Bob Kerrey is lost in the haze of Vietnam. As he has contended with the public revelation that the Navy SEAL team he led killed a dozen or so civilians during a nighttime mission in 1969 (accidentally, he and five colleagues maintain; not-so-accidentally, says one team member), his recollections have shifted. "Please understand," he told journalist Gregory Vistica, who uncovered this story, "that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire."
His is not an uncommon fog, as attested to by other vets. The hell of Vietnam–an unpopular war that involved hard-to-discern guerrilla combatants, brutal depopulation strategies, indiscriminate bombing and much "collateral damage," as military bureaucrats called civilian kills–offers its distinct challenges to memory, the individual memories of many who served there and the collective memory of the nation that sent them and sponsored a dirty war of free-fire zones and destroy-the-village-to-save-the-village tactics. In reviewing Colin Powell's military service recently, I found that Powell had his own trouble in setting the record straight on his involvement–tangential as it was–in one of the war's more traumatic episodes.
As Powell notes in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journal, in 1969 he was an Army major, the deputy operations officer of the Americal Division, stationed at division headquarters in Chu Lai. He says that in March of that year, an investigator from the inspector general's office of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) paid a call. In a "Joe Friday monotone," the investigator shot questions at Powell about Powell's position at the division and the division's operational journals, of which Powell was the custodian. The inspector then asked Powell to produce the journals for March 1968. Powell started to explain that he had not been with the division at that time. "Just get the journal," the IG man snapped, "and go through that month's entries. Let me know if you find an unusual number of enemy killed on any day."
Powell flipped through the records and came upon an entry from March 16, 1968. The journal noted that a unit of the division had reported a body count of 128 enemy dead on the Batangan Peninsula. "In this grinding, grim, but usually unspectacular warfare," Powell writes, "that was a high number." The investigator requested that Powell read the number into the tape recorder he had brought, and that was essentially the end of the interview. "He left," Powell recalls, "leaving me as mystified as to his purpose as when he arrived."
It would not be until two years later (according to the orginal version of Powell's book) or six months later (according to the paperbck version of the book) that Powell figured out that the IG official had been probing what was then a secret, the My Lai massacre. Not until the fall of 1969 did the world learned that on March 16, 1968, troops from the Americal Division, under the command of Lieut. William Calley, killed scores of men, women and children in that hamlet. "Subsequent investigation revealed that Calley and his men killed 347 people," Powell writes. "The 128 enemy 'kills' I had found in the journal formed part of the total."
Though he does not say so expressly, Powell leaves the impression that the IG investigation, using information provided by Powell, uncovered the massacre, for which Calley was later court-martialed. That is not accurate.