Let’s recap the ongoing fight between the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the John Kerry campaign.

One of the main charges of the anti-Kerry veterans group is that John Kerry lied about a March 13, 1969, episode in Vietnam which resulted in his Bronze Star. Kerry, a captain of a Swift boat, says that on that day his boat came under fire while in enemy-controlled territory and that during this battle–as bullets whizzed by–he rescued Jim Rassmann, a Special Forces officer, who had been blown overboard. The Swift Boat gang (which has been financed by Republican donors) claims that Kerry did nothing so heroic because there had been no enemy fire at the time and, moreover, that Kerry actually fled the scene.

It is often hard to sort out competing accounts of events that transpired three decades ago. But the Kerry side today received a big boost…from the military records of one of his chief accusers. The Washington Post reports on the front page that it has obtained the military records of Larry Thurlow, one of the leaders of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Thurlow was the skipper of another Swift boat in the flotilla that day, and he, too, won a Bronze Star for actions taken during the same encounter. The citation for his award says he assisted a damaged Swift boat “despite enemy bullets flying about him.” The citation noted that “all units began receiving enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks.” Yet in an affidavit he signed last month, Thurlow claimed there had been no enemy fire: “I never heard a shot.”

How then does Thurlow explain his own Bronze Star? He told the Post, “My personal feeling was always that I got the award for coming to the rescue of a boat that was mined. This casts doubt on anybody’s award.” He said he lost his Bronze Star citation twenty years ago–how convenient–and added that he now considered his award “fraudulent.” He apparently forgot what the citation said but he asks us to believe his memory of that day.

Imagine the hatred Thurlow must feel for Kerry to throw out his own Bronze Star with the bath water in order to do harm to Kerry. Thurlow, a registered Republican, concedes he despises Kerry for having become a leader of the Vietnam veterans against the war. And he is sticking to his guns. In a statement released today, Thurlow said, “To this day, I can say without doubt in my mind…there was no hostile enemy fire directed at my boat or at any of the five boats operating on the river that day.”

So here’s the scorecard on the enemy-fire-or-no-enemy-fire question:

Kerry says there was enemy fire. So does Rassmann, a Republican, whose life Kerry saved. So do the crew members of Kerry’s own Swift boat. So does Kerry’s citation. So does Thurlow’s citation. Both citations were signed by Lt. Commander George Elliott (a supporter of Swift Boat Veterans who has issued conflicting statements about Kerry’s wartime actions).

Thurlow says there was no enemy fire. Two other Swift boat captains involved in the action that day say they do not recall enemy fire. (Another Swift boat skipper there was killed in action a month later.)

Oh, the fog of war. But the evidence–in terms of documents and eyewitness testimony–certainly is more on Kerry’s side. I suppose it’s possible his crewmates are all lying to help a buddy, that Rassmann is making the story more dramatic to enhance his own importance, and that somehow Kerry, as Thurlow suggests (without offering any evidence), managed to make an end run around Thurlow, the senior skipper in the flotilla, and have a phony account of the day’s events accepted by higher-ups. But isn’t it more likely that a few vets, still enraged at Kerry, are playing with facts in order to torpedo Kerry’s presidential campaign? Perhaps they should change the name of their outfit to Swift Boat Veterans for Politically-Motivated Selective Memories.

But somehow I doubt that such a name change (official or unofficial) will stop the group from being booked on television and radio shows and from being cited by the windbags of the right (many of whom were quick to call George W. Bush’s missing days as an Air National Guardsman an old and irrelevant story). The true goal of the Bush-backers brigade is not to win this battle and prove Kerry turned tail and then lied about saving a man. It is to create a battle, to raise questions (legitiamte or not) about Kerry’s wartime service, to put him on the defensive.

And Kerry is fighting back. After taking hits from the Swift Boat group for weeks, he today called on Bush to denounce the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against him and said Bush “wants them to do his dirty work.” Kerry declared that if Bush wants to “have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: ‘Bring it on.'” Such a debate would rebound to Kerry’s favor. (Will Bush brag about that tough dental exam he underwent while in Alabama?) Still, the anti-Kerry vets have succeeded in forcing a debate about an issue that Kerry and his aides viewed as a slam-dunk. The mission of Thurlow’s gang was to make Kerry’s war record episode seem, well, foggy. And thanks to Republican donors and Bushsymps in the media, they have done much to accomplish that mission.




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