Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761
Thomas H. Lipscomb
But it is time to turn off the sentimental Oprah Winfrey blather by both sides and look at the cold equations that are operating in plain sight. A poor understanding of basic military tactics and the historical context of the Vietnam War caused "60 Minutes," The New York Times and other news organizations to miss the most obvious problems with Kerrey's story. And Kerrey sympathizers, including some Vietnam veterans who knew better, took full advantage of the press's ignorance to try to save an extremely attractive political figure.
What is most unfortunate about the national debate over the incident that took place in 1969 in a Mekong delta village at the height of the American involvement in Viet Nam is how predictable and beside the point most of the commentary on either side has been. It really doesn't matter if the press "has it in" for the military and has a guilty conscience about dodging Vietnam service, or veterans think they have to cover for one another against the press that "lost the war." Thanks to Kerrey's own statements we have all the facts we need to get a pretty good idea of what the real issues are.
Let's even leave aside the eyewitness account by Seal member Gerhard Klann that The New York Times Magazine reporter Gregory Vistica and others find so authoritative. Let's assume the denial by Kerrey and his other team members invalidates it or cancels it out so that it is at best a 'tis/'taint standoff. Besides, the two most recent debacles in the reporting of military "war crimes" in Vietnam and Korea suffered from overdependence on questionable witnesses. But just looking at the details of Kerrey's own account as it has emerged in fits and starts in his press counteroffensive, there is something very wrong here.
According to Kerrey, the incident at Thanh Phong began when his Seal team was fired upon as they approached the village. Kerrey claims that on his way through the dark night into the village he had to return fire about 100 yards away and when he got to Thanh Phong he was heartsick to see all the dead men, women, and children.
The only problem with this is that nobody (except in movies and on television) ever kills all their opponents. Most warriors only wish they could. As John Keegan's The Face of Battle points out, seeing the mess you've made is bad enough and not only are the appeals and cries of the wounded distressing, some of them can kill you just as dead as an able-bodied opponent. And the wounded almost always outnumber the dead. Since that can make really depressing war movies, film makers leave that little detail out 99% of the time. So when we see something remotely real like Saving Private Ryan-- it really gets to us. All those dead bodies with no wounded is suspicious in the extreme. And the dead have always had the distinct advantage of telling no tales.
It is certainly true that the Viet Cong were well-known for dragging away their wounded and their dead, but dragging wounded civilians away from the battlefield was not part of their routine. Even so Kerrey's finding no dead or wounded VC doesn't necessarily mean the VC hadn't been there and initiated a fire fight, just as Kerrey said.
Kerrey says he and his troops killed everyone in the village with light weapons in the pitch dark through heavy underbrush at at least 100 yards. That means they couldn't even see them. Forget Kerrey's now admittedly-bogus Bronze Star. These Seals deserve a Guiness Book of Records Markmanship Award. Journalists should have quite a challenge discovering anybody in the history of modern warfare, except for Kerrey and his Seals, that has ever even claimed to have pulled off this feat.
Finally and most tellingly, Kerrey claims when his men finished firing, the civilian bodies were all lying in the middle of the village. Reporters today don't seem to understand this, but peasants in a free fire area are intelligent people and have no more desire to get shot than anybody else. They have all kinds of hidey holes and bunkers around their village and under their huts because they don't know when they'll be caught in a fire fight. And they know from experience either side can kill them either intentionally or by mistake.
It doesn't even have to be in Vietnam. Peasants in a militarily contested area whether during World War II, Korea, or the Middle East today have shown more sense than to be holding some kind of village assembly in the middle of a firefight. Should we assume Kerrey and his men had the bad luck to wipe out a meeting of village idiots? And remember, the incident at Thanh Phong took place in 1969 during a war that had been going on for almost 20 years. Presumably sheer Darwinian survival skills would been honed to a pretty fine edge after all that time.
But Kerrey tells us he found these civilian corpses scattered all over the middle of the village like cordwood.
So the most likely scenario, not the least likely scenario, is that someone carefully herded these frightened peasants out of their hiding places into the middle of the village and deliberately executed them. It could have been the VC themselves. And for that matter the VC may have done it with US weapons. So digging up the bodies for forensic evidence might not prove much (unless one starts finding some AK47 rounds in them). But the cold equations make it clear at this point their murderers are equally likely to have been Kerrey and his men.
And unfortunately there is nothing about anything said by Kerrey or his defenders so far that makes it any less likely. It is worth noting that during a period of extreme sensitivity to war crimes by MACV commander General Creighton Abrams, less than a year after My Lai, Kerrey and his team never charged the VC with the murder of these civilians.
President John Kennedy often cut short some sycophantic reference to his heroism on PT-109. He understood better than anyone that getting a PT boat that cruises at over 40 knots run down by a Japanese destroyer that can barely make 30 was more conclusive evidence for a court martial than a medal for valor. And he knew how many strings his father had had to pull to turn him from an incompetent fool into a hero in that incident. Saving Lt. Kennedy was no easy task.
Of course the press corps of the Kennedy era was filled with combat veterans as were the Federal, state, and local governments and the population of the nation itself. Sniveling about how tough war was and how somehow things went wrong and he really felt bad about it wouldn't have done Waffen SS Colonel Peiper much good on the way to his trial for murdering captured American soldiers at Malmedy. But then we thought we had settled what we expected of good soldiers at Nuremberg.
In the sentimental mush that has characterized media coverage of the Kerrey story, there is a very short honor roll of journalists so far: Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg, James Brady, and Michael Kelly to name a few. And since the media has done such a pathetic job, those who wish to save Lt. Kerrey would do well to request a formal investigation to assess the facts.
The military discipline of the United States has suffered a serious deterioration of its understanding of command responsibility over the past 20 years. It began with Reagan's assumption of the guilt of the incompetent Marine commander of the US installation at the Beirut Airport, and has continued with similar failures such as the employment of Rangers at Mogadeshu and the barracks bomb in Saudi Arabia. Either commanding officers are going to bear the responsibility for their failures, however sympathetic we may be, or we had better expect that it is only a matter of time before our troops pay a truly terrifying price for them.
If an intelligent analysis of the incident at Thanh Phong helps remind us of that, it may be the most patriotic act Bob Kerrey ever did for his country. It is perhaps more than we should expect for him lead the way by requesting the formal investigation clearly required by his own testimony--
Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An an editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.