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Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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Kerrey's story -- THE true horror of the mistake that was the Vietnam War has been demonstrated once again in gut-wrenching, heartbreaking fashion with the disclosure of yet another "atrocity" that produced only victims - those slain and those who did the slaying.

The simple tragedy on the American side of the war, in addition to the 55,000 killed there, always has been the devastating toll it took on the souls of thousands of youngsters who returned home to face years of often-debilitating memories and collective guilt.

Among them was a group of Navy SEALS who have lived for 32 years with the nightmare of having ended the lives of women and children of a Vietnam village in 1969 while on a mission to eliminate Viet Cong guerrillas in a free-fire zone in the Mekong Delta.

It is perhaps more noteworthy than other such incidents, including the highly publicized massacre of civilians at My Lai, largely because the leader of the Navy commando team was a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, Bob Kerrey.

Recollections differ regarding exactly what happened, but not as to the result for which Kerrey has accepted responsibility. (He earned the Bronze Star for the mission in question and was given the Medal of Honor - the highest decoration for bravery this nation can bestow - for an unrelated incident).

One must hesitate in calling the dead "noncombatants" because this was not a traditional war where lines are drawn. One never knew who was or wasn't the enemy in the soggy hell of Indochina. Even children were enlisted to toss hand grenades or empty a rifle at unsuspecting soldiers. Women were not excluded from the Viet Cong ranks and, indeed, one who witnessed the Kerrey-led expedition and has related her story was the wife of an active Viet Cong.

But that is no excuse and neither Kerrey nor any of his team is trying to absolve their actions on those grounds. Those slain were civilians and the rules of civilized behavior even for a soldier are clear. If those conducting the war had instituted an unwritten take-no-prisoners rule in free-fire zones, and they have seemed to have done so, then they were as guilty as those who pulled the trigger or wielded the knife indiscriminately in this and other not-yet-revealed atrocities.

From every indication, team members all have suffered, mostly in silence, and like many of their comrades in arms have tried to survive as productive citizens. Kerrey reportedly lost his leg partly because he was so unsettled by his earlier experience that in another operation he was determined not to make the same mistake. It was for this later action that he won the Medal of Honor.

The real culprits in all such incidents, of course, are the politicians, elected and appointed, who pursued the war knowing full well that this nation's interests were not at stake, that this basically was a civil and ideological war whose outcome was not worth one American's life - neither in battle nor in the living purgatory of its aftermath. None of these men bears any more blame for the tragedy than former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, for instance, who 30 years later, in an apparent effort to win expiation for his sins, revealed that he had known all along the war was lost but did nothing to stop the slaughter.

Can one say that John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon is any less responsible for what occurred than Kerrey and his men? Of course not. This was a nightmare designed by politicians and professional soldiers willing to carry it on for such ignoble reasons as career advancement. Its cause was rooted in the huge standing army of the Cold War and in misguided geopolitical and ideological concepts.

Amazingly, the youngsters they depended on to achieve their objectives were much quicker to realize its fallacies and hastened its end. Those who earlier went forward as "good" Americans doing their "duty," were met with derision and hate that continues to this day to haunt many of them. Few if any came home undamaged.

If war itself is hell, as Gen. Sherman said, then that hell for many never ends. It is not easy to calculate how one might react in the fear and pressures of battle, real or perceived, whether in a tiny village in Vietnam or on the campus of Kent State University. Kerrey has been quoted as saying that his real concern has been when he meets his maker and is held accountable for his actions.

It seems to me then that we should leave the final judgment to that authority. Oddly, the Vietnamese understand this and have expressed their willingness to forgive.

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