Bob Kerrey, an American Shame

Article excerpt

An article published the April 29 New York Times Magazine disclosed atrocities perpetrated during the Vietnam War by Bob Kerrey, former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, one-time and perhaps future candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and the current president of the New School, where I teach.

Beneath details that may be cloudy lie some incontrovertible facts. Principal among them is that in February 1969, Kerrey and Navy SEALs under his command killed between a dozen and nearly two dozen unarmed, noncombatant Vietnamese people--elderly men, women, and children--in Thanh Phong, a hamlet in what was then South Vietnam. The incident occurred when Kerrey and his troops were on a mission to assassinate, or win over, a village official in the area.

Kerrey's story is that the killings, or some of them, were accidental. He claims that his team opened fire wildly at night in the village when they thought they'd heard a gunshot or some other noise and only afterward learned that they'd killed more than a dozen people huddled together outside a hut. This story is frankly improbable. It strains credulity to believe that wild shooting in the black of night would leave no survivors, not even wounded ones. And Kerrey's interpretation is disputed by one of the men on his team.

Gerhard Klann, the most experienced of his squad, asserts that their team rounded up the victims and shot them down in cold blood. Klann says that after they fired continuously for a time, the SEALs stopped, heard a baby crying in the mass of bodies, and unleashed another lengthy fusillade. Klann's account is corroborated independently by two Vietnamese women who report that they were hiding in the bushes at the time. Klann, now a Pennsylvania steelworker, appears to have no ax to grind with Kerrey and, more to the point, has had no contact with the Vietnamese who give an account almost identical to his. Two other members of Kerrey's team refused at first to give any details of the incident, and two others gave accounts that reportedly lay between Kerrey's and Klann's. All four have subsequently offered versions that converge on Kerrey's.

In any event, there is no dispute that, when the team first approached the village, they came across another hut occupied by five people--an elderly man and woman and three children--and murdered them all by stabbing them repeatedly and cutting their throats. The descriptions of these horrible killings in the New York Times Magazine article and later on CBS's 60 Minutes II are chilling.

I also tend to believe the more horrifying version of the massacre because it falls within the standard operating procedure of Navy SEALs, Rangers, and Special Forces units in Vietnam. They were specialists in "counterinsurgency" warfare, including torture, assassination, terror, and murder of civilians. This is the more important point that easily is overlooked in the mass-mediated investigation of Bob Kerrey's character or honesty.

His defenders remind us that he was young and inexperienced and possibly confused or in over his head. (Presumably he brought from Nebraska no taboo against mass murder of elderly men, women, and children.) They say this was the way that ugly, ambiguous war was fought. Note the postmodern-tinged variant of the "just-following-orders" defense that failed so spectacularly at Nuremberg.

Kerrey claims to have been tormented and wracked by guilt because of this incident, which he insists on characterizing as a tragic accident. But he was awarded the Bronze Star for his role in that war, and the citation justifying his medal credits him with having killed twenty-one Viet Cong. He neither rejected nor returned the medal; nor did he correct the lie about whom he had killed.

He has represented himself as having become an opponent of the war, but, on closer inspection, his opposition is nearer to that of Chuck Norris than Benjamin Spock. …