It's downright strange that the U.S. presidential election campaign — easily the most important in decades — has come to focus on what happened in a faraway boat during the course of a few minutes more than 30 years ago.
That such a crucial election isn't more focused on the many pressing current issues is remarkable enough.
But if the election is to hinge on what happened decades ago during the Vietnam War, it's truly astonishing that the candidate in the hot seat is the one who actually went to Vietnam and was injured in the line of duty, rather than the one who used family connections to do his service at home and then didn't bother to show up for duty.
It's not surprising that Republicans have tried to smear Democratic candidate John Kerry's impressive war record.
It's clear that no smear is beneath them. They proved that in 2002, when they attacked Senator Max Cleland for lacking patriotism — when all he really lacked were the three limbs he lost in Vietnam.
Kerry, without a single missing limb, was clearly a sitting duck for the Republican attack machine. Furthermore, Kerry had the audacity to run as a war hero, an image that had to be demolished in order to preserve the already far-fetched notion that George W. Bush is the appropriate man to lead the country in these war times.
One can only imagine the fretting that must have gone on inside the Republican camp as the sheer difficulty of the operation was contemplated: How to take down Kerry's exemplary war record without allowing the media spotlight to stray onto their own candidate's truly abysmal war record.
If there were any Republican fears that a feisty media might turn the tables on Bush, there needn't have been.
With astonishing passivity, the media have allowed the Republican-driven focus on Kerry's war record to become the central issue in the campaign in the last few weeks.
In the thrust and counter-thrust of charges, many Americans may be left with nothing more than the vague sense that there must have been something amiss about Kerry's war service. Or else, why all the fuss?
Media outlets would undoubtedly insist they are being objective and even-handed, as they scrupulously give equal time to both sides in the trumped-up debate over Kerry's war record.
But in what sense is this even-handed? If someone were to charge that Kerry is a cannibal, would fair coverage involve giving equal time to those who support the cannibal allegation and those who think there's no merit to it, leaving the public to believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle — that Kerry probably at least bites people?
An even-handed approach would have, at minimum, also explored Bush's war record. If so, a bigger picture would have emerged in which the disputes over Kerry's record would have faded into insignificance, compared with the really serious issues raised by Bush's record.
No one disputes that Kerry volunteered to serve in Vietnam. U.S. navy records show that in February, 1969, the boat Kerry was commanding in Vietnam came under enemy fire. Kerry turned the boat toward the enemy position, leaped ashore, and chased and killed an enemy combatant, seizing his rocket launcher.
The anti-Kerry veterans don't dispute these facts, but suggest the man Kerry killed was a wounded teenager who may or may not have been armed. Veteran John O'Neill concedes that "while the action involved a degree of courage, it was not ... worthy of a Silver Star."
Similarly, the anti-Kerry veterans don't dispute that, in another episode, Kerry turned his boat around to rescue U.S. soldier Jim Rassmann from the water.
Rassmann, now a Republican, credits Kerry with saving his life. The anti-Kerry veterans simply dispute that there was enemy fire during the rescue.
As for Bush's war record: The main elements were uncovered four years ago in an investigative report by the Boston Globe entitled "One Year Gap in Bush's National Guard Duty."
They revolve around Bush's apparent absence for long periods of time from his pilot's job in the Air National Guard — a cushy, non-combat position he secured with the help of his father's connections.
This raises the question of whether Bush was AWOL or even, if his absence from duty was long enough, whether he should have been considered an army deserter — a crime which, in times of war, can be subject to punishment, including death, with no statute of limitations.
Yet the media focus has remained tightly on Kerry's war record.
What would we do without the vigilance of the free press?
Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and commentator.
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