Now that former Senator Bob Kerrey wants to go back into public service, trying to regain the US Senate seat that he used to hold (until 2001), it’s time to recall that Kerrey is very likely a mass murderer.
The story of the Kerrey-led massacre broke in 2001, in an investigative piece published in the New York Times magazine, written by Greg Vistica. It’s a lengthy piece, and it’s worth reading in full, even eleven years later. Entitled “One Awful Night in Thanh Phong,” the article quoted eyewitnesses to a horrific slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by a squad led by Lieutenant Kerrey:
While witnesses and official records give varying accounts of exactly what happened, one thing is certain: around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children.
The article went on, quoting Kerrey’s arrogant and angry semi-denial:
The after-action reports provided the first concrete evidence of the terrible events, which Kerrey had hardly addressed even in private conversation, and he reacted testily when asked about it. “There’s a part of me that wants to say to you all the memories that I’ve got are my memories, and I’m not going to talk about them,” he said. “We thought we were going over there to fight for the American people. We come back, we find out that the American people didn’t want us to do it. And ever since that time we’ve been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don’t like it. Part of living with the memory, some of those memories, is to forget them. I’ve got a right to say to you it’s none of your damned business.”
In the after-action report filed by Kerrey, the dead were described as “21 VC [Viet Cong] KIA [killed in action] BC [body count].” That report was enough to win Kerrey a Bronze Star, which he did not refuse. Vistica’s piece was bolstered by an investigative report by CBS’s 60 Minutes.
The original piece written by Vistica was supposed to have been published in Newsweek, but Newsweek killed the piece. As I wrote in an article in The American Prospect back in 2001:
Back in 1998, after Vistica had spent nearly a year assembling the story from witnesses and Pentagon documents, then-bureau chief Evan Thomas spiked the story. Kerrey had just decided not to run for president in 2000, whether because of Vistica’s pending expose or not, and, Thomas told the Post’s Howard Kurtz, “We just didn’t want to do it to the guy when he wasn’t running for president.” In a piece in the magazine’s May 7 edition, Thomas commiserated over Kerrey’s “agonizing tale,” twice called the facts “murky,” disparaged a Vietnamese woman who says she witnessed the murders as a “self-professed veteran of the Viet Cong” and happily concluded: “Pentagon officials said they had no plans to investigate the incident.” In a companion piece, Jonathan Alter, official purveyor of conventional wisdom, called criticism of Kerrey “easy hits from a safe distance” Though never reticent about pronouncing his opinions on any and all topics, Alter whined: “It’s pointless for someone like me (who was 12 years old in 1969) to second-guess him.”
When the story came out, eventually, Kerrey claimed that his memory of the events was foggy, but nevertheless the former senator gathered together six of the seven members of his Navy Seals squad to make sure that they coordinated their foggy memories.
But Kerrey doesn’t deny that he gave the order to fire and that many civilians died. He talked to Dan Rather of CBS’s 60 Minutes:
Rather: You gave the order to fire?
Kerrey: Oh, absolutely.
Rather: You let ‘em have it?
Kerrey: Well a bit more than let them have it, I mean we fired in lavs, we fired in M-79’s, M-60’s, we stood back and we just emptied everything we could into this place and we were taking fire. And we came into the village and it wasn’t a big village, it was, you know, four or five hooches. There was a cluster of women and children, they were all dead. So that’s the outcome.
Kerrey, of course, claims that his unit came under fire. Another member of the squad strongly disputes that, and when 60 Minutes went to the village and interviewed various eyewitnesses to the massacre, they all denied that anyone in the village fired weapons. Many held Kerrey and his squad responsible for the killings. As I wrote in 2001 in The American Prospect, citing a witness interviewed in 2001 by the Los Angeles Times:
In Vietnam some are not so willing to let bygones be bygones. Various witnesses have come forward, though it’s unlikely that any of them will have a chance to tell their stories to Pentagon investigators. Bui Thi Luom, 44, who lost 15 members of her family to Kerrey’s savages, is one of those. “If I could, I would like to get my revenge on them,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “If I could kill them, I would.”
Like most criminals, Kerrey blames the messengers, including the Times and CBS. From my Prospect article of June 4, 2001:
In the days after the real story of Bob Kerrey’s military exploits in Vietnam emerged, the former Democratic senator occasionally forgot that he was supposed to seem remorseful. “Please don’t expect me not to be irritated by the questions,” he snapped at reporters during a news conference. Sounding like a man accused of some technical campaign-finance peccadillo rather than the murder of civilians, he occasionally reverted to the peevish Kerrey that Nebraskans, and then Washingtonians, got to know over the years. “The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were” he said. “The [New York] Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort.”
At the very least, Kerrey has some explaining to do. Let’s hope he’s asked about it, a lot, if he runs for the Senate in 2012.