I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.
Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.
By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)
Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."
The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.
We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."
If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."
I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.
I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.
And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.
There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....
This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?
The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.
America's provocative military posture in Asia makes war with China more likely.
Bush's national security advisers aren't up to the tasks before them.
The coronation of Colin Powell will probably not be interrupted by any of the specific questions about his mediocre and sometimes sinister past that were so well phrased by David Corn ["Questions for Powell," January 8/15]. The political correctness of the nomination, in both its "rainbow" and "bipartisan" aspects, will see to that. Powell has often defined himself as "a fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which also happens to be the core identity of the Washington press corps. Set against this, what is the odd war crime, or cover-up of same, or deception of a gullible Congress? Time to move on.
Colin Powell, George W. Bush's designated Secretary of State, is a national icon, with a personal story celebrated by millions. When he hits Capitol Hill for his confirmation, he can expect to receive a fair dose of senatorial genuflection. But the retired general does not deserve hands-off hearings. On policy matters, he may be asked to explain the so-called Powell Doctrine (which calls for an overwhelming use of force when the military is unleashed), his initial skepticism toward US involvement in the Gulf War and his advocacy of a Pentagon budget that would permit the United States to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously. Such matters could be respectfully broached by senators. But there are also some indelicate questions about Powell's past deeds--queries that challenge the image of Powell the Hero--that ought to be posed.
§ My Lai. In July 1968, Powell was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the Americal Division as an executive officer. On March 16, 1968, troops from this division had slaughtered more than 300 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai, and the massacre went unreported. In December 1968, after Powell had been promoted to operations officer at division headquarters, he was forwarded a letter written by Tom Glen, a former GI, who criticized the American military for brutalizing civilians, torturing prisoners and for, "without provocation or justification," shooting at "the people themselves." As The New Republic reported in 1995, Powell was told to check out the allegations, which did not mention My Lai. Powell interviewed a few officers and reported that there was nothing to Glen's assertions. He didn't bother to ask Glen for more specific information. Powell did not mention this inquiry in his 1995 memoir, An American Journey. He did, however, recall the occasion in March 1969, when an Army investigator visited his office and asked to see the enemy-kill records of March 1968. Powell found a high number--128--for March 16 and read the number into the investigator's tape recorder. (That investigator, who was probing specific allegations about My Lai, subsequently reported that there had been no massacre.) In his autobiography, Powell noted that his "curiosity" was aroused by the investigator. But he did not pursue the matter. Why not? And why had he taken a less-than-vigorous approach when conducting the earlier investigation? Why didn't he seek more information from Glen? Once the My Lai story broke in November 1969, why didn't Powell look into whether he had been lied to by his fellow officers? Moreover, what did he learn from this experience about conducting internal investigations within a bureaucracy?
§ Human rights abuses. In the 1980s Powell served on Ronald Reagan's national security team. He was the special military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger from 1983 to 1986, then deputy national security adviser from late 1986 to 1987 and, after that, National Security Adviser. Throughout the Reagan years, the Administration supported militaries in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras--and the contras in Nicaragua--which engaged in blatant human rights abuses, misdeeds that frequently were publicized by human rights advocates and dismissed by the Reagan Administration. In his book Powell noted that during his stint with Weinberger, he became "the chief administration advocate" for the contras. Referring to the corruption of several contra leaders, Powell wrote, "In the old days of East-West polarization, we worked with what we had." What today might justify Washington's support for corrupt or abusive forces abroad? Did Powell ever take an interest in the human-rights violations committed by the contras and the US-backed armies in Central America?
§ Iran/contra. In 1987 independent counsel Lawrence Walsh asked Weinberger to hand over records regarding the Iran/contra scandal. Weinberger produced a modest amount of nonincriminating material. That same year, Congressional investigators questioned Powell about the scandal and asked whether Weinberger maintained a diary. In sworn testimony, Powell replied, "The secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary." In 1991 Walsh discovered that Weinberger had written thousands of pages of diary notes--which included material contradicting his Iran/contra testimony. A grand jury indicted Weinberger for concealing these records. Weinberger's lawyers asked Powell for a sworn statement in which he would confirm that Weinberger had not treated these diaries as secret material that could be hidden from Walsh. Powell obliged and declared, "I observed on his desk a small pad of white paper, approximately 5'' X 7''. He would jot down on this pad in abbreviated form various calls and events during the day. I viewed it as his personal diary." This sworn affidavit contradicted Powell's 1987 sworn statement. In his final report, Walsh concluded that Powell's 1987 testimony was "at least misleading" and "designed to protect Weinberger." But Walsh opted not to prosecute Powell. In his memoirs Powell claimed that he told the investigators in 1987 that Weinberger kept notes but that he (Powell) had not considered these papers to be a diary until they were shown to him in 1991. But in 1987 Powell had not stated that Weinberger kept specific notes. And Walsh produced evidence indicating that Powell had actually helped create Weinberger's daily diary entries. So why didn't Powell in 1987 describe the diaries to the investigators in the detailed terms he used in 1991? According to his book, Powell waited for the investigators to "press" him with "follow-up questions" and said nothing more because they didn't ask. Is this his view of cooperation with Congress--never volunteer?
§ Operation Just Cause. In December 1989 Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversaw the US invasion of Panama. As American troops pursued narco-dictator and onetime US asset Manuel Noriega, they swept through El Chorrillo, a poor neighborhood in Panama City, and many civilians were caught in the combat. At first, the Pentagon referred to civilian casualties vaguely as "collateral damage." Two weeks later--after Noriega was nabbed--the Pentagon announced that 201 Panamanian civilians had been killed (and twenty-three American troops). Several months later, Americas Watch, a human rights organization, released a report finding that US forces had violated the Geneva Conventions by failing to minimize harm to the civilian population. The report noted that the "command of the American forces also failed to live up to its duties as to the collection of and accounting for the wounded and the dead among civilians." And a Physicians for Human Rights inquiry found that at least 300 civilians had died in the invasion, that 3,000 Panamanians received serious injuries during the operation and that 15,000 Panamanians were displaced (of which only 3,000 received US assistance). In his book, Powell concluded that Just Cause confirmed the Powell Doctrine: "Use all the force necessary and do not apologize for going in big if that's what it takes." Why did his military not conduct a thorough evaluation of civilian casualties and better tend to the displaced and injured? How does he reconcile the Powell Doctrine with the Geneva Conventions?
§ Gulf War Syndrome. The Persian Gulf War turned Powell into a star. But in the years following Desert Storm, thousands of vets developed a variety of illnesses. As of the end of 1999, 184,000 of the 697,000 Gulf War troops had filed disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, of which 136,000 were approved. The VA has acknowledged that Gulf War veterans suffer from chronic and ill-defined symptoms, including fatigue and neurocognitive and musculoskeletal problems. The Pentagon concedes that 100,000 US troops were exposed to low levels of nerve gas. Veterans advocates have accused Powell of being MIA on Gulf War Syndrome. "Four to five years ago, Gulf War vets were being turned away from the VA," says Charles Sheehan-Miles, a director of the National Gulf War Resource Center and a healthy Gulf War tank crewman. "You'd expect the military leaders would have something to say about that. We got silence from Powell, Schwarzkopf and Cheney. We wrote a couple of letters to Powell asking for help and never got a response. This was a severe disappointment." In 1998, when studies showed that Gulf War vets were sick possibly due to nerve gas exposure, Powell, in an interview, downplayed the link between Gulf War service and illness. Why was Powell reluctant to recognize Gulf War syndrome? Why has he not been a vocal supporter of the troops who fought for him?
Not standing with sick veterans, misleading Congressional investigators, leaving the counting of civilian dead to others, participating in a foreign policy apparatus that ignored and discounted human rights violations, mounting a less-than-vigorous inquiry into charges of military atrocities--all is not glory with Colin Powell. It is unlikely senators will wade too far into the muck of Powell's none-too-heroic past. Powell's rise--often hailed as proof that the American Dream is real--demonstrates a potent political reality: Star-power shine can be a most effective camouflage.
Gay-Baiting in the Military Under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
Generals and admirals often tell us that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but they sure don't appreciate being on its business end.
Michael Kimmel served as the Justice Department's expert witness on gender issues in the VMI and Citadel litigation.
Seventy-eight-year-old Andrew Marshall runs the Office of Net Assessment from a small office on the third floor of the Pentagon.