’mon, Tacitus. Ask me a hard one!
Tacitus — who never bothers to acknowledge Clark’s own heroism, in Vietnam an then in the Balkans, has a comment directed at Clark, which he could better have kept for himself:
Instapundit echoes Tacitus, without bothering to check the original sources to verify the accuracy — or, as it turns out, the inaccuracy — of Tacitus’s account.
And naturally Rush Limbaugh weighs in.