Having served in Swift Boats during the Vietnam War, I find it outrageous and obscene when the name for those small craft is used as a political weapon to smear, demean and slander men and women of valor who displayed the highest levels of courage in the most dangerous and difficult circumstances of combat. Yet, Sen. John Kerry's presidential run in 2004 was badly damaged when his service and heroism in Vietnam were wrongly used to attack his honor. The term was "Swift Boating.""
Then-Lt.jg. Kerry was thrice wounded in action during his first four months in country. He was awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third most important award for valor and a Bronze Star with Combat V. Returning from the war, he became one of the most vocal critics and opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which earned him lasting enmity in some circles. "Swift Boating" impugned his record and attempted to portray him as a coward and braggart in contrast to George W. Bush, who served briefly in the Air National Guard, avoiding assignment to Vietnam.
Now, an attempt is being made to "Swift Boat" and tarnish the legacy and reputation of John McCain. He was absurdly accused of causing the disastrous fire aboard USS Forrestal in July 1967 that claimed the lives of 134 sailors. The cause was an electrical fault common to the Zuni missile that lead to a premature firing of the weapon from a Phantom jet parked immediately behind McCain's plane on the flight deck that also hit the future senator's A-4 Skyhawk. When he was shot down over Hanoi three months later, he was later falsely accused of "flathatting" (showing off), allowing a North Vietnamese missile to knock him out of the sky. And he was accused of multiple extramarital affairs.
The first two accusations are worse than pure invention. They are outright malicious slander and lies. McCain was always open and apologetic about his shortcomings. Sen. Joe Lieberman's magnificent eulogy at the National Cathedral funeral ceremony for McCain mentioned how much McCain referred to and never forgot his weaknesses. Whatever wrongs McCain may have committed, his candor in accepting his own failures was never in doubt.
And about courage, the only criticism I have about the senator's 5 1/2 years as a POW was that he was never awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for many acts of bravery, including refusal to accept early release. That said, American politics has always been ugly. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton bought dueling newspapers to attack the other. Abraham Lincoln was described in the most despicable terms.
One of the tragedies of American culture today is the politicization of and divides among society. Civility and compromise, as well as grace, are missing in action. The conduct of the Senate Judicial Committee in the hearings to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are a national embarrassment. So, too, is much of the conduct of Donald Trump, often an embarrassment as Adm. William McRaven, a Navy SEAL who oversaw the mission that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, noted in a letter to the Washington Post. Both the hearings and presidential conduct are symptoms of this debasement of the national dialogue and politics.
It may be that with the release of Bob Woodward's latest book Fear: Trump in the White House and The New York Times' publication of an anonymous op-ed that portrays the president as unstable and dangerous to the nation, commentary on McCain will no longer be very relevant or front page news. Perhaps the prospect of "Swift Boating" will evaporate. Yet, it would be tragic if McCain's legacy and life are quickly forgotten. No doubt university chairs, possibly at his alma mater the Naval Academy or Arizona State University, will be commissioned. And perhaps Congress will rename the Russell Building in McCain's memory and NATO its new headquarters after him.
That will help preserve what McCain stood for and remind future generations of 60 years of selfless service to the nation and its people. In the Navy, the highest accolade is "well done." No two words could better describe retired Navy captain and Sen. John S. McCain III.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.