They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.
Best known as a place where the Air Force shoots satellites into orbit, the
Eastern Space and Missile Center--just south of the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida's Brevard County--would appear to fo
Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":
Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.
In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?
So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."
"Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land. To Britain after a second term of Tony Blair." With these words, Conservative Party leader William Hague began a speech in March that has helped to reignite one of the ugliest political debates over race that Britain has seen since the 1970s. Hague insists that the speech had nothing to do with race or immigration, but many observers here see it as a subtle but calculated attempt to appeal to the worst instincts of the "worst sort of Tory."
About a week after Hague's speech, the leaders of all major parties (Hague included) signed a statement sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality promising that they would not play the race card during the general election. The statement was then circulated to all MPs. Three Tory backbenchers refused to sign it, citing freedom-of-speech concerns. Among them was John Townend, who claimed that immigration was threatening Britain's "Anglo-Saxon society." Hague condemned Townend's remarks but refused to sack him, arguing that to do so would be a hollow gesture only days before the dissolution of Parliament. Many senior Tories are furious with what they perceive as Hague's lack of leadership. The most vocal has been Lord Taylor of Warwick, the most prominent black Conservative, who is now threatening to leave the party.
The race-pledge row is only the latest episode in a year of worsening race relations, in which an increasingly xenophobic "Little England" note has been struck by parts of the country's tabloid press, exploited by the Conservatives and worsened by the Labour government's apparent unwillingness to take a strong stand against it. The ugliness began last spring when Hague, responding to claims by some tabloids that Britain was being besieged by a tide of "bogus asylum-seekers" and illegal immigrants, delivered a speech excoriating the Labour government for allowing Britain to become "the biggest soft touch in the world" and for not doing enough to stem the "flood" of opportunistic refugees. His remarks were not only insulting but also poorly timed, coming less than a year after the release of the MacPherson report on the murder of a black teenager. (That report concluded that Britain's police were "institutionally racist" and called for tough action against indirect racism in public institutions.) The Daily Mail, the flagship tabloid of "middle England" and self-styled enemy of political correctness, hailed Hague's speech, calling it, "in this insidious climate of racial McCarthyism, courageous."
To its credit, the Labour government criticized the use of the word "flood" as being inflammatory, but did little else. Determined not to give the Tories an issue to run on, New Labour avoided pointing out the obvious--that Britain has some of the toughest immigration policies in Europe; that the 78,000 people who sought asylum here in 2000 were overwhelmingly law-abiding individuals desperate to escape persecution; that the cost of providing basic food, clothing and shelter to them was minuscule (a controversial voucher scheme provides a meager £35 (about $50) a week for food and clothing, and housing is often substandard); and, most of all, that immigration is a healthy thing for a modern, open society.
Instead, the government seemed eager to be seen as "getting tough" on asylum fraud, and more concerned with not losing the treasured support of the middle-income suburbanites who had been so crucial to its electoral success in 1997. One of the most controversial provisions of the insidious Asylum and Immigration Act, introduced soon after Hague's speech, was a policy of enforced dispersal of asylum claimants. Home Secretary Jack Straw argued, perversely, that the measure would protect asylum-seekers from the resentment that would inevitably occur if they were allowed to concentrate in large numbers in particular areas. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Until the dispersal policy was introduced, 90 percent of asylum-seekers lived in heavily multicultural London, where they fit into established communities of people from their native countries. Now, immediately on arrival, they were being packed off to places like Dover, with its 99.4 percent white population. A Dover Express editorial moaned about having to receive "the backdraft of a nation's human sewage." Within a short time, the debate between Labour and Conservatives over the asylum issue had become so ugly that the third-party Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, called on the Commission for Racial Equality to carry out an investigation into whether the two main parties were inciting racism, and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stepped in to condemn the tone of the debate.
But the Conservatives had a surprise in store at their autumn conference. Unbeknownst to many, Hague had spent a few days with the Bush campaign, taking furious notes, and he returned all aflutter with ideas for how to "modernize" the Tory party. "Caring conservatism" and "working families" became buzzwords at the conference, as Hague told the party faithful that he wanted more ethnic minorities to be placed on short lists for parliamentary seats. The Tories' true colors soon showed through, however, after a black 10-year-old, Damilola Taylor, was apparently murdered walking home from school in late November. The police, keen to show the lessons they had learned from the MacPhersonreport, tripped over themselves to appear cooperative and respectful to the bereaved family. Only two weeks later, though, Hague drew a specious link between the report and the boy's death, encouraging police to rebel against "politically correct race awareness courses" and spend more time fighting crime.
Straw, meanwhile, still insists on peddling the myth that the Labour government is one of the most aggressively antiracist ever. True, a new Race Relations Act, which just went into effect, widens previous antidiscrimination legislation to cover police activities, and true, Straw's Tory shadow, Ann Widdecombe, who recently proposed that all asylum-seekers be locked up in "secure detention centers," gives pause to anyone thinking about changing his vote. But the reluctance of the Labour government to take a firm, principled stand has left a scar on the lives of black Britons that is likely to remain, and likely to hurt Labour at the polls. Hughes told me recently, "We now have significant support from the black and Asian communities, more than we've ever had before."
The real effects, of course, are felt most acutely in the lives of people far removed from the hurly-burly of Westminster politics. Britain, for all its problems, is probably one of the least racist countries in Europe, but racially motivated crimes have risen steeply: March saw a threefold increase in reports of racial harassment in London, while race crimes in Britain as a whole were up 107 percent in 2000. A Reader's Digest/MORI poll reports that 66 percent of the public now think that there are too many immigrants in Britain, up from 55 percent a year ago. Many of Labour's black supporters blame Labour more than the Tories for the backlash. Among them is Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, who argues that "by heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to the racists."
The limits of New Labour's commitment to racial equality became clearer than ever when it emerged that ten of its twelve new black and Asian candidates are standing for election in what the party admits are "hopelessly" safe Tory seats, including John Major's seat in Huntingdon. This from a Prime Minister who came to power in 1997 pledging to increase the number of black and Asian MPs "to reflect the makeup of Britain." If this is Blair's idea of Britain, then William Hague's "foreign land" will surely be a long time in coming.
This is not a picture from your kid's sci-fi comic. It's an illustration from a report by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Space Commission. The report advocates circumventing the intent of international laws (notably, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) that seek to keep space free from war and urges that the President "have the option to deploy weapons in space." National Missile Defense, begun as Star Wars under Reagan, is just one layer of this much larger scheme to "control" space and "dominate" the earth, in the words of the report. "The United States is seeking to turn space into a war zone," maintains the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). To read the entire Space Commission report go to www.defenselink.mil/pubs/spacechapter2.pdf.
As the election nears, the weather is rotten and the glow is off "New Labour."
Oil companies are partners with Khartoum in waging a cruel civil war.
Daily life in the West Bank and Gaza: homes bulldozed, civilians bombed, people unable to get to the hospital because the borders have been closed, children shot with high-powered US rifles. Everyday life in Israel: the inevitable counterattacks, suicide bombers, children killed. Seven years after Oslo, it could break your heart. Despite the pusillanimity of the US press, the Internet has made it impossible to keep some of the Israeli human rights violations quiet (e.g., www.nimn.org). Appalled by the situation, 180 activists from five countries, most representing grassroots Jewish groups against the occupation, met at a "Junity" conference in Chicago May 4-6 to create a national network of Jewish Unity for a Just Peace.
Most participants see re-igniting discussion of the occupation among American Jews as a strategic question because of the central role played by mainstream Jewish organizations in funding Israel, lobbying the US government, suppressing criticism of Israeli policies and manipulating Jewish guilt and fear with constant invocations of the Holocaust and portrayals of Israel, a regional superpower, as a pitiful victim. This disinformation campaign has left American Jews in ignorance of the real reason for the breakdown of the Oslo peace accords.
For that all you have to do is look at a map, and one was prepared for the Junity conference by Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Despite government claims that Israel was willing to give up 95 percent of the occupied territories, the map reveals Israeli settler villages planted like bunkers all over what was supposed to be Palestine, "strategic hamlets" connected by "bypass roads" wider than three football fields put together. These roads are controlled by settler militias and the Israeli army. The Palestinians thought they were going to get a viable, independent state. But to be defensible, land must be contiguous; it cannot be cut through by a grid controlled by an occupying power. As Halper said in his keynote speech, making an analogy to a prison, the issue is not square footage but "the matrix of control." On a map of a prison, it might look like the inmates control 95 percent of the turf: cells, yard, cafeteria. But they don't control the walls, the communications system or the guards.
Halper's organization is one of a handful of Israeli peace groups that have kept on doing cross-borders work throughout the second intifada, during the long silence of Peace Now. This silence was finally broken on May 10 by a statement demanding a freeze on settlements, resumption of negotiations and acceptance of the report of the international committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell. The report recommends that Israel lift closure of Palestinian areas, cease home demolitions and use only nonlethal force against unarmed demonstrators, and that the Palestinians jail guerrillas and stop gunmen from firing from civilian areas.
More visionary demands have been developed by the left wing of the Israeli peace movement, in which feminists like the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace have played a leading role. One of the purposes of the Junity network is to act in solidarity with this peace movement and publicize its vision, which, as put forward by the women's coalition, entails:
§ an end to the occupation;
§ the full involvement of women in peace negotiations;
§ a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders (this means evacuating the settlements);
§ recognition of Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states;
§ a just solution for the Palestinian refugees and Israel's recognition of its share of responsibility for their situation;
§ equality, inclusion and justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel;
§ opposition to the militarism that permeates Israeli society, including recognition of conscientious objector status;
§ development of a civil society that gives equal civil, social and economic rights to all its citizens, including women and minorities;
§ Israel's cultural, economic and social integration into the region.
Solidarity activities being planned by the Junity network include witness trips to Israel and the occupied territories, vigils in many countries on June 8 in response to a call by Women in Black, events during the High Holy Days and a national education campaign. Go to www.junity.org and sign up. This is one of those moments in history when Jews who believe in justice may have to be resigned to being unpopular at family gatherings for a while, by saying, "Not in my name."
News that the United States has been voted off the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN international drug monitoring board has elicited vows of revenge from conservatives in Congress. They threaten to withhold payment on the long-unpaid dues owed the UN. They blame our adversaries--China, Cuba, Sudan and others--for the insult. But the secret votes enabled allies as well as adversaries to vent their mounting exasperation with US policies. At the last session of the commission, the United States stood virtually alone as it opposed resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, while it continued to resist efforts to ban landmines.
The global outrage is by no means limited to US policies on the Human Rights Commission. In barely 100 days in office, the Bush Administration has declared the Kyoto accords on global warming dead, spurning eight years of work by 186 countries. It banned US support for any global organization that provides family planning or abortion services, even as an AIDS pandemic makes this a matter of life and death. It bade farewell to the antiballistic missile treaty, while slashing spending on nuclear safety aid for Russia. It casually bombed Iraq, helped shoot down a missionary's plane over Peru and enforced an illegal and irrational boycott of Cuba. It sabotaged promising talks between North and South Korea, publicly humiliating South Korea's Nobel prizewinning president, Kim Dae Jung. The nomination as UN ambassador of John Negroponte, former proconsul in Honduras during the illegal contra wars, is an insult. "There is a perception," said one diplomat in carefully parsed words, "that the US wants to go it alone."
Our lawless exceptionalism is a deeply rooted, bipartisan policy that didn't begin with the Bush Administration. Under previous Presidents, Democratic and Republican, Washington denounced state-sponsored terrorism while reserving the right to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan or unleash a contra army on Nicaragua. It condemned Iraq for invading Kuwait while reserving the right to invade Panama or bomb Serbia on its own writ. The United States advocated war crimes tribunals against foreign miscreants abroad while opposing an international criminal court that might hold our own officials accountable. Our leaders proclaim the value of law and democracy as they spurn the UN Security Council and ignore the World Court when their rulings don't suit them. The Senate refuses to ratify basic human rights treaties. The US international business community even opposes efforts to eliminate child labor. And of course, there are those UN dues, which make us the world's largest deadbeat.
Worse is yet to come. US policy is a direct reflection of its militarization and the belief that we police the world, we make the rules. The Bush Administration plans a major increase in military spending to finance new weapons to expand the US ability to "project" force around the globe--stealth bombers, drones, long-range missiles and worse. The tightly strung Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds increasingly like an out-of-date Dr. Strangelove as he pushes to open a new military front in space, shattering hopes of keeping the heavens a zone of peace.
As the hyperpower, with interests around the world, America has the largest stake in law and legitimacy. But the ingrained assumption that we are legislator, judge, jury and executioner mocks any notion of global order. From the laws of war to the laws of trade, it is increasingly clear that Washington believes international law applies only to the weak. The weak do what they must; the United States does what it will.
After the cold war, we labeled our potential adversaries "rogue nations"--violent, lawless, willing to trample the weak and ignore international law and morality to enforce their will. Now, in the vote at the UN, in the headlines of papers across Europe, in the planning of countries large and small, there is a growing consensus that the world's most destructive rogue nation is the most powerful country of them all.
This is not a role most Americans support. Public interest groups and concerned individuals will vigorously remind Congress of the widespread popular backing in this country for paying our UN dues, for global AIDS funding and other forms of international involvement. Unilateralism must be opposed in all its guises, from national missile "defense" to undermining efforts to curb global warming. The United States was founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Let's keep it that way.
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.