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Jewish World Review May 8, 2001 / 15 Iyar, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Was it a war crime? -- IT was like a fugue -- point and dissonant counterpoint. Three United States senators who served with great honor in Vietnam state: "Many people have been forced to do things in war that they are deeply ashamed of later. Yet for our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the ... worst mistakes a country can make."

Those of us who were not there -- where seeming civilians could be, and were, agents of death -- have no right to judge Bob Kerrey.

Yet Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey's Raiders that night in 1969 in Thanh Phong, says that they -- under direct orders from Kerrey -- lined up women and children, including a baby, and shot them to death at close range.

"We just basically slaughtered those people. It was war," said Klann on "60 Minutes." "There was no time to question orders. The baby was still crying. The baby was shot to death like the rest of them." Klann, a Navy Seal for nearly 19 years, was hand-picked, after the Vietnam War, for an elite Seal team. He could have remained silent, but if you saw him on "60 Minutes," you know that he felt that he had to speak up.

Kerrey denies Klann's version of what happened.

Robert Mann, who has written about our involvement in Vietnam, says that focusing on Kerrey is a mistake. "Let us not forget," Mann says, "that official decisions made in Washington -- in the White House and in Congress -- resulted in the needless death of millions."

As the fugue continued, one voice stood out for me. Patricia Sette of Concord, Mass., was not in the darkness of free-fire zones in Vietnam. In a letter to The New York Times, she wrote: "Everyone, including Mr. Kerrey, seems to think that this story is about him. It's almost as if those who were killed have become mere stage props in some morality play instead of real human beings who suffered a terrifying and undeserved death. ... No matter what degree of understanding Bob Kerrey deserves, it is the victims who are at the center of this story."

Then another voice brought a resolution, for me, to the fugue. Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News, interviewed Hugh Thompson. It was Thompson, in a helicopter over My Lai, who saw the mass killing below under the direction of William Calley. He threatened to fire on the soldiers unless they stopped the murders.

He received a Soldier's Medal but also got death threats for a while afterwards from veterans and others who didn't want the story known. Calley was convicted, and 25 others were court-martialed.

O'Reilly asked Thompson, "What went through your mind when you saw what was happening on the ground at My Lai?"

"Hitler," said Thompson.

With regard to Kerrey's Raiders, couldn't Thompson understand that under that kind of stress, soldiers would snap?

"Yes," said Thompson, "without proper leadership."

If Klann's story of what happened at Thanh Phong is true, Thompson says, "that is no way to treat prisoners of war. It would be a war crime."

On "60 Minutes," Kerrey, in anguish and anger, said, "I would not call it a war crime. To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt."

To those who were killed in the village that night, the distinction did not make a difference.

To Col. David Hackworth, who served nearly five years in Vietnam, the journalists at The New York Times and "60 Minutes" who forced Kerrey finally to tell his story in public are "snakes." Says Hackworth, "There were thousands of such atrocities." He is quoted by Zev Chafets in The New York Daily News as saying that the unit he commanded in 1969 committed "at least a dozen such horrors."

And now Kerrey has joined those who charge that raking up what happened at Thanh Phong amounts to besmirching the Americans who fought in Vietnam -- including those who were killed by the Vietcong. Says Kerrey, "The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This is the same as saying that journalists should cover up the story.

But the great majority of our combatants in Vietnam did not commit atrocities. And those who -- like Kerrey -- are charged with such actions have a right to clear their names in official investigations.

B.J. Burkett, winner of a Bronze Star and other honors for his service in Vietnam, says, "You can't demand we investigate war crimes in Bosnia if you're not going to stand up and investigate allegations against your own troops."

How can there NOT be an investigation?

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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