According to Josh Marshall, the "Swift Boat" ads actually seem to be getting some traction with independent voters (assuming that there are any left.) The Kerry campaign doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of countering them. This is a bit surprising, seeing that this same group has trotted out the same charges against Kerry every time he's been up for re election.
Now, it's important to remember that a lot of people still think that we "lost" in Vietnam because we were "stabbed in the back" by the antiwar movement. Near as I can tell, they won't blame themselves, they won't blame their chain of command, they won't blame their political leadership, and they won't blame the North Vietnamese, so they blame the only ones left. Indeed, I've heard right- wingers flat- out blame Jane Fonda for the loss of Vietnam. Her. By herself. Ignore JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Westmoreland, Kissinger, and Giap. It's all Hanoi Jane's fault.
And of course, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. VVAW was a particularly sore point, as the hawks couldn't claim that they were just a bunch of strung- out hippie dope addict draft dodging cowards (the charge of choice against most antiwar types). John Kerry was by no means the most highly decorated soldier in VVAW; he was simply one of he most eloquent.
Memory is a funny thing. If somebody asks you to remember an event that fits your worldview, you're likely to remember it, whether it happened or not. The standard example is asking somebody who went to Disney World or Disneyland many years ago to remember meeting Bugs Bunny. A surprising number of people do, and will give a surprising level of detail. Problem is that Bugs is a Warner Brothers property; no way would he ever be at a Disney park.
Which brings us to the Swift Boat Vets. Looking at the records, none of them served with Kerry and it's hard to tell how many of them knew him at all. None of them seem to be VVAW members, or indeed any kind of "dove". It's a reasonable hypothesis that they believe the "stab in the back" theory. I'll bet that they honestly believe that they saw Kerry doing all sorts of horrible things.
But, pardon me for not believing them without contemporary documentary evidence. It fits too closely with the "hawk" worldview, where anyone associated with "peace" could never have done anything worthwhile. Remember Winston Smith in 1984? His job was in altering official records to show that the current Ins had always been wonderful people and the current Outs had always been horrible slimeballs. Same principal here.
Now, there are a couple of barbs in this. First, I find it very odd that the Republicans would want to bring up Kerry's record at all. If the Repubs can talk about Kerry, the Dems can talk about Bush -- and Bush comes off very poorly by comparison.
The other is much nastier. By claiming that Kerry got his medals under false pretenses, they are implying that everybody else who got medals in Vietnam may have gotten them under false pretenses. Digby coverd this a while back, but it bears repeating -- If Kerry got his medals under false pretenses, so did many other people. After all in 1968 - 1969, Kerry was a nobody. He had no powerful political or military allies who might want to single him out for special favors; I've heard no accusations that he did any favors for anyone who might have pulled strings for him.
People with no military experience don't understand the importance of medals to people in the military. In the military, the pay sucks, the working conditions are horrible, and somebody is always ordering you around. Oft times, the only thing you have to show for a big chunk of your life is a little bit of ribbon. Claiming that someone got a medal under false pretenses, or wore a medal that they weren't entitled to, is a very serious matter. Before the "Swift Boat Veterans" got going, remember that the big question about Kerry was "Did he really throw his medals away, or just the service ribbons?" The fuss quieted down when everybody agreed that it was just the service ribbons. This makes sense only in the context of the military attitude toward medals -- something that civilians Just Don't Get.
Again, by casting doubt on the legitimacy of Kerry's medals, the Swift Boat Vets are pissing on all of the legitimate medals that they, and anyone else, earned in Vietnam.