Suzanne Fields

COROLLA, N.C. - Summer gasps its last in the final days of August. People stuff their cars with wet bathing suits packed in damp towels, toss sandals in the trunk, and attach muddy bicycles to racks for the ride home. A gray-blue sky mirrors the melancholy that spells an end to lazy days of reflection and reading.

Now we brace for the Republican National Convention and hot rhetoric to mark the beginning of a presidential campaign finally, really, truly getting officially underway. Can rhetoric get any hotter than the unfriendly fire of the past few days, with John Kerry's veterans mortaring George W.'s veterans, who are spraying the landscape with enough automatic weapons fire to scare a drug lord straight?

From now on every gaffe, misstep and error will be measured by pollsters and pundits eager to capture a reality that changes faster than the weather on the Outer Banks.

The leisurely family conversations about sand castles, dolphins and pierced belly buttons now morph into agitated arguments between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, in the coffee shops, water coolers and at dining tables in the city where mere opinion can often pass for insight.

We burrow our feet into the sand for one last moment of sensual summer pleasure and remind ourselves with difficulty that we're at war with a new kind of enemy, just as deadly and more dangerous than enemies of wars past. We all imagine ourselves armchair generals in pursuit of homeland security, but we're as vulnerable this time as the grunts at the front.

Our soldiers and Marines have toppled a terrible tyrant, but we don't feel safer. Our enemies are hateful men who despise freedom, who thrive on viciousness and who put higher value on death than life. They're determined to destroy everything we hold dear and sacred, and we seek the reassurance that no one can give us.

How odd that the debate over the strategies and tactics of the new war focuses on how one of the candidates confronted another war now three decades in the past. John Kerry's war stories, and his slander of the soldiers and Marines he left in Vietnam, stir the anger of his fellows and reinforce impressions about his character. But it's his votes against spending on defense and intelligence as a senator that reveal him as a man mired in the antiwar romance of the '60s. His inability to hold steadfast on the Iraqi war - not what he did or didn't do on the dark Mekong River a full generation ago - is the issue that should concern us. He didn't stand up to Howard Dean in the primaries, and now we will see whether he can stand up to the heat of the real campaign.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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