Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Iyar, 5761
Let's examine what we know for sure. The Vietnamese were killed by the SEALS, and six out of the seven Navy men say they were fired upon before firing back. Only one, Gerhard Klann, says the SEALS executed the civilians on the orders of a Lt. Robert Kerrey. The former senator himself emphatically denies the face-to-face slaughter happened, but in a face-to-face interview with Dan Rather, Kerrey looked uneasy while the accuser Klann looked sincere and definite.
CBS News and The New York Times, the two media outlets that co-investigated the story, made a major point of saying that Gerhard Klann's story was backed up by a Vietnamese woman who says she was an eyewitness. Both the Times and CBS say that Klann and the Vietnamese woman have never met and could not have orchestrated their similar accounts.
But here's where things get very murky. Former Newsweek reporter Gregory Vistica has been working on the Kerrey story for almost a decade and could not get it published. He finally convinced the Times and CBS that the accusations against Kerrey and the other SEALS were credible. But it is entirely possible that the Vietnamese authorities knew exactly what Vistica was looking into and briefed the Vietnamese woman before she spoke to CBS, the Times and other members of the American press. Remember, Vietnamese authorities were always present during her interviews.
Also, according to Time Magazine, which interviewed the woman as well, she changed her story. First she said she witnessed the massacre. Then she said she only heard about it. So the woman's credibility is suspect.
Gerhard Klann's credibility is not suspect, but then again, his six SEAL unit co-members are disputing him. The only way to know the truth here is to administer lie detector tests.
But that will likely not happen because this is a story that benefits no one. The Vietnam War was a tragedy, and destroying seven more men over it seems to be pointless. Everybody knows there were atrocities on both sides during that conflict, and Bob Kerrey lost his leg. Just watching him answer Mr. Rather's questions was painful for the viewer, so we can all imagine how Kerrey and the other SEALS feel.
As one Vietnam vet told me, if Kerrey did order the murder of those civilians, then his war medals are his conscience. He has to be suffering every day. And if the former senator simply gave orders to return fire -- than he is being scrutinized unfairly for deaths that are not his fault.
There is some anger toward the press for even discussing the story, but that anger is not valid in my opinion. The American press exists to report the truth, no matter how unpleasant. This is a big story -- but unless the SEALS themselves change their stories -- it looks like ambiguity will block any resolution.
It is worth noting that the United States is one of the few places in the world where a dilemma of this kind would even be of interest. Most societies accept barbarity in war, and any exposition of it is not front-page news. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, tribal slaughter in Africa, nun-killings in El Salvador, all of these things made headlines here but are an accepted fact of life in the places where they occurred.
But America holds its military to a higher standard, at least in theory. Any up-close and personal killing of unarmed civilians is a war crime and unacceptable. And if a former senator is accused, well, headlines are certainly warranted.
But no journalist or citizen for that matter has the right to make a definitive judgment in
this case. Only the SEALS were there. Only they know what they did or did not do. And only
they have to live with
04/27/01: Is the party over?