Kerry was the one who made his long-ago stint in Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign for president. He's the one whose running mate urges voters to take Kerry's measure by spending "three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago." He's the one whose campaign ads dwell on his combat heroics. He's the one who has repeatedly played the Vietnam card against critics and opponents. And he's the one who challenged anyone "who wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam to bring it on."
So the Swifties brought it on. Their scorching attack on his wartime record is so effective precisely because they, like Kerry, were there. They too went to Vietnam when so many other young men didn't. They too fought and bled for their country. If his wartime experience lends him a certain moral authority, it does no less for them.
That doesn't mean their version of the facts is closer to the truth than his. There are conflicting eyewitness recollections, and, as The Washington Post says, "both accounts contain significant flaws and factual errors." Kerry certainly wouldn't be the first soldier to have embellished his war stories; the Swift Boat vets wouldn't be the first whose passions have altered their memories. Of course, if Kerry really wants to silence the debate about his medals, he can authorize the government to release all his military records.
But that won't silence the Swifties. Because their real beef with him is not about what he did in Vietnam. It's about what he did when he came home.
On April 22, 1971, Kerry went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to indict the American war effort in Vietnam for horrendous war crimes. These were "not isolated incidents," he testified, "but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
He offered no evidence. Instead he trumpeted the charges of the "Winter Soldier Investigation," an antiwar gathering a few months earlier at which men claiming to be Vietnam veterans -- many were later exposed as frauds -- described the atrocities they had allegedly committed.
"They told stories," Kerry said, "that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
That is what thousands of Vietnam veterans, not to mention countless other vets, have never forgiven or forgotten. Bob Dole, whose right arm was crippled in World War II, suggested on Sunday that Kerry apologize to the 2.5 million veterans he defamed. Kerry's words -- which drew immense media coverage at the time -- helped poison public attitudes about Vietnam veterans and the cause they had fought in. Even worse, they gave encouragement to the enemy.
"The Viet Cong didn't think they had to win the war on the battlefield," says Paul Galanti, who appears in the second -- and far more devastating -- Swift Boat Veterans ad, "because thanks to these protesters they were going to win it on the streets of San Francisco and Washington." Galanti has good reason to remember Kerry's testimony. He first learned of it in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton," where he spent nearly seven years as a POW.
Kerry has never taken back his terrible slur against his fellow soldiers -- men he now calls his "band of brothers." The most he has been willing to say is that his words "were a little bit over the top" and that he could perhaps "have phrased things more artfully." He certainly doesn't regret the propaganda coup he handed the Viet Cong: "I'm proud that I stood up," Kerry told NBC in April. "I don't want anybody to think twice about it."
And therein lies the central hypocrisy of the Kerry candidacy.
He came to prominence as a radical opponent of the war in Vietnam, yet now he runs for president on the strength of his service in that war. He portrayed the men who fought there as unspeakable savages, yet now he surrounds himself with Vietnam vets at every turn. He lent respectability to those who demanded that America cut and run, that it abandon a beleaguered ally, that it drop "the mystical war against communism." Yet now he insists that he would be a tough and vigilant commander-in-chief, one who would never disrespect allies, one in whose hands the security of the United States would be safe.
Even after 33 years, Kerry's 1971 testimony, and his refusal to either repudiate or corroborate it, remains unsettling -- and relevant. For the Swift Boat vets, this fight may be personal. But all of us have a stake in its outcome.
Jeff Jacoby is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe.