On the surface, the current hyperventilation about John Kerry's military service 35 years ago seems stunningly pointless and off-topic. Aren't our present-day problems serious enough that we don't need to fall back on the recollections of aging soldiers in a war long over to find ample grounds to do hand-to-hand political combat with one another?

This misses the point, however. The Swift Boat attack on Kerry's war record is not really about Kerry's war record, but rather his anti-war record. Does anyone honestly believe this would be happening now if Kerry hadn't spoken out against the war after he returned from Vietnam?

The specific attacks on Kerry's service record are an utter crock. Look at their source. Kerry's Swift Boat Veterans for Truth detractors are a veritable freak show of Nixonian frontmen, reptilian bigots, self-contradicting demagogues, and Bush partisans. Jerome Corsi, the co-author of Unfit for Command, the anti-Kerry smear now climbing bestseller lists, has referred to Kerry as "John Fucking Commie Kerry" and called Islam a "worthless, dangerous, Satanic religion" on a right-wing web site.

In other words, Kerry's detractors are an accurate representation of the debased nature of the modern American right wing. That the mainstream press takes these people seriously is also an indication of how powerful the far right has become in America, and the inroads they have made at ostensibly respectable publications. My favorite alum of the "moderate" Seattle Times editorial page, Michelle Malkin, recently authored a book defending the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (memo to Malkin's heir at the Times' Collin Levey, who cackles at the Swift Boat sliming: A book defending slavery might be just the ticket for advancing your career).

John Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam. The Navy awarded him a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for bravery under fire and he sustained three injuries, albeit minor ones. These are facts. If he has been mistaken in a few details of his specific claims, it is impossible to deny that Kerry's conduct was infinitely more admirable than that of George W. Bush, who used his family connections to get a cushy National Guard posting, the obligations of which he may or may not have fulfilled.

The attacks are scurrilous, but they are relevant in that they bring into sharp relief a fundamental clash of values about how America ought to conduct itself in the world--values born of two mutually exclusive interpretations of why we failed in Vietnam. It is that clash that animates this presidential election. We are arguing about Vietnam because it serves as a useful proxy that crystallizes the deeper issues involved in our current debates over Iraq.

The left's version of Vietnam, unfashionable since Reagan, is that in the 1960s, America, driven by a strange amalgam of fear and hubris, shortsightedly trapped herself in a morally ambiguous, unwinnable conflict in which our good intentions fell by the wayside under the pressure of an endless, grinding war.

That view has been replaced by another. Its far-right proponents have pushed a view that Vietnam was not a mistake but a great betrayal, that the hand-wringing moral bankruptcy of the countercultural left snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Our clarity of purpose was sapped by liberal weaklings in our midst: men like Kerry, who spoke out about the futility of American policy in Vietnam after returning stateside. It is why Kerry is so hated by his detractors, why they will wallow in the gutter in their efforts to subvert his presidential ambitions. He is a symbol for them, a potent reminder that their view of the world, and America's role in it, might be flawed.

In fact, it is more than flawed. Their view is utter bunk, a wholesale rewriting of history based on wishful thinking and a ridiculously triumphalist fiction that American success in the world is inevitable and predetermined, even divinely ordained. It is the fantasyland of George W. Bush, and the root cause of why we find ourselves mired now in Iraq. Kerry has nothing to be ashamed of. The same can't be said for his detractors.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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