Book Review — Reckless Disregard: How Liberal Democrats Undercut Our Military, Endanger Our Soldiers, and Jeopardize Our Security (Regnery Publishing, 2004)

by on August 27th, 2004

Didja hear? Seems there was this group of guys that patrolled up and down rivers in Vietnam and, er, Cambodia (maybe) in the late 60s. They were on these little boats that were really fast – so fast that they called them “swift boats.” One of them was a guy named Lt. Kerry; he might have been a hero, but it’s not entirely clear because there are a group of folks that have differing views on what happened 35 years ago.

What’s that, you say? The important thing is that he served honorably in the Armed Forces? That America needs a strong president who knows firsthand what the military is all about? Someone that’s seen combat and been decorated? Someone like Bob Dole, perhaps, who still bears the scars of his war service? Or maybe George H.W. Bush, who got a distinguished flying cross? That’s different, you say? Aren’t we just belaboring the swift boat issue? Well, regrettably, yes.

Buzz Patterson does, in fact, further belabor the swift boat issue. He spends the second chapter of his book, Reckless Disregard, talking about John Kerry’s war record. Patterson recounts Kerry’s first purple heart in detail (a shrapnel wound in the arm that required neither anesthesia nor sutures), and points out that Kerry never missed a day of duty in the four months he was in Vietnam.

Yes, four months. You’d think from the press coverage that Kerry was there from the Tonkin Gulf resolution to the Saigon airlift, but it really was only from December ’68 to March ’69. Odd, that, since the average tour of duty in Vietnam was 12 months. And many little nuggets from Patterson’s book that would be of use to conservative bloggers have been lost in the psuedo-journalistic melee surrounding the swift boat vets’ book.

All in all, though, Patterson only spends perhaps a dozen pages talking about the swift boat controversy. This is probably more than it merits, but let’s not quibble over details.

Rather than devoting the entire book to Vietnam War minutiae, Patterson makes a larger point, and that point is this: those who are now carping about combating terrorism, projecting military power, winning wars, and generally setting about fixing national security were the same ones who spent a fair amount of the intervening period between Nixon and Bush II wrecking it.

Patterson spends a good bit of his book skewering Kerry, and it’s no coincidence that the book went to press in time for publishing at the height of the campaign season. This is probably as much for commercial reasons as anything else.

But Patterson also talks about the rest of the liberal rogues’ gallery: “Hanoi” Jane Fonda, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, VP Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle, Jim McDermott, Tom Harkin, President Clinton, President Carter, et al. The book is replete with documented examples of actions by these and others that, he argues, ultimately made us weaker in the days leading up to 9/11. Some examples:

– During his term, Clinton cut 700,000 active duty military members and 293,000 reservists;

– President Clinton met only twice privately with CIA Director Woolsey;

– Between 1991-1996, Sen. Kerry proposed or voted in favor of legislation designed to cut military or intelligence spending by: 1991 – $3b; 1992 – $6b; 1993 – $8.8b; 1994 – $43b; 1995 – $6.5b; 1996 – $6.5b.

In short, Patterson provides lots of ammunition to the party faithful and those conservative members of the military (who, it could be reasonably argued, constitute a significant majority of the DoD) disgusted by left-leaning politics.

The downfall of Reckless Disregard is not in the message but the delivery. The text is peppered with various usages of the word “liberal” as an epithet, and Patterson frequently uses folksy wink-wink rhetoric to push points that could have been made more effectively by logic and figures alone. It is designed to be a paean to the conservative masses, but from the book title onward it will probably alienate any centrist who inadvertently picks it up.

Which is a shame, because Patterson makes some worthwhile arguments about the national ignorance-is-bliss attitude to security and defense of the 1990s (for which Republicans are certainly not immune from criticism) and America’s unwillingness to acknowledge that a grave danger was looming closer on the horizon than we imagined.

The most effective parts of the book are not when Patterson mines the conservative press for pithy quotes, but those in which he does some primary research. He tells of a flight crew’s personal encounter with Senator Kerry and his staff on a flight from Cambodia to Vietnam to Malaysia, in which Kerry manages to: insult the pilot, eat the crew’s lunch, complain about the heat (in southeast Asia!) and insist on taking off while the crew is checking a mechanical problem. In another part, Patterson tells the story of how President Clinton (Commander in Chief, let’s not forget) couldn’t tell the difference between an air force lieutenant and a major. He also tells how Senator Hillary Clinton visited Afghanistan and Baghdad and proceeded to tell the troops about her misgivings about the administration’s force-projection policies — remarks which were almost instantly broadcast by al-Jazeera. These anecdotes speak volumes about the attitudes of some members of the liberal policymaking community toward the military, and although they are to some extent peripheral, they do go to the center of Patterson’s thesis.

In March of this year, an article appeared in which made Patterson really mad. NewsMax, a right-leaning wire service/news aggregator, carried a story about (what else?) John Kerry in his Vietnam days; it was one of the earlier manifestations of the firestorm that would later become the “swift boat veterans…” brouhaha in fever pitch today.

The part of the piece which stuck in Patterson’s craw was this:

[Kerry] also seems ready to play the “chicken hawk” card against Republicans. He told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” “I don’t know what it is that all these Republicans who didn’t serve in Vietnam or fighting any war have against us who did.”

Patterson’s response:

“Well, sir, I’ll see your four months in Vietnam and raise you the twenty years I spent serving as an Air Force pilot flying in conflicts as far-ranging as Grenada, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti.

“What I have against you, to be concise, is your post-Vietnam War treason, your complete and demonstrated lack of support for the U.S. military in your nineteen years in the Senate, and my expectation that you will return our national defense to the criminally ineffectual days of the Carter and Clinton administrations.”

Although this passage appears on page 153 — three pages from the end — this outburst captures the overall tone of Reckless Disregard, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, venomous. Given the way things are playing out in American politics today, maybe this isn’t surprising. But it is unfortunate.

Marc C. Johnson