As the uproar over John Kerry's record during the Vietnam War illustrates, that polarizing conflict is still being fought. It probably will remain a flash point at least for the duration of the Vietnam-era generation.
That said, the presidential contest should not waste one more day launching media attacks on the military backgrounds of either of the two candidates, especially with ads that either distort facts or make them up.
Many Americans have not seen these anti-Kerry and anti-Bush ads, since they've run mostly in swing states. But they do get play in the news, or indirectly in counter ads. And at a time when the US is militarily engaged in Iraq, political arguments about the candidates' war records three decades ago are way out of proportion, scaling towering heights of innuendo and contradiction.
They overshadow the candidates' more current military-related records, such as Senator Kerry's votes in the Senate (he was against the Gulf war and for the Iraq war, for instance), and President Bush's record as an active commander in chief.
The most troubling of these ads is one by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in which, for instance, Van Odell, a former swift-boat gunner, claims Kerry "lied to get his Bronze Star. I know. I was there. I saw what happened." But Mr. Odell was not in Kerry's boat, and Navy records indicate the boats indeed came under "small arms and automatic weapons fire." The man whom Kerry saved on the day he earned his Bronze Star remembers bullets flying and Kerry returning to save him after an explosion had knocked him overboard.
Extensive research done by media and independent groups comparing the swift-boat veterans' ads (and their book) with the record shows their claims to be riddled with inconsistencies, or not supported by Navy records. Kerry's claim, however, that he spent Christmas Eve 1968 in Cambodia remains in dispute. The swift-boat veterans question him on this and his campaign has yet to effectively counter it.
Even if that hole is never filled in, the undisputed fact is that Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam - an unusual step for a college-educated white man in the '60s. He commanded a swift boat, a noisy craft which invited ambushes as it went its way through Vietnam's waterways. He returned to save his buddy. In all, he won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. His experience in the war led him to later oppose it. And he has a 20-year voting record in the Senate on military matters.
As for anti-Bush ads, the group MoveOn.org funded one that distorts Bush's tenure in the Texas Air National Guard, claiming his father helped him into the Guard and that "when the chips were down, [he] went missing." But numerous credible sources dispute this, and the fact is Bush was honorably discharged without being officially accused of desertion or being away without official leave.
Bush chose to serve in the National Guard, an honorable choice, according to John McCain, Vietnam veteran and GOP senator. The president has also waged a war on terror for three years, perhaps preventing another 9/11-type attack, as well as commanding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed success.
For both Bush and Kerry, these track records are really worth voters' attention, while their Vietnam-era records shouldn't be grossly abused in inflammatory ads.
Voters must be alert that this campaign is different from past ones. A rush by partisan groups known as 527s are taking in the unlimited amounts of money that once flowed to the political parties. They're not supposed to coordinate with the parties, but doubts persist on that score.
Although campaign finance reformers were aware of the 527 problem when the McCain-Feingold law passed in 2001, they rightly took what they could get, hoping the Federal Election Commission and Congress would act later to close the 527 loophole. An FEC vote last week should make fundraising more difficult for 527s, but the new rules don't go into effect until 2005. Congress and the FEC still must find ways to prevent millions being spent to foist lies and insinuations, while balancing that with free-speech rights.
It won't be easy.