Offense vs defense… So where are we in this swift boat controversy, what?s likely to happen next, and what ought to happen next?

The answer to the first question is pretty obvious: The Kerry camp, though damaged by the allegations, has all but won on the merits. In the last couple of days, several mainstream press investigations?see here, here, and here?have (despite a certain conventional even-handedness) undermined most of the key charges made by the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans For Truth that John Kerry didn?t deserve his medals. The SBVFT argument has been further damaged by new testimony from previously silent eyewitnesses who back up Kerry?s version of the events that led to his first Purple Heart and his Silver Star. A series of suspicious-if-not-quite direct connections, and one spot-on one, have been established between SBVFT and the Bush campaign. And Kerry seems finally to be hitting back.

If that were the end of it, one could argue that this whole controversy might ultimately rebound to Kerry?s benefit. It could become, in the minds of voters, yet another example of the president aligning himself with a pack of politically convenient untruths. And if that happens, Kerry ought to be able to turn the tables?for instance, by asking all decorated war veterans in America what they?d feel like if someone started publicly asserting that they didn?t deserve their medals. (In fact, the Boston Globe makes this point in its Sunday editorial.)

But of course that?s not the end of it. Starting this week, SBVFT begins airing commercials attacking Kerry?s 1971 Senate testimony?a line presaged on the Sunday shows by former Sen. Bob Dole. It has long been understood that Kerry?s greatest potential Vietnam-related vulnerability is his leadership of an anti-war veterans group. In Karl Rove?s playbook, the attack on Kerry?s medals was just a softening-up exercise prior to the real assault. As Maureen Down puts it: ?The White House must tear down [Kerry?s] heroism before it can tear down his patriotism.?

What I find infuriating about all this is that Kerry?s willingness to protest the war is an essential part of what, to my mind, makes him one of the great heroes?indeed, perhaps the greatest hero–of that era. Here?s a guy who, as a college student, understood and expressed publicly serious and well-founded doubts about the wisdom of America?s Vietnam strategy. Then, unlike many others of his generation, he put his doubts aside and his life on the line in order to do what he could to make his country?s policy a success. Then, having seen first hand that his initial suspicions were correct, and that the line coming out of Washington?that victory was just around the corner, that the ?Vietnamization? strategy was working?was a lie, he stood up and told the public the unvarnished truth. In my book, that?s three morally courageous acts in a row. And that?s not counting the thankless but vital roles he played in investigating and ending the POW/MIA controversy, opening relations with Vietnam, and improving federal services for veterans. Name me one person in public life today who negotiated the moral minefield of Vietnam with greater courage and sure-footedness.

And yet, a couple weeks ago, when I asked with a friend working on the Kerry campaign why they weren?t framing Kerry?s protests in this way, my friend said that the polling suggested that American?s just weren?t prepared to hear that argument; that too many voters still think that protesting the war was a dubious act; and therefore the less said about Kerry?s role in those protests the better.

I could sympathize with this line of reasoning, even if I didn?t like it. But it seemed to me questionable then, given the predictable trajectory of GOP attacks. And now it?s clearly a dead letter. The campaign has a simple choice: on the issue of Kerry?s role as a Vietnam War protest leader, they can play defense or offense. The choice is as obvious as the argument the Kerry camp should be making. We are currently involved in a war in Iraq that is failing because policymakers in Washington have miscalculated and lied?to themselves and to the American people. In November, do we choose a president who has approved these miscalculations and trafficked in these lies, or one who, throughout most of his career, has calculated correctly and spoken the truth?

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.