War and Accountability

War and Accountability

What exactly Bob Kerrey did one night in a Vietnamese community should concern every citizen.


Few things are harder than an honest, voluntary accounting by a nation of its own crimes. When the crimes are committed by other nations, people know well how to respond. The pictures–those of, say, Serbia's recent atrocities in Kosovo shown in the Western media–are abundant. Investigations are energetic, coverage prompt. The outrage is spontaneous, and the indignation flows easily. Perhaps judicial proceedings will begin, or "humanitarian intervention" will be contemplated, accompanied by a gratifying debate on the limits of decent outsiders' moral obligations. Perhaps in time movies will be made showing–and caricaturing–their evil and contrasting it with our virtue. Maybe museums of the horrors will even be founded.

But how different everything becomes when our own countrymen are the wrongdoers. Investigations move at a snail's pace–perhaps they take decades, if they occur at all. Whereas before we seemed to be looking at the events through a sort of moral telescope, which brought everything near and into sharp focus, now we seem to look through the telescope's other end. The figures are small and indistinct. A kind of mental and emotional fog rolls in. Memories dim. The very acts that before inspired prompt anger now become fascinating philosophical puzzles. The psychological torments of the perpetrators move into the foreground, those of the victims into the background. The man firing the gun becomes more of an object of pity than the child at whom the gun was fired.

All of these responses have been on full display in the reaction in this country to the excellent, meticulous report in the New York Times by Gregory Vistica on the killing of at least thirteen civilians in February 1969 in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong by a Navy SEAL team led by Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School University (where, I should state, I am a part-time lecturer) and formerly a senator from Nebraska and presidential candidate. Vistica's original source was Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's team. According to Klann, critical elements of whose account have been corroborated by Vietnamese eyewitnesses independently interviewed, the SEAL team entered the village, known to support the National Liberation Front, at night, to capture its mayor and an NLF representative. Upon arriving at a hut on the outskirts of the village, the team killed five members of a family consisting of two grandparents and their three grandchildren. The SEALs used knives in an attempt to preserve silence. Klann says that when he had trouble killing the grandfather, Kerrey held the man down with his knee while Klann cut his throat. The team, Klann goes on, proceeded to the village, where it ordered about a dozen women and children out of their bunker, lined them up and executed them at close range. Neither the mayor, the NLF representative nor any enemy soldiers or weapons were found.

Kerrey, while admitting that civilians were killed, disputes this account, and his version of events has been supported in a statement signed by the five other members of the seven-man team. All but one of them have declined individual interviews. About the killing at the first hut, the statement of the six is vague: It cryptically says, "At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected." Kerrey says he did not participate in this killing or know that those killed were two old people and three children. When the team proceeded to the center of the village, the statement says, it received hostile fire, and the civilians were accidentally killed by the American fire in response. Klann's testimony obviously deserves special weight, because it was not in the interest of the testifier and also has been independently confirmed by the Vietnamese eyewitnesses. Although his account is of course sharply at odds with Kerrey's, Kerrey has said, "I'm not going to make this worse by questioning somebody else's memory of it." At the same time, however, he has attacked the Times and CBS, which worked on the story with the Times, in an interview with the Associated Press. "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were," he said. "The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." Kerrey's other responses have likewise been uncertain and changeable. He has been, by turns, confessional, apologetic, tormented, defensive, anguished, irritable, forgetful and contrite.

Kerrey has been an uncommonly thoughtful, constructive, independent public figure. Volunteering to serve his country in what he believed was a just war, he found himself instead in a slaughterhouse devoid of reason. (Upon returning to the United States, he became a fervent opponent of the war.) He has flatly stated, for instance, "We were instructed not to take prisoners." If so, he was instructed to commit war crimes–doubly, if the potential "prisoners" were civilians. According to the US military adviser on the scene, David Marion, the policy of the local Vietnamese district chief toward civilians in the area was, "If you are my friend, you will do fine. You support me and the government of Vietnam, we get along OK. You do not, you're Vietcong, you die." Marion, who observed the results of these policies firsthand, confirmed to Vistica that in practice, "Those were the rules."

I can testify from my experience in Vietnam as a reporter in 1967 that the rules in other parts of the country were the same. In the northern provinces of South Vietnam, villagers in "free-fire zones" were warned that if they supported the NLF their villages would be bombed, and I witnessed the execution and the results of this policy throughout Quang Ngai and Quang Tri provinces. The policy, which contravened the laws of war forbidding the deliberate targeting of civilians, was nowhere written down in government documents, but it was announced in millions of leaflets showered from planes on Vietnamese villages, and it was carried out. One leaflet, for example, read, "Many hamlets have been destroyed because these villages harbored the Vietcong. The hamlets of Hai Mon, Hai Tan, Sa Binh, Tan Binh, and many others have been destroyed because these villages harbored the Vietcong. We will not hesitate to destroy every hamlet that helps the Vietcong…."

These de facto policies obviously placed an extraordinary moral burden on the young men sent to carry them out. However, the struggles of Bob Kerrey to come to terms personally with his experience are of secondary importance. What is of first importance is exactly what was done that day, what the response of the American public and government to this will be and whether anyone is to be held accountable. A serious war crime has been credibly alleged. Did it happen? Is anyone responsible? Will they be held responsible?

So far, it looks as if, through a series of subterfuges and evasions, there will be neither an adequate investigation nor any accountability. In its editorial, the Times commented: "With the emergence of this story, Mr. Kerrey's career has entered a new phase of public assessment." Even this muffled admonition, however, was too much for Mark Shields of the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, who called the editorial "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen." Kerrey, he explained, had not ducked service in Vietnam, as so many others had done, and had never bragged about that service. But the question, of course, is not whether Kerrey was a coward or a braggart–he obviously was neither–but whether on February 24, 1969, he twice ordered the massacre of civilians–first at the hut, second in the village. The debate so far has concentrated on whether there was hostile fire before the killings in the center of the village, as if the unit's entire conduct could be excused by it. However, that question has no bearing on the horrifying scene at the hut, which remains without explanation. If the nation should not engage in any reassessment of Kerrey, should it at least try to find out, by means of a Pentagon investigation, what happened that night? Three senators who served in Vietnam and were decorated for their valor–John Kerry, Max Cleland and Chuck Hagel–think not, as they said on ABC's This Week. (A fourth, John McCain, wanted to leave the decision up to the Pentagon.)

Their reasons are noteworthy. You have to take into account the special circumstance into which the war placed Kerrey, the senators said. The SEALs' mission "was to take out the civilian infrastructures," John Kerry observed. The Phoenix program, whose objective was "assassination" of NLF leaders, was in operation, he added. It was the nature of war that civilians "suffer the most," Hagel said. Civilians had been killed in the tens of thousands, Kerry continued, by the firebombing of Dresden and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In short, they cleared the individual by condemning the war. As Kerry said, if Bob Kerrey was to be judged, then "you'd have to investigate the whole war."

Others made similar points. Doyle McManus of PBS's Washington Week in Review said that the debate was in a "time warp," because in Vietnam it was policy to kill civilians in free-fire zones, whereas in the more recent Gulf War this was forbidden. All of that is factually true. What was left unanswered, however, is whether there could be any accountability for the deed or for any others like it if they were committed by Americans. If in fact it was American policy to declare that in wide areas civilians were to be killed, that policy was a crime against humanity in the strict definition of the term. Then criminal responsibility would in fact be much clearer than it would be if soldiers had massacred civilians in violation of orders. However, the senators were not suggesting a wider investigation; they opposed any investigation. If the individual soldiers should not be brought to account (and credible allegations of a war crime should not even be investigated) because the fault was in policy, not in individuals, and yet no policy-makers are to be held responsible either, then there will be no accountability. The answer, the four senators agreed, is to "blame the war," not the "warrior." But they suggested no method by which a "war"–as distinct from the people who guided the war and fought it–could be held responsible.

Approval of the deed was symbolized by the Bronze Star that Kerrey received for the action. Reporters asked him whether he planned to return it, and he answered with annoyance that he didn't care about it one way or the other. So far, the Pentagon has not asked for it back.

Some have suggested that the United States has anguished long enough over the Vietnam War and that it's long past time to put it behind us. The debate over Thanh Phong, however, occurs in a new context. Today, nations all over the world–South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Rwanda, to name just a few–have been struggling to come to terms with crimes committed in their recent past. In some countries, judicial proceedings are under way. In others, truth commissions, offering amnesty in exchange for full confession, have been founded. Elsewhere, lustration–laws preventing wrongdoers of the past from holding office–has been the recourse. Western countries have been liberal with their advice. "International civil society" has added its voice. Hundreds of academic conferences have been held. In still other cases, international tribunals have been created at The Hague to bring committers of crimes against humanity to justice. Special tribunals are in operation to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serbia. The United States is among many countries that have sought the extradition of the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, and others to face justice at The Hague. More important, thirty countries have ratified an agreement to establish a permanent international criminal court. Taken in their entirety, these efforts amount to a sort of movement, in the wake of the terrible violence of the twentieth century, to create a bare minimum of accountability for the worst crimes in the twenty-first.

The reactions of journalists and senators on news programs in the United States to the Thanh Phong massacre will not decide the outcome of these efforts. But if as a nation the United States–the self-styled "world's only superpower"–cannot investigate, cannot condemn, cannot assign responsibility for the killing of the women and children of Thanh Phong, then state-licensed murderers everywhere will take heart and those who are seeking to bring them to justice will be discouraged. The United States cannot condemn in others what it covers up when committed by its own. The movement for justice will continue, but the voice of the United States will be discredited. We'll be missing in action.

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