Sunday, August 8, 2004

Sen. John Kerry has made his time in Vietnam a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and has invoked his military credentials at every possible opportunity. Now, a heated debate has broken out between veterans challenging Mr. Kerry’s war record and others who defend him with equal vigor.

An explosive new book titled “Unfit For Command, Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry” is scheduled for release on Sunday. It is expected to make serious new charges about Mr. Kerry’s military service as commander of a swift boat — a vessel used in the Mekong Delta to catch Vietcong guerrillas and block North Vietnamese supply routes.

The book, co-authored by Jerome Corsi and John O’Neill, represents the views of Vietnam veterans who served with Mr. Kerry and claim his behavior on the battlefield should disqualify him for the presidency. According to a description of the book published by the Drudge Report, it will charge that Mr. Kerry earned his Silver Star by killing a fleeing Vietcong teenager in a loincloth. The book will also claim that Mr. Kerry attacked a peaceful hamlet, slaughtering small animals with high-caliber machine guns and burning down the village with a lighter. It quotes George Bates, an officer who participated in numerous combat operations with Mr. Kerry, as saying that he is still “haunted” by what took place. In short, the authors claim that Mr. Kerry is a fraud.

But other veterans who served with Mr. Kerry in Vietnam are equally tenacious in defending him. One example is Jim Rassman, a Green Beret who says that Mr. Kerry saved his life. According to Mr. Rassman, on March 13, 1969, Mr. Kerry, though wounded, saved him after their boats were ambushed by the enemy. Mr. Rassman recommended that Mr. Kerry be recognized for bravery, and he was awarded the Bronze Star.

How can it be that two sets of Vietnam veterans have such different recollections of John Kerry’s performance in combat? It is possible that some veterans, either partisan Republicans or soldiers deeply angered by Mr. Kerry’s subsequent work as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, may have allowed that to color their views of Mr. Kerry as a soldier. At the same time, it is equally possible that some of the veterans supporting Mr. Kerry have a partisan political agenda of their own. There are also no less plausible reasons why either side could be telling the truth. The only thing that seems clear is that someone is not.

At this point, we take no position on which side is right. It is the responsibility of the press to get to the bottom of this and sort out fact from fiction.

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