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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Vietnam: An old battle
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online in Nashville, Tennessee

American forces pulled out of Vietnam three decades ago, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from this year's presidential campaign.

Richard Davis, Air Force veteran
If I were from a family of means, I'm sure my dad would do everything he could to keep me from going, so I don't hold that against the guy
Richard Davis,
Air Force veteran
Forests of newspaper, hours of television time and millions of dollars have been devoted to examining the records of the two candidates during America's most controversial war.

Did George W Bush do his duty as a member of the Texas Air National Guard - and even if he did, was that a less honourable course than going to Vietnam?

Did John Kerry deserve the five medals he won as a Naval lieutenant in south-east Asia?

Amid all the discussion, the candidates and the media seem to have missed one thing: The voters don't care.

More than three out of five people in Tennessee say the issue is "not important" in how they will vote, a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research reported in mid-September.

'Overblown'

Few of the Americans whom BBC News Online has interviewed are moved by the question.

SNAPSHOT: US CASUALTIES IN VIETNAM, 1964-1973
3.4m troops served in theatre
47,378 battle deaths
10,789 other theatre deaths in service
526 killed in action per month
Source: US Departments of Defense, Veterans' Affairs
"It doesn't carry any weight with me. Both men served and now they are trying to use [their opponent's wartime records] to discredit each other," said Frank Ostrowski, an unemployed worker in Detroit, Michigan.

"Both sides are overblowing it," said Pat Oles, a Bush family friend in Austin, Texas.

Mr Oles is too young to have fought in the war, and, he suggested, "had I served in Vietnam I might have a different view."

But veterans seem to be as unconcerned by the issue as everyone else.

BBC News Online asked veterans and voters in Tennessee if they think Vietnam is an important election issue

Richard Davis is a homeless 67-year-old Air Force veteran who uses the services of Operation Stand Down, a charity that helps veterans in Nashville.

He is planning to vote for President Bush although he has heard the reports suggesting that the president's father - then a congressman - pulled strings to keep his son from being sent to war.

"I was around in the '60s. A lot of guys dodged the draft. I'm not saying he did, but that was something that a lot of people did - went to Canada so they couldn't be drafted," he said.

"Then I put myself in his position. If I were from a family of means, I'm sure my dad would do everything he could to keep me from going, so I don't hold that against the guy."

'Past history'

Grady Morris, 56, served in the army from 1968 to 1977. He plans to vote for Mr Kerry, but not because of his war record.

"I'm not interested in past history. The important thing is what are you going to do for the American people?"

Melissa Grahn
History obviously shows you a lot about a person's character, but it doesn't mean they're going to be a better or worse president
Melissa Grahn,
University student
He has heard the attacks on Mr Kerry's service in Vietnam, but dismissed them: "The opposition is always going to throw stones at you.

"Whether he did everything that they say he did or did not, at least he was exposed to it."

Mr Morris, who is also homeless, said he hoped Mr Kerry would do more to help veterans than President Bush has.

"Because he has been in a wartime situation in Vietnam, he knows more about it. Why should these men and women [who served in the armed forces] have to struggle to feed their families?"

Rowland Huddleston is a vocal opponent of President Bush. He served in the Navy from 1958 to 1962 and said that the candidates' different backgrounds did affect how they made decisions.

"One of the things that I feel makes [Mr Kerry] a better choice is that people who have been shot at and had their buddies killed have a whole different view from people who sit in penthouses and make decisions," he said.

But even he said that contemporary concerns such as the war in Iraq and economic injustice were more important than the past.

First-time voters

Few first-time voters seemed interested in a war that ended before they were born.

Victor Hill, a first-year student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the candidates' war-time records did not influence his decision, but that the way they responded to the attacks did.

US ELECTION ROAD TRIP
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene are travelling across the US to get to the heart of the issues in this year's election. They are sending back regular in-depth reports telling us what they find

"Many Democrats in their own way know that this is hurting Kerry. They're trying to figure out what to do about it. And the Republicans are in rally mode, supporting their candidate - so I am pleased with what the Republicans are doing, very much so."

Melissa Grahn, another Vanderbilt first-year, and a Republican, said the candidates and the media should let sleeping dogs lie.

"Vietnam is in the past. There were mistakes made and history obviously shows you a lot about a person's character, but it doesn't mean they're going to be a better or worse president," she said.

Mr Kerry is the first major-party candidate to make an issue of his service in Vietnam. Bill Clinton was the first president who was of an age to fight in the conflict, but he did not serve.

Al Gore served two tours of duty but did not highlight the fact in his 2000 campaign.

Mr Kerry has surrounded himself with fellow veterans on the campaign trail, and he began his party convention speech by announcing that he was "reporting for duty".

A Republican-linked organisation - Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - immediately launched a series of advertisements accusing him of lying about his war record.

In Colorado Springs, a congregant at a church-sponsored political discussion summed up the feelings of many people who spoke to BBC News Online.

"What's 30 years ago is past," she said. "I'm so tired of hearing about the Swift Boats. I think we need to get off that boat."




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