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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Incident at Thanh Phong -- I HAVE no idea whether former Sen. Bob Kerrey ordered the execution of innocent women, children and elderly men when he served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. It is 32 years since the incident took place, and there is conflicting testimony. But what interests me is not so much the facts of the case -- which will probably forever be in dispute -- but the varying reactions to the story.

It is the received wisdom, at the moment, that your attitude toward the Kerrey killings is directly related to your attitude toward the Vietnam war. If you were a supporter of the conflict, the story is a tragic illustration of the horrors of war, and reflection of the hopeless strategy employed in Vietnam. If you were an opponent of the war, the story is a tragic illustration of the horrors of war, and reflection of the hopeless strategy employed in Vietnam. The only difference between the two is that the first cohort believes the underlying cause of the war was just (and the aftermath of the American withdrawal confirms this) while the other cohort believes American participation was wrong, perhaps even criminal.

As one who generally falls into cohort number one, but never served in the armed forces, I accept the argument that wars, even just wars, are hell, and that bad things happen in the service of good. Certainly there were atrocities committed by the Greatest Generation in World War II, but terrible as they were, the cause of defeating Hitler transcends their importance. This is not a justification, but an acceptance of certain uncomfortable truths.

Still, there is something a little unsettling about the arguments advanced by Kerrey's defenders. Three of his onetime Senate colleagues who also served in Vietnam sprang to his defense with an impassioned op-ed piece in The Washington Post. They don't know much about the case, they say, but they know Bob Kerrey, and "we hope that as a result of this episode, peace of mind and of conscience can find our dear friend Bob Kerrey and all of our fellow American veterans." Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb has weighed in with a Wall Street Journal account of a Viet Cong massacre he witnessed while serving as an officer of Marines. There have been other essays as well.

In all of these accounts there is a distinct defensive tone: For those of you who have never worn the uniform, or didn't serve in Vietnam, you have no idea what it was like, and therefore have no standing to judge Kerrey's behavior. While the cynic in me wonders what would happen if, say, Lt. Col. Oliver North stood accused of such actions, I have no doubt Congress will leave this incident alone. From the time he was sleeping with Debra Winger in the Nebraska governor's mansion 20 years ago, to his weepy renditions of "Waltzing Matilda" on the 1992 campaign trail, Bob Kerrey has been treated with considerable deference by the press. He lost part of a leg in Vietnam, won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and once referred to Bill Clinton as an "unusually good liar."

Kerrey is accused of the massacre by one former colleague out of six in his SEAL team, and a Vietnamese woman who didn't witness the incident. But when Kerrey and the other SEALs issued a statement on the killings, their language was vague, evasive, carefully-worded. This was, they declared, a "defining and tragic moment for each of us," applying a contemporary cliche to the world of 1969. "No order was given or received to execute innocent women, old men and children" -- which proves nothing -- and "at the village we received fire and we returned fire" -- which means anything. "We regret the results of this night," they conclude. "We might do things differently if we could do it over. But we cannot be certain. We were young men then and did what we thought was right and necessary."

If you are an admirer of Bob Kerrey, these phrases will suffice, and along with his acknowledgement that mistakes were made, offer comfort. If you have no stake in any claim on the truth, you might conclude that Kerrey sounds guilty until proven innocent.

Either way, Americans are quick to judge the actions of soldiers in foreign uniforms. There is still an office in the Justice Department which tracks down and prosecutes men in their eighties who were drafted into Nazi armies of occupation and lied about their service to come to America. We have nothing good to say about the French struggle against terrorist atrocities in Algeria, or Palestinians who revolt against the occupying Israelis. Serbs who regard the Kosovars as bandits trying to steal their country are transported to The Hague for trial as war criminals.

By contrast, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., was a young man, caught in a tragic conflict, who did what he thought was the right thing at the time. Will this probable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination be indicted by a Spanish magistrate, arrested in London, and threatened with prosecution under international law? Of course not.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal