KERREY'S CULPABILITY : Vietnam & the Just-War Tradition

By Marino, Gordon | Commonweal, June 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

KERREY'S CULPABILITY : Vietnam & the Just-War Tradition


Marino, Gordon, Commonweal


Last month," Sixty Minutes II" aired a program in which Gerhard Klann claimed that on February 25, 1969, former Senator Bob Kerrey commanded and participated in the systematic murder of civilians at Thanh Phong in Vietnam. Klann, who was the most experienced member of Kerrey's seal team, insists that Kerrey personally helped him slit an old man's throat and then later ordered the killing of women and children. Klann's rendition of the events of that evening has been partially corroborated by two Vietnamese witnesses.

Kerrey has long acknowledged that things happened that night that he cannot exactly remember but would give anything to forget. As Gregory Vistica reports in the New York Times Magazine (April 29), "one thing is certain: around midnight on February 25, 1969 (at Thang Phong) Kerrey and his men killed at least thirteen unarmed women and children." According to Kerrey, his team was fired upon and he in turn directed his men to shoot into a hamlet but without any intent to harm noncombatants. Kerrey remembers feeling aghast when he learned that the people he killed were not exactly the Viet Cong fighters that were later registered in the body count. When Kerrey got home, he wept to his mother and his pastor about Thanh Phong. His remorse did not end there. In his Senate office, Kerrey kept a landscape painting inscribed with these thorny words from Emily Dickinson:

   Remorse is Memory awake,
   Her companies astir,--
   A presence of departed acts
   At window and at door.

   Its past set down before the soul,
   And lighted with a match,
   Perusal to facilitate
   Of its condensed dispatch.

   Remorse is cureless,--the disease
   Not even God can heal;
   For 'tis His institution,--
   The complement of Hell.

Aristotle teaches that we are not to be blamed for an action that results from an unavoidable ignorance of particular circumstances. He adds that remorse over the consequences of such an action is evidence of its being involuntary. Kerrey clearly is remorseful. But perhaps Aristotle was not Kierkegaardian enough to recognize a distinction between remorse and repentance. Though Kerrey now says that the medal he won for valor at Thanh Phong means nothing to him, he accepted the Bronze Star for his grizzly work. Haunted as he claims to have been, Kerrey does not seem to think that he is morally culpable for what happened. Just-war theory suggests otherwise.

In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas provides the groundwork for much just-war theory. Developed by such thinkers as Grotius, Pufendorf, and in our own time Michael Walzer, this theory provides a moral framework for how soldiers should act in the chaos that is war. Everyone familiar with the just-war tradition agrees that a distinction must be drawn between combatants and noncombatants, for without this distinction war would not differ from terrorism. The intentional killing of civilians is proscribed, and so are military actions that show a gross disregard for the lives of innocents. Even on Kerrey's own murky account, he did not give a lot of thought at Thanh Phong to the possibility he was endangering the lives of civilians.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal (April 27), Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), another highly decorated Vietnam veteran, proclaimed that Kerrey remained his hero. McCain added that unless you were there, you should not pass judgment on anyone's behavior in Vietnam. Apparently, if you were there you can't pass judgment either, as many of those who insist on the special moral circumstances of the Vietnam War seem to believe that everything was legal along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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