One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The conference–“International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the U.S. Record”–took place at New School University, where Kerrey is president, and grew out of Kerrey’s own suggestion that his experience in Vietnam be turned into an “educational moment.” On hand were an array of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials (former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience might shed light on America’s culpability for human rights violations in Vietnam. “When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an educational moment,” he announced, “I did not intend to meekly submit to cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign policy during the war in Vietnam.”
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since Gregory Vistica’s excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey’s Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question. According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however–a version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors–roughly a dozen women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night. Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an “urgent, thorough and independent inquiry” of the case. “For the US to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the world to enforce these essential standards,” the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey never told school officials about the operation until the story made international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey’s public acknowledgment should serve as an occasion for the United States “to consider its own record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere.”