- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

What if both sides are right? That thought comes to mind repeatedly as I try to hash out the battle between veterans who attack John Kerry’s Vietnam combat record and those who defend it.

Out of the fog of war, politics and old memories, long ago events have become the focus of an ugly election year mud fight as a group of Swift Boat veterans and others contend Mr. Kerry didn’t deserve the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for various actions.

Watching and reading the various conflicting accounts of what happened or didn’t, of how brave Mr. Kerry was or wasn’t and how much he was hurt or not hurt, I’m struck by one consistency: His crews and others closest in proximity to Mr. Kerry give the most support to Mr. Kerry’s side of the stories.

A striking example emerged at the newspaper where I work when Chicago Tribune metropolitan editor, William Rood, who was another Swift Boat commander in the operation that led to Mr. Kerry’s Silver Star Medal, broke a 35-year silence to support the official account of Mr. Kerry’s heroics in leading a 1969 attack against an enemy ambush along the Dong Cung River.

“The critics have taken pains to say they’re not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us,” he wrote in an essay in Sunday’s Tribune. “It’s gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there.”

Indeed, even those who were present at the actions in question came away with differing accounts of details, such as whether there was hostile fire or not, whether Mr. Kerry was hurt by enemy fire or fragments from his own grenade launcher.

But anyone who knows the courage it took to ride those 51-foot aluminum Swift Boats up and down the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta would have a hard time arguing it did not take tremendous courage simply to report for duty every day.

As President Bush said on Monday, distancing himself from the attacks on Mr. Kerry attacks, “I think Sen. Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record.”

So why are we chewing over a 30-year-old war when we should be hashing out more current issues — like the current Iraq war? The easiest answer is that it’s a slow August for news between political conventions. It’s the “silly season” in newsroom lingo, although this story offers little to laugh at.

And, of course, Mr. Kerry brought this dust storm on himself by making his war record a central theme in his campaign. In a crowded Democratic field, his dimming chances in Iowa reignited after Jim Rassman, a Republican whose life Mr. Kerry saved in Vietnam, reappeared in Mr. Kerry’s life to endorse him at a campaign rally.

But, “politics ain’t beanbag,” as Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley famously said. Inevitably Mr. Kerry’s long-time adversaries would come up with ways to turn his lemonade into a big fat lemon, which is not easy in defense of a president whose own history with the Texas Air National Guard has raised questions.

I suspect the Kerry critics’ real quarrel is not with his war record but his post-combat peace movement record. Mr. Kerry was a prominent leader in protests by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He recounted to Congress in 1971 that he had heard of American soldiers who “had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads.” He also said he had “committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers.”

Many Vietnam veterans felt betrayed by Mr. Kerry’s testimony, although I’ve talked to others who were grateful he was exposing national leaders who the vets felt had betrayed them.

Mr. Kerry more recently has acknowledged that some of those horror stories were later discredited, but he has not backed away from his central message that it was not the soldiers but the nation’s Vietnam-era leaders who should be held accountable for the war’s atrocities.

He has a point. We later learned projects such as the Phoenix counterinsurgency program authorized using brutal terrorist tactics against enemy combatants and sometimes civilians who got in our way in Vietnam’s “free fire zones.” Such are the ugly memories that make Vietnam a hot, divisive topic that will haunt our Baby Boom generation as long as we walk the Earth.

Why are we refighting Vietnam? Because its questions remain unsettled in our national conscience. Now Mr. Kerry’s big battle will involve turning the debate around from what he did during the war to what he can do to avoid more wars like it.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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