The Kerrey disclosures have surfaced an array of both laudable and lamentable sentiments, but perhaps none worse than those associated with William Safire’s April 30 tirade directed at the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. Safire defines the syndrome as “that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat.” At least we can be grateful that Safire nowhere makes clear what the wars since Vietnam were that America was prevented from entering because of what he calls the “national affliction” that accompanied the syndrome. It is this alleged inhibition on warmaking that has now resurfaced in the debate about Bob Kerrey’s degree of guilt and accountability, vividly presented in these pages by Christopher Hitchens [“Minority Report,” May 28] and Jonathan Schell [“War and Accountability,” May 21]. Overall, Safire wants to affirm Ronald Reagan’s embrace of illusion by regarding the Vietnam War as an occasion of national heroism and honor. Safire ends his column plaintively: “Are there no voices left, after that costly loss of life, to reject the Syndrome’s humiliating accusation of national arrogance–and to recall a noble motive?”
Alas, there are plenty such voices, most strident among them perhaps that of Senator John McCain, who writes with the authority of a former POW who was tortured during a long period of captivity in Vietnam. For McCain, despite the disclosure of the deliberate killing of civilians in the village hamlet of Thanh Phong back in February 1969, Kerrey remains “a war hero” who should be understood as having done what needed to be done in the sort of war being fought in Vietnam. Most disturbing, McCain argues that Vietnam was the kind of war that required its participants to hate the enemy, and he unabashedly makes a combat virtue out of hate. In his words: “I hated my enemies even before they held me captive because hate sustained me in my devotion to their complete destruction and helped me overcome the virtuous human impulse to recoil in disgust from what had to be done by my hand.” It is bad enough when a pilot holds such views, but when hatred informs the spirit of a ground war carried on in the midst of a densely inhabited civilian society, it is worse. It should not be surprising that atrocities became indistinguishable from normal battlefield practice, and not some anomaly that occurred on a single occasion at My Lai, or perhaps twice, counting Thanh Phong.
Kerrey’s own efforts at explaining and validating are not nearly as reprehensible as McCain’s, and they contain significant redeeming features, but in the end their instructional message is not much different. (I am leaving to one side Kerrey’s questionable version of the narrative of the fateful night at Thanh Phong, disputed by Gerhard Klann, the most experienced member of the SEAL squad, and Vietnamese eyewitnesses.)
Let me mention first the positive sides of what Kerrey has been saying, mainly in the course of public appearances and TV interviews. He is very upfront about the shocking fact that the soldiers in Vietnam were never trained in the laws of war and that he himself only learned about the US Army’s Field Manual prohibition on killing civilians long after the war. The central message of Field Manual 27-10, “The Law of Land Warfare,” was clear and pertinent: “Every violation of the law of war is a war crime…” This fundamental failure of training is a dreadful comment on command responsibility in a war of the sort waged in Vietnam.
Proper training would have contradicted the main lines of counterinsurgency warfare, which rested on a criminal premise: that as a matter of military doctrine, in those parts of the country where the revolutionary side had societal support, the entire civilian population–including women, children, the infirm and the wounded–should be treated as “the enemy.” In designating large portions of the Vietnamese countryside as “free fire” zones, US officials authorized pilots and soldiers to kill whatever moved, even farm animals. The most fundamental idea embedded in the law of war, requiring a belligerent to distinguish civilian from military targets, was completely abandoned. It should be kept in mind that Thanh Phong was in such a zone and that Kerrey commanded a small unit of Navy SEALs, who were especially assigned to carry out assassination missions as a part of what came to be known (and decried by critics of the war) as the Phoenix Program.