Senator Bob Kerrey
Senator Bob Kerrey

Senator Kerrey and the War That Still Haunts Us

May 13, 2002

Roundtable forum with contributions by Monroe Cole, Lili Cole, Dustin Wax, Paige Arthur, Tanya Domi, Marc Lewis, and Mark Borthwick. To respond to the opinions expressed in this roundtable, send an e-mail to [email protected].

The revelation in the April 25, 2001 New York Times Magazine that former senator Bob Kerrey murdered innocent women and children in Vietnam has exposed a sharp division in American public opinion over questions of military ethics. Kerrey admitted to having participated, as a young Navy SEALs lieutenant, in a massacre of 13 unarmed Vietnamese women and children in the tiny village of Thanh Phong. Exactly how the incident, which occurred in February of 1969, took place still isn't clear. According to Kerrey, his SEAL commando squad mistakenly believed they were under fire; but one of the members of that squad, Gerhard Klann, disputes this, claiming the killings were deliberate and at point-blank range. (Klann's account is corroborated by one surviving villager, Pham Tri Lanh.)

Still, no one has denied -- least of all Kerrey -- that the atrocity took place, and what also seems clear is that Kerrey's story is just the tip of the iceberg: Vietnamese civilians were systematically slaughtered by American troops, a policy that was sanctioned (as well as concealed) by the American government. It is therefore legitimate to ask: when America goes to war, is it, too, obliged to make every effort to avoid the killing of innocent civilians? This "just war" principle goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages -- in the code of chivalry that considered it cowardly to attack noncombatant subjects -- and has been reinforced repeatedly in modern times, including at the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

One of the sharpest divisions in American reactions to Senator Kerrey's story is between generations. Those who lived through World War II tend to defend Kerrey for having served his country, while more recent generations, some of whom have no memory of Vietnam, see the Kerrey story as fresh evidence of America having fought an unjust war. For this month's roundtable, Lili Cole, who runs the Carnegie Council's program on history and reconciliation, clashes with her father, Monroe Cole, over the right way to interpret Senator Kerrey's actions. Further contributions to the roundtable will be added as we receive.

MONROE COLE: Before we can evaluate the acts of Senator Kerrey's squad of "commandos" at Thanh Phong in 1969, we ought to establish the exact facts concerning the killing of civilians, which are still unclear. The squad was in a so-called free-fire zone, which, according to our military practice at the time, assumed that only Viet Cong or their supporters were in the area, so could be fired upon. If women and children were killed in a fire fight, then in my view, no blame can be ascribed. But if they were executed on purpose, then it is a different story. One member of the unit says they were -- though he never made an issue of this for over thirty years. There is no evidence that he reported this to superior officers, or even discussed it with a chaplain.

Moreover, the woman who accused the unit of execution, Pham Tri Lanh, was clearly allied with the Viet Cong. She initially stated that she witnessed the killings; later she denied it. I doubt that her testimony would hold up under cross-examination in court. Kerrey denies that an execution took place. I believe the dictum of Anglo-Saxon law that considers one innocent until proven guilty. So far there seems to be no way to obtain such proof.

Attitudes in the late 1960s regarding the war were quite different from now. I currently regard our involvement in Vietnam as stupid at best and criminal at worst. But in those years I did not have such feelings -- otherwise, I would not have served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. After discharge in 1965, I even volunteered as a civilian to teach a course at Fort Benning that an Army physician had refused to teach. To this day I have little use for Americans who went abroad to escape their obligation to the country and passed the burden to someone else.

As Senator John McCain recently wrote in the New York Times, men commit acts in war that are frequently heroic and satisfying, but also acts of which they are ashamed. The shooting of surrendering soldiers is commonplace. In World War II prisoners were sometimes turned over to the Maquis [French Resistance] , knowing their eventual fate. In Vietnam wounded prisoners received medical care but then were turned over to the South Vietnamese army, again knowing their eventual fate. Likewise, there is no aerial bombing which does not injure and kill non-combatants, in spite of our so-called smart bombs. The firestorm in Dresden, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima -- both caused terrible suffering of civilians. Can any war be fought without these "crimes"? Probably not.

And how much worse can occur when fighting against guerrillas? Lieutenant Kerrey's squad was deep in enemy territory at night. At some point during the action they apparently took incoming fire. It was the commander's job to get his men safely out. He made decisions which he thought were correct at the time. In retrospect there may have been better ways, but the "retrospectoscope" is of little use under combat conditions. If I had been a member of Kerrey's squad, I would have been thankful to get out of Thanh Phong alive and well.

The rules of war are clearer when regular units are fighting. But in guerrilla war, especially in enemy-held areas, every civilian is at best an informer, at worst a combatant. Furthermore, American troops were not well trained in fighting such a war.

Yes, crimes were committed -- but by our senior government and military officials. For example, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted years later that he realized the war was useless, hopeless, and a major mistake -- but at the time the war was raging, he did not speak out, nor did he resign his post as a way of speaking out. We also now realize that the domino theory, which was the rationale used for waging war in Vietnam, was false and foolish. But that's because we have the advantage of hindsight.

Possibly the only lesson we can learn from all this is never to go to war for jingoistic reasons, nor as an answer to insults, nor as a matter of manly pride. We must have a clear idea why it is necessary to engage in the horror of war, as well as a moral imperative to do so. A majority of our citizens should be in favor of military action, and the risk should fall equally on all segments of our society.

Kerrey was caught in this maelstrom of faulty theoretical justification for a war that led to criminal acts against another people. He was young, inexperienced, and poorly trained for the type of war he was to fight. He gave his best for our country and deserves no blame from his countrymen or from himself.

Monroe Cole is a neurologist and an emeritus professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University, School of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio.

LILI COLE: While I agree with my father over the greater culpability of the politicians and top military advisors who led us into the Vietnam War, and the tremendous pressure U.S. soldiers were under in this confusing and violent guerilla war, I would put the emphasis in a different place. This is due in part to my growing up in the age of what Michael Ignatieff calls the increasing "internationalization of conscience" -- meaning the rapid development of international movements for rights and justice -- and in part to my being immersed in the politics of history and reconciliation in my work for the Carnegie Council.

I take Gerhardt Klann's allegations seriously, and I believe the country should, too. Short of insanity, there was no reason for Klann to assert that his commando team had deliberately, not accidentally, slaughtered thirteen civilians in a village in Vietnam. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose by such a confession -- from public shame to criminal prosecution. These assertions were made in personal circles over the years, and it was only after being repeatedly approached by journalist Gregory Vistica that he spoke of them publicly, which undermines the claim that Klann may have concocted his version to undermine Kerrey's career. As my father says, Kerrey, the commander of the team, should not be considered guilty until so proven; but as a nation we have a moral duty to pursue this story, and try to establish to the best of our ability what exactly happened that night.

Memories may be hazy, skewed, or truncated by the trauma of war and the passage of time, but thirteen individuals died on February 25, 1969, beginning with two grandparents and their grandchildren; and we owe it to them to find out how and why they were killed. We also owe it to ourselves as a nation -- as the inheritors of a legacy of a war that still haunts us. For many Americans the war seems long ago, and its Vietnamese victims, far away; but as the controversy swirling around Senator Kerrey reveals, we cannot simply wish away the fact that it happened, nor its consequences.

Recently, I've been reading a book on a different but somewhat related topic, Robert Moeller's War Stories: The Search for a Useable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Moeller chronicles in detail the post-war German defense against reckoning with the crimes of the Third Reich, which was for Germans to present themselves as the victims of the war, and especially of Soviet communism: victims whose suffering rivaled that of the Jews and Roma who were persecuted by the Third Reich. Moeller quotes the conclusion philospher Karl Jaspers reached after listening to the voices of his fellow Germans ( The Question of German Guilt, 1946): "Most people have a sense only for their kind."

I don't wish to compare the U.S. engagement in Vietnam with the actions of the Third Reich. Yet Jasper's words and the reaction of Germans in the postwar period are instructive: it is human nature to imagine and sympathize mainly with the victimhood of our close associates. Jonathan Schell, in a recent editorial in The Nation, summarized the troubling response of many Americans to the Kerrey story, and to the horrors of the Vietnam War: "The man firing the gun becomes more of an object of pity than the child at whom the gun was fired."

There has been a range of reactions expressed in public, in print, and on the Internet, to the Thanh Phong story: what we know of it, which is that at least thirteen civilians were killed, and what we don't know, which is whether they were killed deliberately, in response to an order from Kerrey or not. But I am struck by the number of opinions that are similar to those expressed in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on Sunday, May 13: "There are many, many more of the incidents which will never come to light, and perhaps that is best. For there is no worse retribution than the daily payback these Vietnam vets endure...If we learned an awful lot in Vietnam, haven't we also learned to forgive?"

Such calls for compassion towards those Americans who sacrificed limbs, innocence, and in many cases, their lives in Vietnam are compelling, but they are siren songs calling to us from one shore only. On the other shore are the voices of their civilian victims, still largely unheard in America. To get our minds around what happened and move on from this war, we need to open our ears to Vietnamese voices as well. When will the day come when we can humble ourselves to the point of asking forgiveness from the Vietnamese survivors of casualties such as the grandfather in Thanh Phong, whose throat was cut? Such incidents need to come to light as they are not simply private -- and not simply American -- memories.

I don't condemn Kerrey and other men who answered the call of their country to serve in Vietnam. But it is disingenuous to claim that we have no right to judge their actions because we were not there and never experienced the hell of a guerrilla war in which even children sometimes carried grenades. Yes, Kerrey gave his best for his country. But we should remember that in 1968, a young helicopter reconnaissance pilot, Hugh Thompson , along with his door gunner and crew chief, pulled eleven inhabitants of the village of My Lai into his helicopter gunship to save them from certain death at the hands of Lieutenant William Calley and his men. At the My Lai trail, Thompson did not try to justify the actions of Calley by referring to "the fog of war"; he said, "We're trained better than that and it's just not something you'd like to do."

The United States can take pride knowing that in 1998 Thompson and the remaining living members of his original three-man crew were awarded Soldiers' Medals for their adherence to the principle of discriminating between civilians and combatants -- and for risking their lives to stand by that principle.

In Kerrey's recent interview with Dan Rather, I found it very painful to listen to him recall another, later night in Vietnam, the night when he received the wound which cost him his leg and ended his physical involvement in the war: "Gerhardt Klann put the morphine in my thigh" and "held me in his arms like a baby."

As a student of reconciliation, I have to stop myself sometimes and ask whether, in some instances, reconciliation is simply not achievable. Where can reconciliation lie between Klann and Kerrey, who shared such terrible moments yet whose memories of one crucial night diverge so sharply? Where can reconciliation lie between Bob Kerrey -- "clouded by the fog of the evening, age, and desire," as he put it to Vistica -- and Hugh Thomspon, who shared a common war but behaved in such contrasting ways? Where can it possibly lie for the United States? We are still largely unwilling to discuss our role, whatever our good intentions were, in the devastation of Vietnam, which lost around four million civilians, some 10% of its entire population, not to mention forests and the bodies of some of the children born since the war, poisoned by Agent Orange . Finally and perhaps most importantly, where can reconciliation lie for the United States and Vietnam, whose engagement for over a decade caused so much mutual suffering?

Jaspers, in 1946, called on his countrymen to remember the morally essential fact that "suffering differs in kind." If domestic and international reconciliation is ever to be achieved, the United States must assess the degree to which we deliberately brought death and destruction to noncombatants in Vietnam -- the figures for which exceed those for the nation's combatants. Because, in the end, Vietnamese and American suffering, while it may have been mutual, was in no way equal.

Lili Cole is a senior program officer running the Carnegie Council's project on memory and the politics of reconciliation.

DUSTIN WAX: As a former Nebraska resident and a graduate student at the New School, I've found it hard not to take the recent criticisms of Bob Kerrey personally. For me, the incident raises not simply questions of national history and national guilt but also personal questions of what sort of human being I want to represent me and my university.

Though I'm not a historian, I find it refreshing to approach the Kerrey incident -- the story of his Raiders and their actions on that fateful night some 30 years ago -- by using an historical analogy. There is a surprising resonance between Kerrey's story and that of David Nichols, a 19th century Colorado businessman who was instrumental in the founding of the University of Colorado at Boulder and served as its first regent. I learned about Nichols when perusing an edited volume on Indian-white relations, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (1991). An essay by M. Annette Jaimes exposes Nichols's involvement in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which 134 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in their homes, most of them women and children.

At the time of the incident, the village at Sand Creek was officially at peace with the United States -- as recognized by the American flag flying over Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's lodge the morning of the attack, a flag he had been given by President Lincoln himself as a token of friendship (see photo) . Led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington, 700 armed men attacked Sand Creek, where the performance of David Nichols, a captain in the Colorado Volunteers, and his men attracted special praise from Chivington: he called them "especially effective Indian killers."

Nichols later participated in a propaganda campaign to falsify the circumstances of the Sand Creek Massacre, claiming that there were huge numbers of Indian warriors present when there had been almost none; denying the deaths of women, children, and the elderly; and rejecting the well-documented allegations that the soldiers had mutilated corpses, collected scalps and ears as trophies, and harvested skulls -- which, decades later, turned up in the Smithsonian Institution's collections.

With the passage of time, however, the University of Colorado is facing up to what really happened. After an exhaustive investigation into Nichols's actions, the university recently renamed what had been Nichols Hall to "Cheyenne-Arapaho Hall" -- a simple act but in my view, one of tremendous import. While it clearly can't change or even redeem the heinous actions of past generations -- let alone address the gross economic injustices perpetrated on American Indian nations by our government and its citizens -- this gesture is nevertheless a big deal given how educational organizations normally operate. In effacing the memory of one of its founders, the University of Colorado challenged the very core of its own story, recognizing Nichols's role as "founding father" to be intricately bound up with the lives -- and deaths -- of the Cheyenne and Arapaho killed at Sand Creek. As Jaimes puts it in her essay, "What is so striking about cases like that of Nichols is precisely that the evil of which they stand accused is bound up, part and parcel, in the good which is attributed to them."

Like Nichols, Bob Kerrey was involved in an atrocity committed in a war that was unpopular at the time and has grown only more so since. Like Nichols, Kerrey went on to become an important figure in public life, and is now serving as the head of a university. Again, like Nichols, Kerrey has cooperated with his superiors for a long time to prevent the real story of the massacre that took place at Thanh Phong from being made public. Unlike Nichols, though, who went to the grave defending his and his fellows' actions at Sand Creek, Kerrey seems to have seen the Thanh Phong massacre from the beginning for what it was, an atrocity, and, now that the story is public, he has a chance to make amends during his own lifetime.

Thus far, however, Kerrey has refused to link what he calls a "personal memory" with the larger issues of American foreign policy and Cold War-era criminality. I would like to see him follow the example of the University of Colorado, recognizing that he cannot so easily separate the person he is today -- senior statesman and university president -- from the "knife-between-his-teeth" warrior that led the massacre at Thanh Phong. Senator Kerrey's personal story mirrors that of our nation: the things we hold dear about the United States and the American people are bound up "part and parcel" with the terrible things carried out in our name and by our citizens.

Kerrey has said again and again that he is "just trying to make a personal memory public"; what he misses is that it is already public, and that though most of us did not take part directly in the events of that night in Thanh Phong, it did and does involve every one of us. If Kerrey is sincere about wanting to set things right, then this is where he needs to begin. If he is also sincere, as his past and rumored future presidential candidacies suggest, about wanting to be a leader of this nation, I can think of no better place to start than by being a leader in the process of reconciling what is good about America and its history with all that is equally awful.

A Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the New School, Dustin M. Wax is the Web editor assistant for the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

PAIGE ARTHUR: As a Ph.D. candidate in French history, I found it curious that, while Americans are wondering what to make of the Kerrey incident, a similar debate has erupted in France on atrocity, memory, culpability, and -- most importantly -- justice. The controversy in France is over the behavior of the French military during their so-called police action to prevent Algerian independence (1954-1962) . It was a well-known fact -- even at the time of the engagement -- that the military systematically used torture while interrogating Algerian prisoners; indeed, knowledge of this helped to turn the French public against the war.

Once the war was over, however, no one was held responsible for these crimes -- not the high-ranking politicians (François Mitterrand among them) who must have known about the use of torture, nor the soldiers who carried it out. All crimes committed by the French military were amnestied under a series of laws in the 1960s.

As a result, French people have never come to terms in a public way with either the war itself -- still referred to as "The War with No Name" -- or the way it was conducted.

As with Vietnam in the United States, the Algerian war split the French nation into two bitterly divided camps. The effects of the war were so severe that it brought down the constitutional order entirely, and a few years later civil war broke out when a segment of the army rebelled against President de Gaulle's concession that Algerians be granted the right to self-determination.

Veterans of the Algerian war -- similar to Vietnam veterans -- aren't seen as heroes. They're technically not even veterans since the government never acknowledged that it was actually waging a war, choosing to view it, rather, as an internal disorder (Algeria was legally French soil, no different from Brittany or Alsace).

What can the French do to put these demons to rest? I am struck by the parallels between the passionate public debate that has broken out in France and the debate between Lili Cole and her father that started off this roundtable. Monroe Cole called for American politicians to take responsiblity for the war and all of its effects, just as he expressed sympathy for the soldiers, who, after all, were merely carrying out orders. Such opinions are also voiced in France -- and are advocated by the war veterans themselves. They resent being branded as torturers, meaning they must now justify their actions to their children.

By the same token, there are those in France who feel as Lili Cole does -- that the soldiers who conducted torture must take responsibility for their actions. Not only do I agree with Lili, but I find myself questioning Monroe Cole's argument that the very nature of guerilla war, which ignores the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, engenders violations of the rules of war. Doesn't this presume that the Vietnam War was just in the first place? Before examining the question of whether guerrilla wars actually do engender atrocities, shouldn't we be asking whether atrocities can ever be justified if committed in the context of a criminal, unjust war? In the Algerian case, can the French ever justify their decision to use torture to suppress the right to self-determination of a nation? I would say they cannot.

Another overlapping issue between the Algerian and Vietnamese examples concerns Lili's argument that we owe a debt to both the victims and to ourselves to uncover the truth. This issue of public memory is important, but just as in the United States, there is little consensus in France on how to halt the collective amnesia over an unjust war. Lionel Jospin , the French prime minister, recently rejected a call to set up a parliamentary commission to investigate French atrocities during the war. He has, however, pledged to make the archives (which are now closed) more open to historians for research.

This is just one small step, however. What actually needs to happen in France are trials -- for war crimes and crimes against humanity. These should have taken place in the 1960s, but because of the amnesties, they did not. I don't say this only because I think people who committed crimes need to be held accountable -- though obviously they do -- but also because trials can provide the French with shared narratives of the war, which would assist them in thinking about the war in terms of justice. While I don't believe that justice for either side can actually be achieved, I do believe that the attempt is worthwhile in itself.

Currently, France's "crimes against humanity" laws are not applicable to the period 1954-1962, and the fact of the amnesties would seem to rule out any grounds for legal action. But civil groups are already organizing challenges to existing interpretations of the laws. Moreover, France has been known to modify its "crimes against humanity" laws when an important case does not quite fit. This will definitely be an interesting story to watch.

In Senator Kerrey's case, such a trial would clearly be impossible. That is too bad -- not because I think he is guilty of something (this I really just don't know), but because a trial would bring home the many ways suffering "differed in kind" during the Vietnam War. More important, it would place the issue of justice at the center of the debate, where it rightfully belongs.

Paige Arthur is an associate editor in Publications at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

TANYA DOMI: As a former U.S. Army captain and military veteran of fifteen years, I would like to take issue with Monroe Cole's arguments about war in general and America's participation in Vietnam: first, his attempt to justify the deaths of noncombatants by stating they have been killed in all modern wars through aerial bombing, such as during the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; second, his willingness to justify the killing of Vietnamese civilians on the grounds that America's troops were ill prepared to conduct a guerrilla war, where "every civilian is at best an informer, at worst a combatant."

There can be no justification for how American soldiers behaved in Vietnam. The nature of modern warfare can be no excuse, nor can poor training: such assertions will not stand up on legal, let alone moral, grounds.

As for Senator Kerrey's participation, I would argue that he bore greater responsibility for his decisions than did former enlisted man Gerhardt Klann. As Michael Walzer points out in Just and Unjust Wars, officers, because of their command responsibilities, cannot justify the order to massacre, nor can they terrorize civilians with bombing campaigns, nor can they uproot populations wholesale to create free fire zones . As defined by the Department of Defense's rules of engagement, fire free zones are a severe violation of the laws of war. Even if the laws of war aren't always helpful in moments of aggression, the officers in charge nevertheless carry a duty to uphold -- and to inspire their soldiers to do so as well.

The principle of command responsibility was enshrined by Carl von Clausewitz, one of the military's greatest tacticians and teachers; it has been passed down for more than three centuries to contemporary military officers. I would therefore argue that Lieutenant Kerrey and all those above him, from Westmoreland to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, were responsible for the command decisionmaking in the prosecution of this war. Moreover, the brutal tactics they favored were both immoral and of dubious legality under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws.

Without question, such tactics led to a moral breakdown of U.S. soldiers, resulting in more civilian deaths than would otherwise have been necessary. The U.S. military's operational mode of free fire zones -- and its deployment of carpet bombing in North Vietnam -- significantly diminished the value of human life in the eyes of regular line soldiers. I would further argue that such policies led to a breakdown in military discipline, as demonstrated by the My Lai massacre.

I've enjoyed being part of this stimulating debate; however, I fear we are all whistling in the dark. The likelihood of a world judicial body judging Kerrey's -- or United States -- actions in Vietnam according to the terms of international law is virtually nil. The judgement of war crimes is heavily dependent on the political climate. During the aftermath of World War II, for instance, a "victor's justice" presided at Nuremberg and in the Tokyo military tribunals. The bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were simply ignored.

In America's current political climate -- I refer to the animosity shown by the Bush administration and the U.S. Senate toward international criminal tribunals -- an international judgement of U.S. military actions in Vietnam -- Senator Kerrey's confession notwithstanding -- is highly improbable.

I offer a typical rationalization heard in America these days: "We went to war to fight communism and prevent the domino effect in Southeast Asia; mistakes were made and yes, people were killed; but that's what happens in war -- it can't be helped. So let's move on and credit Senator Kerrey for coming forward and sharing his private agony with the public. The past is over; let's move on."

As Lili Cole and Paige Arthur have pointed out, the real casualty of this dynamic is our country's memory of history. Now clouded over by the passing years, complicated by individual sorrow and suffering and, in some cases, the desire to resist personal culpability and responsibility, we have lost our sense of perspective on the questionable acts committed in the name of our country. Think of Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland, to name a few. History as memory is the big loser once a national position emerges to simply move on without a real reckoning. This has been led by no less than Senators John Kerrey and John McCain, both Vietnam War heroes.

I share Dustin Wax's sentiment that if Senator Kerrey is sincere about his desire for reconciliation on the issue of Vietnam, he can begin by being its leader. I suggest that he make the symbolic gesture of returning to the Department of the Navy the bronze star he was awarded for his actions at Thang Phong. As a former army officer, I believe this action would be quite powerful, setting an example for how we as a nation can face up to the lies of the past.

And to help our nation move towards an acknowledgment of our actions in Vietnam, I would favor the establishment of a truth and reconciliation process, the structure of which could be determined by a coalition of political, military, and religious leaders, Vietnam veterans, and human rights activists. If Kerrey himself were to lead such a process, he would have a chance to make the case for deepening America's understanding of the lessons of its past. In turn, this could result in our becoming a morally sensitive nation, one that can be counted on to lead responsibly in the 21st century.

Tanya L. Domi is an M.A. student in human rights at Colombia University. She regularly contributes to several publications and has a weekly column in Oslobodenje , the oldest daily newspaper in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Domi served in the U.S. Army for fifteen years, rising to the rank of captain.

MARC LEWIS: As a former soldier in the American forces, I feel it is my duty to speak out on behalf of the servicemen who defend our country and its allies from all those who attempt to harm or deface the value. It is so easy for someone who hasn't served to criticize the people who face all sorts of dangers on behalf of everyone else. I am not saying that soldiers should not be held responsible for the actions they perform during war. I am not heartless. Still, it has to be understood that when facing supreme danger, a soldier will act in the manner he was best trained for; and if that means there are hostile noncombatants in the area, you face a stark choice: would you rather be shipped home in a body bag or return to be greeted by the smiling faces of your loved ones?

Vietnam was and is a war we would all like to forget, but that won't happen. Savage acts were committed on both sides that neither Vietnam nor the United States wishes to admit to; but they happened nonetheless. I can't say I condone the actions -- but if you could look into the eyes of a soldier whose friend was blown up while getting his shoes shined, it's not hard to see why some soldiers flipped out and made the whole Vietnamese populace the enemy not to be trusted. I know a few Vietnamese vets today who still don't trust Asian people because of the trickery they witnessed or were themselves subjected to.

All told, I find it hard to discuss this subject without sounding as though I'm a killing machine who just wants to kill and kill again with no repercussions for my crimes. Maybe we should do the same thing as was done at the end of World War II, when a real effort was made to punish the guilty. But in the case of Vietnam, I don't feel there was a clear-cut bad guy. Perhaps the blame should be evenly spread among everyone involved, from government leaders to commanders like Kerrey to rank-and-file soldiers.

Mark Lewis is a student of computer science and a former employee with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

MARK BORTHWICK: My sheltered upbringing on an Iowa farm and a similarly sheltered life in a Midwest university (where I protested against the Vietnam War) were poor preparation for becoming a soldier in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969. I assured myself that although I would have to carry a weapon in the field, I would not harm anyone. That I did not knowingly end up harming anyone was perhaps more a matter of luck than design. Only on very few occasions did I encounter combat, and none of these situations were anywhere near as dire as what Senator Kerrey faced that night in Thanh Phong. But I did learn what it means to confront the immediate prospect of dying violently in combat and found that in moments of crisis and fear, the mind can become like a leaf in a storm.

The rushed moral decisions that soldiers must take when making war among civilians are infinite in their variety. The notion that these situations require simple binary decisions -- as perceived, for example, in the rescue of a few people from slaughter at My Lai -- fails to reflect the more mundane yet merciless realities that pervaded the survivalist world of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, a reality infused with contradictions, ambiguities, and uncertainties.

For instance, I might bring gifts to an orphanage one day, and the next day, I would find myself pointing a weapon at a child rushing at us with a mysterious container. What does it mean to feel an urgent need to aim an M-16 at a child? Like veterans of all wars who go on to lead normal, healthy lives, many of us who served in Vietnam have continued to try to plumb what we discovered about ourselves and our humanity -- and I'm sure that Senator Kerrey is no different.

A society's attempts to discuss who bears responsibility for war crimes are necessarily far removed from the circumstances in which the war took place. I would argue that the need for public debate and judicial processes in the wake of war reflects an even deeper societal need to define and preserve ideals for civilized behavior at a personal level. When soldiers demonstrably fail to meet certain behavioral standards in the line of duty, they are publicly sacrificed and humiliated on the altar of these ideals. Thus society cleanses itself not only of the soldier's failure but also of the very notion that ordinary people might be capable of such crimes. This cleansing process, along with the pervasive moral taint of the Vietnam War, is why, I think, many of us upon returning were initially regarded as if we were somehow unclean.

In an earlier era, we had public stonings, in which those who stood in judgment of criminals felt justified in becoming brutal and homicidal themselves. Shirley Jackson's chilling, classic short story about a modern public stoning, "The Lottery," shook us with its implication that a community outwardly cloaked in rational behavior could indulge in the urge to cleanse itself periodically, without reference to any crime having been committed.

Human beings are not usually compelled to such extremes -- perhaps my training as an anthropologist is showing through. For I do not mean to belittle this debate; I respect all the views I have read and agree that we need to hold soldiers accountable. The Carnegie Council discussion has not brought forth mindless stone throwing, and debates of this kind are necessary to support the ideals and the moral tone of a society.

Yet for me the significance of this roundtable lies in the extent to which it reflects the need for cleansing with respect to Vietnam (which some of the commentators seem not to realize has been going on since the 1960s). For this reason I find it unrewarding to analyze Senator Kerrey's actions in Thanh Phong, however high minded and articulate we all may be on such matters. For rarely do discussions of such topics become an occasion to question more deeply the circumstances by which we could ourselves commit the crimes we condemn. I believe this is what Christ meant when he admonished the people who were about to cast stones.

If debates in the media and other public forums are any indication, American society seems to find acts of violent self-preservation of equal or greater fascination than acts of supreme self-sacrifice. Most of us will live out our lives without being tested for either of these capacities. At a rather young age, Senator Kerrey was not so fortunate. The revelations about him have led to the usual debates about guilt, accountability, victims, and justice. I do not propose that a questioning of one's inner self should become a substitute for the hard work displayed by the thinkers in this roundtable. But surely self-questioning is the silent premise beneath any argument one chooses to make about the ethics of American soldiers' behavior in Vietnam.

Mark Borthwick received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Iowa in 1977. He is the author and editor of Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia and currently serves as U.S. Executive Director of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC), the only official non-governmental observer of APEC.

Related Links

Background on Kerrey's Actions

"Memories of a Massacre"
Transcript of the 60 Minutes II program that aired on CBS News in early May, divided into three parts and containing many helpful related links. The program was co-produced by CBS and Gregory L. Vistica, who also wrote the story that appeared in the April 25 New York Times Magazine.

"One Awful Night in Thanh Phong"
Multimedia presentation of Gregory Vistica's article for the New York Times Magazine (25 April 2001) that broke the story of the massacre at Thanh Phong. In addition to reading the article in its entirety, you can watch a slide show of images related to the story and a video clip of Kerry's April 26 press conference in which he admitted his role in the massacre but said his memory of the events of that night do not match Klann's version of the story.

Biographical note on Gregory L. Vistica

Gregory L. Vistica, who broke the New York Times Magazine story as well as co-producing a segment on Bob Kerrey and Thanh Phong for 60 Minutes II, is a prizewinning journalist and author of Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy, a no-holds-barred expose of scandals in the U.S. Navy. Before joining the New York Times, Vistica was the national security correspondent for Newsweek.

Analysis of the Kerrey Story

"Is it time for a Vietnam truth commission?"
Bruce Shapiro, national correspondent for Salon News, delivers a hard-hitting argument for the need to unshroud the secret history of Senator Bob Kerrey and the Vietnam War. "After decades in which many politicians have done their best to gloss over the lingering damage done by the war in Vietnam, the Kerrey story demonstrated that the books are far from closed, either in the private realm of emotion or the public balance sheet of moral accountability."

"A Bronze Star For Killing Innocents, A Gold Star for covering up Sharon"
Ahmed Amr, editor of in Seattle and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN) , a Web site dedicated to truth in the media, compares the Thanh Phong massacre to atrocities that have occurred in the Middle East and elsewhere. He calls for Senator Kerrey to come clean and thereby take the lead in establishing moral criteria for the waging of war. "A straightforward narration from Kerrey can allow us to revisit how the French dealt with Algerian rebels and how Russia conducts its war against Chechen villages. He could raise a voice of concern for the Palestinians and the Kurds and the people of Kashmir, Tibet and the Balkans, Rwanda and Colombia, Ceylon, Sudan and East Timor. Let the narration of the war stories of a twenty-five year old Lieutenant haunt us all; that they may save us all."

"The Brutality of War"
Edited transcript of a Jim Lehrer-led roundtable discussion that took place during the May 3, 2001 PBS NewsHour (you can also watch the episode in video or listen in audio). The panelists comprise former Vietnam War correspondents Jonathan Schell and Wallace Terry, Korean War reporter William Dannenmaier, Retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, and Father Bryan Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School (notably, Hehir gave the Carnegie Council's 1994 Morgenthau Memorial Lecture, on humanitarian intervention).

Schell: ". . . all around the world today, countries are trying to face dark deeds in their past. We see that in South Africa, in Eastern Europe, and South America, and we've even established international criminal courts to bring crimes of war to justice and the United States has supported that very strongly. . . . If the United States refuses to do all it can to find out what its own people have done in committing what looks like a terrible crime, then our voice is going to be weightless in those councils."

Hehir: ". . .even though war is ambiguous and tragic and awful, people have tried for centuries to set limits on how awful it is, and that's a worthwhile enterprise."

Terry: "I think this is a sad and tragic small sample of what took place in Vietnam, and I think it does no good to open the sore and expose it in a way more than it's been exposed already."

Dannenmaier: ". . . the very idea that you can say that war can be civilized is stupid."

Trainor: ". . . there is no need to set a standard. The standard exists and it existed then. It is against the rules and laws of land warfare to kill innocent civilians or prisoners. That is clear and absolute now as it was then. The problem in this instance was the complexities that went into the situation."

Moral Dimensions of the Vietnam War: Sample Commentary

"Prevent the Crime of Silence: Reports from the sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal founded by Bertrand Russell"
Selected testimony from the 1967 International War Crimes Tribunal held in Stockholm, Sweden, and and Roskilde, Denmark, on the conduct of the war in Vietnam. Presided over by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the tribunal heard evidence from historians, scientists, journalists, American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians in an attempt to hold the United States to the principles it had established at the Nurenburg Trials after World War II. However, as the United States government refused to participate, the tribunal's findings -- of political connivance at unjust war, of wholesale attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools, of torture of political prisoners, of calculated disruption of the landscape and social structure of Vietnam -- had little impact. Bertrand Russell made this trenchant comment in his introduction to the first edition: "it is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of the imperial power are always among the last to know -- or care -- about circumstances in the colonies."

"The Lessons of the Vietnam War -- an interview with Noam Chomsky"
At the ending of the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky predicted that American opinion makers would attempt to rewrite the history of Vietnam War to minimize the sense of America having suffered a defeat. In this October 1982 interview with the Indochina Newsletter, Chomsky says that this prediction has largely come true: ". . . younger people who are being indoctrinated into the contemporary system of falsification -- they really have to do some research to find out what is the truth. In the general population, people forget or don't care that much. And gradually what you hear drilled into your head everyday comes to be believed. People don't understand what you're talking about any more if you discuss the American war on South Vietnam."

"Overcoming the Legacy of the Vietnam War"
In this August 2000 article for Foreign Policy in Focus , Andrew Wells-Dang, who is a program director at the Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace , argues that "the basic foreign policy errors that led to the Vietnam debacle lie embedded in persistent cold war thinking and in the assumption that the American way is always best. Instead of admitting that it might have supported the wrong side in the Vietnamese revolution, the U.S. has continued to fight the war by other means."

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
Quoting at length both from the Iliad and from recorded conversations with Vietnam veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has written an acclaimed work showing the devastating impact that the abandonment of moral values can have on those who serve in a war, thereby evoking the "timeless dimensions of military ethics." See also this review of Shay's book by psychoanalyst Irwin L. Kutash.

The opinions expressed in this roundtable do not necessarily reflect those of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. In addition, we are not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

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