If you haven’t already read Bob Kerrey’s “confessions” to the New York Times and CBS’ 60 Minutes by now, you owe it to yourself. It is a stirring, compelling story.
It seems unfair to summarize this riveting account, but the basic facts are important. In February 1969, Bob Kerrey, a Lieutenant, the commander of a Navy Seals Squad, led his men into the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta. Shots were fired. “Thirteen to twenty” unarmed women and children were dead.
That’s really all there is. Well, you know, there is of course a long story with it. No one can live with himself having murdered twenty women and children without have a long story about it. And I don’t necessarily mean that Kerrey excuses his actions. But I do mean that when you add a long story and you admit that you are confessing a terrible secret and the secret is that you murdered twenty women and children, the truth is that you believe that what you did was different in some way from what a cold-blooded murderer does but very, very awful, but different, but awful… well, how far back can you step, from the basic facts? On my first reading of the account published in the New York Times, it certainly struck me that Bob Kerrey was confessing to a very serious crime. Just above his confession is a link to a story about attempts to prosecute the men who set a bomb off at a church in 1963 in Alabama which killed four children. You understand: we are trying to prosecute these men. And I had to wonder, of course, if anyone is going to try to prosecute Bob Kerrey.
Kerrey tells us that the women and children were killed because someone fired upon them and his men returned fire, and when they examined the bodies, they found only women and children. But he admits that before they returned fire, and before someone allegedly fired upon them, they had already murdered an old man and an old woman and three children in a hut on the outskirts of the village. If there is ambiguity about what happened to the people in the village proper, there is no ambiguity about the actions of the men earlier. They were afraid that these villagers would reveal their presence to the others. They were not soldiers: they were civilians. They had to be silenced. They were murdered.
Gerhard Klann, who was with Kerrey that night, doesn’t agree with Kerrey’s version. Neither does Mike Ambrose, who was also there, nor a Viet Namese woman who claimed to have witnessed the incident. Pham Tri Lahn.
Klann says they were never fired upon. Instead, they rounded up the women and children and when they realized that the man they were looking for, a Viet Cong officer, was not present, they decided to kill the villagers. They did not want to leave witnesses to the earlier murder of the grandparents and three children, and they did not want any enemy in the area to know they were there. Of course, as the Times points out, firing your weapons would certainly give away some information about yourself.
Now, there are a lot of people out there who will immediately object to my use of the word “murder”. I would expect they would argue all or any of the following:
1. “civilians”– women and children included– were known to operate as part of the Viet Cong and sometimes killed unsuspecting U.S. soldiers, therefore, Kerrey was justified in treating them as a threat to their lives.
2. This was war, after all, so you have to accept civilian casualties. The normal rules don’t apply.
3. It was all a regrettable mistake, but not something you could compare to a deliberate act under entirely different circumstances. The men were justifiably frightened.
The trouble is that all Western nations agree that, even in hostile territory, the deliberate murder of unarmed civilians is not permitted. This is the military speaking– not some pie-in-the-sky liberal pacifist. This is the standard that German officers were held to at Nuremberg. This is the standard that the U.S. has publicly agreed to in treaties and protocols signed and ratified by the government. This is the standard we are holding above the thugs and murderers of Kosovo and Serbia.
The trouble is, the civilians were unarmed. They did not attack the soldiers. They did not call out for help from hiding Viet Cong commandos. They did as they were told. They waited for the men to complete their search. Then they were shot in cold blood.
The trouble is that even if Kerrey’s account is to be believed– that they were fired upon first and that they returned fire in self-defense– they still murdered the old couple and three children in the first “hooch” in cold blood. That is a war crime. That is cold-blooded murder.
And Kerrey’s account is troubling. If they were fired upon first and returned fire in a random, panicked spree of self-defense… why were all of the civilians killed? Were none wounded?
In the movie, “The Great Escape”, a German officer informs an American commander that a group of the escapees were killed while fleeing their pursuers. “How many,” asks the American, “were wounded”. The German officer, whom we are given to understand is a honorable man fighting for the wrong side (a typical myth of militarists everywhere: that honorable men can fight for evil causes and still be “honorable”) painfully admits, “none”.
We know exactly what he means. And we know why it is so troubling that Kerrey tells us that none of the unarmed villagers were “wounded”. This is the part of the evening that Kerrey, while claiming to have made a damning confession, refuses to discuss.
There are strange ambiguities in the world. We still prosecute Nazi war criminals when we find them. We’re trying to prosecute the murderers of those four black girls in Alabama in 1963. An international tribunal in Holland is trying to bring Milosevic and his cronies to justice for similar crimes.
We throw children and young adults into brutal prisons for long terms for smoking a harmless weed. We try to impeach presidents for having sex with women they are not married to. We ruin the lives of athletes and politicians and business executives who lie or cheat or harass.
In Viet Nam, on a dark night thirty years ago, a group of American men entered a village and murdered 20 civilians. I think Kerrey is genuinely sorry it happened. But so is everybody.
Why did Kerrey do it? Why is he talking about this now?
His given reason is the usual rationale for salacious talk-shows: to advance healing. To bring closure, of course. Peace of mind. You know. And prevent if from ever happening again. But one has to consider that Kerrey ran for the Democratic nomination for President once upon a time and, with Bush not doing anything to dispel the notion that he is the country’s luckiest bozo, might run again. Suppose he was considering running in 2004. Suppose he was worried about the scrutiny his war record would have received had he become the Democratic nominee. Suppose he thought it might be smarter to get it all out now. It’s never a scandal if it’s already public knowledge (Clinton’s stupid mistake was, of course, lying about Lewinski– not the sex itself). Heck, it might even help him. He would have his war record credentials (he served, didn’t defer, didn’t dodge) front and centre, and the confessional aspect of it all might have endeared him to the public I don’t know if that’s what Kerrey is thinking, but you’d be a fool to not tuck this possibility into the back of your mind somewhere and save it for 2004..
In an eerie echo of Viet Nam era propaganda battles, Kerrey now accuses CBS and the New York Times with “collaboration” with the enemy. Uh, Bob, this is 2001…. And Bob, it doesn’t dignify you to sling mud no matter how much you disagree with the information posted in the New York Times or on “60 Minutes”
Has the story taken an even uglier turn? Kerrey met with six of the seven members of his commando team on April 27th for a long, evening meeting. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to get their stories straight. The six emerged from the meeting all agreeing that they had been fired upon first by the enemy before returning fire. They all denied that villagers had been rounded up and shot.
What is kind of strange here is this: Kerrey has admitted to an act that certainly should raise questions about criminal prosecution. Then he held a meeting with all the American witnesses– except for Gerhard Klann, who denies that shots were fired at the commandos– to coordinate their stories. If Kerrey had been charged, it would be illegal, of course, for witnesses to gather together to “get their story straight”.
Kerrey and the six commandos then issued a press release insisting that they had been fired upon first. Why should we believe this account? To contradict this story would be to admit to cold-blooded murder, and the six ex-commandos would not likely embrace any other alternative. I’m not saying that we know their statement is false. But no court of law in America would accept or even allow the testimony of six witnesses who met together prior to giving testimony in order to coordinate their stories.
It should be noted that there are problems with this story in any case. First of all, none of Kerrey’s men were wounded. Secondly, all of the villagers died in the first hail of bullets, according to Kerrey. They all died? Not a single survivor? Not a single wounded? This strains credulity.
Kerrey also initially denied that he had anything to do with the murder of an old man at a “hooch” (hut) at the outskirts of the village. Now he admits, “we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected”. Oh the euphemisms! This one smells. Try “we killed several villagers at the outskirts of Thanh Phong so they wouldn’t give us away.”
“The unanimous view of the six was that we were young men and we did what was right and what was necessary”. The defendants have spoken: they’re not guilty. Think about it. He can’t have it both ways. Either the civilians were killed in cold blood or you were shot at and there is no need for the “we were young” and the “right and necessary”. No need at all.
What has being “young” to do with it? What is he trying to excuse, for which we would be less forgiving if they had been “old”? 2008-05
One last note: Kerrey received a medal for this action. Think about that. No Viet Cong were killed. No military objectives were achieved. The raid was not even successful in any sense at all. But, by golly, you get medals for failure in the army.