“When the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it. . .. I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years.” That is part of the recent revelations coming from former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb), disclosing that as a Navy Seal he was involved in killing innocent Vietnamese civilians in the Village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb 25,1969.
In another interview with CBS, Kerrey went further. “to describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that’s how it felt, and that’s why I feel guilt and shame for it.”
Kerrey is also quoted as saying “It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy and I had ordered it. How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night.” Responding to CNN inquiries, he retracted the “military” justification. “I have never been able to justify what we did, either militarily or certainly not morally.” After the massacre, the unit, which was under his command, reported that they had killed 21 Viet Cong, and Kerrey was awarded the Bronze Star. In other comments to the press, Kerrey appears unsure of the exact “kill” count.
These days, Kerrey does not dispute the fact that all the casualties were unarmed civilians. What is in dispute is how they were killed. One of the SEALs on his squad, Gerhard Klann, insists that the residents of the hamlet were rounded up and were executed on orders from Lt. Kerrey. A Vietnamese witness verified Mr. Klann’s version. Kerry disputes that account, as does Michael Ambrose, also a member of the squad, who claims the victims perished when the SEALs responded to hostile fire. Yet another member of the team, Lee Schrier, is staying neutral. He had this to say “We wouldn’t be in these kind of messes if people wouldn’t talk.” Gerhard Klann has broken the code of silence to “cleanse his soul”.
A few months earlier, in another Vietnamese hamlet, Army Lt. Calley had given similar orders. It was a war crime for which he was imprisoned, tried, judged and sentenced to jail. It would be hard to imagine Lt. Calley as a candidate for mayor of a Georgia hamlet, much less rise to the office of Governor or serve two terms in the Senate. He would be considered delusional if he entertained aspirations to be the President of the United States. Yet if you review press accounts of the day, there were many who supported Calley and thought he was being set up as a scape goat by a military establishment that gave a wink and a nod to others who had committed similar war atrocities.
It would be interesting to hear what Lieutenant Calley has to say about the former Senator. His defense in the My Lai case amounted to “we got our orders and everybody was doing it, we just got caught.” America needs to hear a few more stories about the Screaming Eagles and the Korean Marines in Vietnam who got bonuses based on the number of ears they managed to collect for their American allies.
Twenty years ago, in a small town north of Seattle, a customer came into my office to inquire about insurance and taxes. He was the talkative type and I had time to listen. Half way through the conversation the talk turned to Vietnam and how he had done his duty. With an easy chuckle, he recounted how his platoon had dispatched with a captured VC woman by placing a grenade between her legs and pulling the pin. I am slightly younger than those who served in Vietnam, but I have heard my share of “Nam” stories. One thing is certain, between My Lai and Thanh Phong, many other hamlets had a day of reckoning with “special forces” who violated the rules of war. And the military and political leadership in this country was certainly aware of what was going on in the field. Every senior American official of that era also knew about the Tiger cages where South Vietnamese dissidents where left to rot in their feces.
A few days before the Kerrey story broke, I noticed a 70-word story in the Seattle Times ((4/24/2001). It was buried at the bottom of page 6, next to an ad for an outfit that cures “Fading Memory”. It was about a mass grave discovered in Algeria with 290 corpses, many of them bearing signs of torture; some had their arms tied with wire. The skeletons had been found near an old French army base and the men had been killed during Algeria’s war for independence. Today, in Chechnya, the Russian army thinks nothing of invading villages and shooting civilians at random. A shallow grave, with dozens of Chechens was recently uncovered outside a Russian base. The tactics of foreign occupation armies do not seem to vary with the passage of time.
Then there is Sharon of Israel, the butcher of Qibya and Sabra and Shatila. There is no disputing the well-documented atrocities of this irredentist warmonger who makes the former Senator from Nebraska seem like a choirboy. In fact, every single American Network has plenty of footage of the carnage at Sabra and Shatila. It is worth noting that Sharon and his advocates, including the Times, are actively engaged in a campaign to cover up his atrocious record and allow him ample opportunity for a repeat performance. While not admitting to the details of what exactly transpired at Thanh Phong; Senator Kerrey has expressed remorse, was very active in the anti-war movement and is publicly accepting responsibility for the atrocity. Granted, he shows no signs of surrendering to The Hague. But he does not seem like a man who would do another Thanh Phong. Sharon, on the other hand, still sticks to a weekly quota of wasting Palestinian lives.
The New York Times and CBS and Newsweek (which is owned by the Washington Post) sat on this Vietnam era story for two years. Why so long? Did it have something to do with Kerry being a potential future President. It seems very strange that a story this big accumulated two years of dust before it was rushed to print. Was the New York Times bargaining with the Senator? For what? The timing of these revelations is very suspicious; considering that our media barons has spared no effort to bury Sharon’s criminal war record and portray him as a “conservative war hero”.
In a more recent conflict, the Gulf War, the remnants of Sadam’s hapless army was buried alive in bunkers, even as they waved surrender flags. Retreating Iraqi soldiers emaciated from six-weeks of constant allied bombardment where systematically suffocated to death. The American pilots called the “Highway of Death” a duck shoot. Ted Turner did such a fine job marketing the war, that Americans could not get enough of it. To this day, few Americans have a clue about how many half-crazed starving Iraqi peasant soldiers were buried alive instead of being granted POW status. Far from being a fighting force, many of them were experiencing mental illness from six weeks of the most intense air raids in human history. Call it collateral damage. Do the body counts. Call them VietCong sympathizers or Saddam’s toy soldiers. Tag them and waste them. Starve to death half a million Iraqis to annoy Sadam. War is hell and it ain’t a war crime till the New York Times says it’s a war crime.
In light of these recent revelations, it is obvious Bob Kerry should not have been a US Senator or a Governor and he certainly should not have been an officer in America’s Armed Forces. He needs to make amends, to America and to his Vietnamese victims. The “everybody does it excuse” will not remove a single stain from his reputation as a man who reportedly took a knife to a defenseless old Vietnamese peasant. If Gerhard Klann’s account is not accurate, the Ex-Senator is duty bound to sue him for slander.
This particular Senator can still leave us with an incredible legacy. The Senator, an eloquent man, needs to take us back to Thanh Phong, so we can save a thousand other villages. America can handle the whole truth about the conduct of American soldiers in foreign campaigns, especially in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq. America is the new Rome. The American army needs to set the standard for conducting war that conforms to a century of international treaties governing the conduct of soldiers in time of war and their responsibility for the welfare of any civilian populations encountered in a war zone. War is hell, but it is a peculiar hell with codified rules. That is why we are sending Milosovic to the Hague.
So, this is not just about America. A straightforward narration from Kerrey can allow us to revisit how the French dealt with Algerian rebels and how Russia conducts its war against Chechen villages. He could raise a voice of concern for the Palestinians and the Kurds and the people of Kashmir, Tibet and the Balkans, Rwanda and Colombia, Ceylon, Sudan and East Timor. Let the narration of the war stories of a twenty-five year old Lieutenant haunt us all; that they may save us all.
Whatever Kerry and the other six SEALs choose to do, America and the world need an honest verifiable story. But, first, Kerrey should have the decency to return that Bronze medal. As for the New York Times; if they want a gold star for their campaign to sanitize Sharon; if they are going to sit on this “Nam” story until they find a politically expedient moment to ‘use’ it; then they are certainly in no position to judge Kerry.