The Kerrey Horror

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:35

    Until now, the Vietnam War really has divided people as much as the cliches say. When Ronald Reagan described it as a "noble cause" two decades ago, half the country howled, but the other half nodded in agreement. With the revelations that the congressional Medal of Honor winner and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey took part in an atrocity of some sort in a Mekong Delta

    village in 1969, we can see that that division has begun to evaporate. Willy-nilly, the Vietnam War is coming to be seen less as a tragedy than as a society-permeating, silver-lining-less disgrace.

    The basic storyline of Gregory Vistica's New York Times exposé is now well known: On Feb. 25, 1969, Bob Kerrey led a seven-man Navy SEAL team to a drop-off near the village of Thanh Phong in the largely Vietcong-controlled Mekong Delta. Their mission was to assassinate the village secretary, a known Vietcong leader. According to Kerrey, his men attacked an outlying sentry post, proceeded toward the village and came under fire in the pitch-dark. They returned fire?1200 rounds' worth, according to the SEALs' after-action report?and arrived at the village to find at least a dozen women and children lying dead in a close-packed group. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead," Kerrey said. "Instead I found women and children."

    A second version of the story is offered by Gerhard Klann, the most experienced SEAL on the team that night. What Kerrey remembers as a sentry post Klann remembers as a "hooch," or grass hut, with an old man, a younger woman and three children inside. In this telling, Klann dragged the old man outside and killed him with his knife, while Kerrey held him down. Their teammates entered the hooch and murdered the woman and children. They moved on to Thanh Phong proper, seizing women and children from scattered hooches and gathering 15 of them in the center of the village. Baffled to find no men there, panicked at being a mile from the canal-side "extraction point," the team decided to eliminate witnesses who could alert the Vietcong to their whereabouts. Under Kerrey's orders, the team executed all of them.

    One can talk about the fog of war until the cows come home, but Klann's account stands up and Kerrey's does not. CBS, which collaborated on the project with the Times, traveled to Thanh Phong and found the graves of the five killed in the first hooch?an elderly couple and their grandchildren, as it turned out?marked with the date "February 24, 1969." They also found an eyewitness to the murders?Pham Tri Lanh, the wife of a Vietcong fighter?who described them almost exactly as Klann did. Kerrey's admission that he found the bodies in a cluster is also consistent with an execution, and wholly inconsistent with a dark-of-night firefight.

    But nothing is more incriminating than Kerrey's own recollections over the past week, in a series of press interviews and one press conference last Thursday. "Lying" is an unduly harsh description of the understandable repression that has gone into Kerrey's recollection of events. But it must be said baldly that Kerrey's narrative makes no sense. For one, his story keeps shifting. Early in his interviews with Vistica, Kerrey flatly denied Klann's version of what happened in Thanh Phong. By the end of the sessions, he had relented: "It's possible a slight version of that happened," he admitted. With that, we're deep into didn't-inhale territory. Because what's a "slight version" of lining up 15 women and children and shooting them? Lining up, say, five women and children and shooting them? In later interviews for the Vistica article, Kerrey also backed down from his early certitude that his team had taken fire, granting it might just have been "noise." But this was in a remote region of one of the most primitive countries in Asia. What noise? The express train? By last week's press conference, Kerrey was again professing himself certain they'd taken fire. Finally, he said, "Nobody in?in the squad that I've talked to has the same memory that?that Gerhard's got." Of course not. Gerhard Klann is the only one without an exculpatory memory.

    There can be no question of Kerrey's remorse. Kerrey describes Feb. 25, 1969, as the darkest evening of his life, on which "I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die." This may be literally true. Seventeen days later, on a raid in Cam Ranh Bay, Kerrey was hit by a grenade and pinned down by Vietcong gunfire while rappelling down a 350-foot cliff. With shrapnel in his face and all his limbs, he refused both painkillers and evacuation while directing gunfire?for hour after hour?to save his trapped men. That's how Kerrey got his congressional Medal of Honor.

    Without detracting from his heroism on the battlefield that night, one can ask whether it wasn't enabled by a sort of death wish. Kerrey says he "shut down for three years" after returning home. His surly stoicism in the hospital?where he again refused all painkillers, and passed his time lighting paper airplanes on fire and throwing them out the window onto the street?was captured by Lewis Puller Jr. in his memoir Fortunate Son. His habit, once in the Senate, of relaxing by making news-photo collages of people in agony was revealed in a superb Esquire profile by Martha Sherrill five years ago. Both bespeak an ongoing remorse of the most desperate, sanity-endangering kind.

    What's more, it's a remorse that may have had everything to do with his career in politics. Kerrey now says, "I never campaigned and said, 'Vote for me; I'm a hero.'" But he didn't have to; and he did mention Vietnam four times in his first Democratic presidential debate in 1992. To indulge in psychological speculation for a moment, perhaps politics was a necessary means of maintaining the mystical relationship with his country that kept his actions 32 years ago from presenting themselves to his conscience as cold-blooded murder.

    And yet if things happened the way Kerrey says they did, his claims to feel any remorse are suspect. The moral contours of his story are all false. He says that last week he told his children about the incident and that they forgave him. "Knowing that they still love me," he says, "is still a good thing." Why wouldn't they love him? One of the journalists at the Sheraton captured this fishiness with a telling question: "Given all those factors that you've enumerated, what did you do wrong? You opened fire because you were fired on. It was a free-fire zone. You didn't think civilians were going to be there. This is a classic Vietnam story. What did you do wrong?"

    Under Kerrey's own criteria, he has still not admitted to having done anything wrong. At an early-April address to the Virginia Military Institute, he told a group of young soldiers: "In the military, the most important ethical lesson is learned when you acquire an understanding of what it means to be given the responsibility of command? 'Am I willing to sanction and morally support the determined savagery that must be part of effective combat units?' Since evil does not yield to pacifism, sometimes the answer will be a resounding yes. However, there will be times when the answer is no."

    Kerrey finally gave a strong hint as to his feelings about the Thanh Phong massacre, and the way he will defend himself in the weeks to come. "I feel guilty because of what happened," he said, "not because of what we intended to do. My guilt is connected to the nature of the Vietnam War." He's right. In fact, it's much more closely connected than the war's defenders seem to realize.


    In April 1969, Kerrey received a Bronze Star for his actions at Thanh Phong. The Navy citation reads: "When fire was encountered, Lt. [jg] Kerry [sic] dispersed his men and returned the fire killing fourteen Viet Cong. Then, as he and his men were returning to a canal for extraction?enemy movement was detected. The ensuing firefight ended with seven more aggressors killed."

    This is sort of interesting, as an indication of the blizzard of murderous euphemism by which the armed forces covered up its pillage in the Vietnamese countryside. One of the myths due to die as a result of Vistica's article is that which holds the war could have been won sensibly and cleanly if the "suits" back in Washington had merely left the military men to their own devices. In this light, one of the great merits of Vistica's article is its portrait of the Kurtz-like psychopath who commanded Kerrey's Navy task force, Capt. Roy Hoffmann: "I told them you not only have authority," Hoffmann now says, "I damned well expect action. If there were men there and they didn't kill them or capture them, you'd hear from me."

    So, pardon, but why is everyone so worried about a medal? In particular, why is the press so up in arms over Kerrey's announcement that he won't return it? It's the Navy's to award, after all, and at Thanh Phong Kerrey did exactly what the Navy had asked of him. Anyway, he adds, "I've never worn that damn medal." Here he has the right perspective. The question at hand is not whether Bob Kerrey should keep his Bronze Star but whether he should be prosecuted.


    He won't be, of course. A coalition of conservatives, veterans and Vietnam War defenders has come together behind Kerrey. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was the most disingenuously doltish: "I don't understand what all the hoopla is about here," he said on CNN's Inside Politics. "Maybe it's because he is revealing this now and it hadn't been talked about in the past. But I view Bob Kerrey as a genuine American war hero. He did his duty? And frankly, I'm very much distressed that?it's almost like his patriotism is being questioned now."

    Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who was in Vietnam a year before Kerrey, said to the Omaha World-Herald: "Were there incidents of civilian casualties in 1968? Absolutely. Was my unit involved in some of those? Absolutely." Having had to perform such messy work didn't upset Hagel so much as the spectacle of journalists having the effrontery to grill Kerrey on the details of it. "It displayed a raw ignorance about any understanding of what war is about," he said, "and even a more base ignorance on the history of Vietnam. I was embarrassed for some of them. Bob Kerrey knows he has got to deal with a very rough situation." In other words, a soldier is answerable only to his own conscience. This, indeed, was the line Kerrey took for a while with Vistica. "I've got a right to say to you it's none of your damned business," Kerrey snapped. "I carry memories of what I did, and I survive and live based upon lots of different mechanisms." But Kerrey does not have the right to say it's none of your goddamn business. In this mode, he was reminiscent of those Marcel Ophuls documentaries about Vichy France, in which there's always some collaborator's wife shouting into the camera: "Can't you leave the poor guy alone!"

    Strangely, the leave-the-poor-guy-alone response was not limited to Vietnam War supporters and veterans. The New York Times admitted in an editorial, "Our first reaction was one of compassion rather than condemnation." George Stephanopoulos must have read that, for he echoed it later that day: "I think he's going to be greeted with much more compassion than condemnation." But why? In dealing with Vietnam, the Times' first reaction is usually condemnation. This may be evidence that the Vietnam debate is no longer between competing principles but between partisan sides, arguing blindly. What would the Times have said if, say, Oliver North had been the perpetrator of what Kerrey is alleged to have done? I don't mean to leave this question hanging as a kind of rhetorical quip: If the Kerrey allegations had been leveled at a Republican supporter of the Vietnam War, there would now be deadly serious calls for a war crimes trial in the national newspapers and on the major networks.

    Everywhere the press was betraying its instinct for the capillaries. Investigative reporter Bob Woodward chose to view Kerrey's confession as a kind of drawing-room bon mot. Woodward said, "It's filling a news vacuum obviously [obviously?] and?knowing former Sen. Kerrey a little bit, he likes to be in the limelight. He likes to talk. He enjoys the notion of ambiguity and it seems that there is a lot of ambiguity in this." (Indeed! he's the William Empson of war crimes!) Tom Brokaw gave a workout to the media fallacy that if an event cannot be translated into legislation or campaign reporting, it has no significance: "I really think that he has decided that he won't run for president," Brokaw revealed, as if that's a question that had been gnawing at us for the past three decades, "and it has, I think, not much to do with this."

    Why this astonishing slowness to condemn? One possible explanation has to do with propaganda and art. Vietnam was certainly (if you count p.r. as propaganda) the most propagandized war ever fought in a free country. It was next to impossible to get the truth about it. By contrast, once the war was over, we were barraged with raw and credible movies and films on precisely those areas of the war that official sources were most keen to cover up. So whenever we get any new information about a Vietnam atrocity, we assume it's art.

    But there is a larger explanation. We can look at Kerrey as a person who deserves to be forgiven, or we can look at his actions as atypical?but not both. The old compromise assessment of the Vietnam War?as a noble anti-Communist crusade in which certain excesses were committed?has taken a severe hit from the Kerrey controversy. To say that America generally respected the civilian population in Vietnam is to say that Kerrey's actions are a war crime. To forgive Kerrey is to consign the American effort in Vietnam to the category of criminal unjustifiability. The reluctance of the American public to judge Bob Kerrey is evidence that the view of Vietnam as criminal and unjustifiable has triumphed?or is on the verge of triumphing. Three Senate Vietnam vets?Democrats Max Cleland of Georgia and John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska?sense this. In a Washington Post op-ed Sunday, they wrote a defense of Kerry in which they assailed the American tendency "to blame the warrior instead of the war."

    Vistica's account of the Feb. 25, 1969, raid conjures up a whole hellish world. Thanh Phong was part of the Thanh Phu Secret Zone, which the U.S.-installed district chief Tiet Lun Duc had declared a "free-fire zone." Peasants who didn't consent to be moved to "strategic hamlets" many miles away were assumed to be Vietcong (hence the description of the dead women and children in Kerrey's Bronze Star citation). "Standard operating procedure," Kerrey tells Vistica, "was to dispose of the people we made contact with. Kill the people we made contact with." This may have made sense when it was dreamed up in Washington: "the people we made contact with" were probably envisioned as irregular soldiers, not families at dinner. "There were enemy not only expected to be in the area," Kerrey told the press conference, "I'm 100 percent convinced that they were there that night." Of course they were. They always were. Anyone found breathing was defined as the enemy.

    Now, it was more than possible that the family in the first hooch were sentries of a sort. But that didn't make the position of a unit like Kerrey's any less morally impossible. After killing off a family of five, the team debated whether to press on into the village proper. "There was plenty of noise in the first location," recalls one of Kerrey's teammates. "I felt compromised." The noise had come from the agony of small children being stabbed to death. But if you turned back at that point, who were you? Answer: a team of six marauders who came ashore, murdered a family of civilians, and went home.

    So they pressed on into the village to look for the Vietcong bigwig rumored to be around. Finding only women there must have induced a heart-stopping panic. Where were the men? Somewhere nearby, of course?they weren't on business trips. One can assume that the women's goodwill would have been stretched to the limit if they'd heard the screams coming from the first hooch. And had the women been left alive to tattle the SEALs' whereabouts to their armed husbands, says Klann, "our chances would have been slim to none to get out alive." No one should disbelieve him. Hence the massacre.

    Vistica's overarching question?"Did Kerrey and his men commit crimes of war, or were they just applying the basic rules of a dirty war as best they understood them?"?thus misses the point, or, rather, draws a distinction without a difference. Crimes of war were the basic rules, at least in the Mekong Delta. It's not that Feb. 25, 1969, was a disastrous night for a particular SEAL unit in one theater of the Vietnam War?it's that it was the Vietnam War. Future CIA director William Colby, who ran covert operations in the Mekong, testified before Congress that such operations had killed more than 20,000 people. Renegade Col. David Hackworth estimated that 30 percent of those were civilians. Kevin Buckley, Newsweek's bureau chief in Saigon, put the number of murdered civilians at 5000. To George Stephanopoulos' question whether he had personally killed people that night, Kerrey replied: "I would assume so. I killed people before and after, yes." Kerrey told interviewer Martha Sherrill in 1995 that he went on missions every night or two. The real reason for Kerrey's inability to recall details of the Thanh Phong raid may be not repression but the tendency of similar incidents to blur together.

    There are doubtless times when wars have to be fought this way. But almost no Americans would have countenanced the Vietnam War if they'd known it was being fought this way. And the more after-the-fact information comes out, the more Americans move to the antiwar side of the historical jury, until it becomes untenable to say this country is any longer "divided" over Vietnam. As a means of measuring just how true this is, the reader might ask himself whether he'd rather carry on his conscience Bill Clinton's Vietnam-era sins or Bob Kerrey's. American voters answered a version of this question in 1992. Kerrey himself said years ago that if he had known as young man what he knew now, he would have gone to prison rather than be drafted. We can now see what he meant by that.