So now comes Bob Kerrey to remind us that even fair-haired boys may commit the most unspeakable of war crimes. Or, as he puts it by way of explaining the killing of at least thirteen unarmed Vietnamese women, older men and children by a squad under his command: "Human savagery is a very slippery slope."
Indeed it is, and by the accounting of one veteran of his Navy SEAL unit, disputed by others, the savagery may have extended to the rounding up and cold-blooded execution of noncombatants. That's the memory also of Vietnamese witnesses. Yet even the more benign version of former Sen. Kerrey–that the carnage was the result of honest confusion–while it may lessen his personal responsibility, doesn't erase the specter of our nation's leaders officially condoning wanton murder. It's they who came to define the countryside of Vietnam as a killing field in which Kerrey's team did what it thought it was ordered to do.
Kerrey, then 25, and other young warriors were deliberately lied to by leaders who knew better. The terror of that night is the work of the four Presidents who insisted the United States had an obligation in Vietnam to fill the blood-stained shoes of a defeated French colonialism.
None of the four who ordered this mayhem unleashed upon a distant land ever established that the war served a serious national security purpose.
Dwight D. Eisenhower created a puppet government in South Vietnam in 1954, flying in Ngo Dinh Diem–an autocratic Vietnamese exile safely cloistered in a New Jersey Catholic seminary–to rule an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Diem followed US orders in preventing the election called for in the Geneva Accords that would have unified Vietnam, an election Eisenhower predicted our designated enemy, Ho Chi Minh, would have won overwhelmingly. But while Eisenhower left the CIA to create an artificial nation out of South Vietnam, this former World War II general drew the line at committing US troops.
John F. Kennedy ignored that caution, sending to Vietnam a small contingent disguised as flood control advisors. But when his ambassador approved the assassination of Diem in 1963 and installed an even more compliant puppet, Kennedy indelibly committed this country to the path of madness.
That was the path pursued vociferously by Lyndon B. Johnson, who in taped conversations with advisers stated he could find no legitimate purpose for being in Vietnam, other than to ward off right-wing hawkish attacks in the upcoming 1964 election. As Johnson told his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, "I don't think it's worth fighting for." Yet he was convinced he would lose to Barry Goldwater if he appeared soft on communism.
Goldwater was right when he later charged that LBJ lied to Congress about an attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, to secure what Johnson interpreted as a declaration of war. In turn, he dispatched half a million US troops, including young Kerrey, and unleashed history's most intense air war, with more explosives dropped on the thin strip of Vietnam than had been used in all of World War II, leaving 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American dead.
Richard Nixon, who got elected pledging to quickly end this war he knew to be without legitimate purpose, instead escalated it to even more nightmarish proportions, including the destruction of once-peaceful and neutral Cambodia, with another million dead.
Those Presidents bear responsibility for deceiving good men like Bob Kerrey into thinking they were serving their nation, when what the war was always about was the poison of political ambition.
That is the admission of Nuremberg-level criminality lurking in the 1997 mea culpa of Robert McNamara, Johnson's Defense secretary, who defined much of the South Vietnamese countryside as the legitimate target of indiscriminate bombing.
The village Kerrey entered that fateful night fell into McNamara's territory of the doomed; does it matter whether those illiterate peasants ended up the hapless victims of McNamara's napalm or a Navy SEAL's razor-sharp knife? The difference is that Kerrey was forced to witness the pain while McNamara, the Ford Co. auto executive-turned-deskside-warrior, was not. Yet McNamara already knew, as he would later write, that "we were wrong, terribly wrong" and cited five honorable opportunities that the US passed up to end the war by 1967, two years before Kerrey visited upon that village such horror.
The true war criminal, yet to be brought to account by a nation that presumes it can judge others throughout the world, was that steely corporate bean-counter who took over the Pentagon and defined victory in Vietnam by the number of Vietnamese dead, even if they were the children and mothers slaughtered by Kerrey and his boys.