Bob Kerrey is lost in the haze of Vietnam. As he has contended with the public revelation that the Navy SEAL team he led killed a dozen or so civilians during a nighttime mission in 1969 (accidentally, he and five colleagues maintain; not-so-accidentally, says one team member), his recollections have shifted. “Please understand,” he told journalist Gregory Vistica, who uncovered this story, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.”
His is not an uncommon fog, as attested to by other vets. The hell of Vietnam—an unpopular war that involved hard-to-discern guerrilla combatants, brutal depopulation strategies, indiscriminate bombing and much “collateral damage,” as military bureaucrats called civilian kills—offers its distinct challenges to memory, the individual memories of many who served there and the collective memory of the nation that sent them and sponsored a dirty war of free-fire zones and destroy-the-village-to-save-the-village tactics. In reviewing Colin Powell’s military service recently, I found that Powell had his own trouble in setting the record straight on his involvement—tangential as it was—in one of the war’s more traumatic episodes.
As Powell notes in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journal, in 1969 he was an Army major, the deputy operations officer of the Americal Division, stationed at division headquarters in Chu Lai. He says that in March of that year, an investigator from the inspector general’s office of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) paid a call. In a “Joe Friday monotone,” the investigator shot questions at Powell about Powell’s position at the division and the division’s operational journals, of which Powell was the custodian. The inspector then asked Powell to produce the journals for March 1968. Powell started to explain that he had not been with the division at that time. “Just get the journal,” the IG man snapped, “and go through that month’s entries. Let me know if you find an unusual number of enemy killed on any day.”
Powell flipped through the records and came upon an entry from March 16, 1968. The journal noted that a unit of the division had reported a body count of 128 enemy dead on the Batangan Peninsula. “In this grinding, grim, but usually unspectacular warfare,” Powell writes, “that was a high number.” The investigator requested that Powell read the number into the tape recorder he had brought, and that was essentially the end of the interview. “He left,” Powell recalls, “leaving me as mystified as to his purpose as when he arrived.”
It would not be until two years later (according to the original version of Powell’s book) or six months later (according to the paperback version of the book) that Powell figured out that the IG official had been probing what was then a secret, the My Lai massacre. Not until the fall of 1969 did the world learned that on March 16, 1968, troops from the Americal Division, under the command of Lieut. William Calley, killed scores of men, women and children in that hamlet. “Subsequent investigation revealed that Calley and his men killed 347 people,” Powell writes. “The 128 enemy ‘kills’ I had found in the journal formed part of the total.”
Though he does not say so expressly, Powell leaves the impression that the IG investigation, using information provided by Powell, uncovered the massacre, for which Calley was later court-martialed. That is not accurate.
The transcript of the tape-recorded interview between the IG man—Lieut. Col. William Sheehan—and Powell tells a different story. During that session—which actually happened on May 23, 1969—the IG investigator did request that Powell take out the division’s operations journals covering the first three weeks of March. (The IG inquiry had been triggered by letters written to the Pentagon, the White House and twenty-four members of Congress by Ron Ridenhour, a former serviceman who had learned about the mass murders.) Sheehan examined the records. Then he asked Powell to say for the record what activity had transpired in “grid square BS 7178” in this period. “The most significant of these occurred on 16, March, 1968,” Powell replied, “beginning at 0740 when C Company, 1st of the 20th, then under Task Force Barker, and the 11th Infantry Brigade, conducted a combat assault into a hot LZ [landing zone].” He noted that C Company, after arriving in the landing zone, killed one Vietcong. About fifteen minutes later, the same company, backed up by helicopter gunships, killed three VC. In the following hour, the gunships killed three more VC, while C Company “located documents and equipment” and killed fourteen Vietcong. “There is no indication of the nature of the action which caused these fourteen VC KIA,” Powell said. Later that morning, C Company, according to the journal, captured a shortwave radio and detained twenty-three VC suspects for questioning, while two other companies that were also part of Task Force Barker were active in the same area without registering any enemy kills.
Powell did not find in the journals any evidence suggesting something terribly amiss had happened in My Lai. No suspicious numbers of enemy killed, such as the 128 figure he recounts in his memoirs. The official records merely reflected what Powell had referred to as “a hot combat assault” during the IG interview. Seven weeks later, the MACV IG recommended that the case be closed, but a Pentagon IG investigation was already under way, and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division was soon pursuing an inquiry. The matter could not be smothered, and in November of 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh exposed C Company’s massacre of civilians at My Lai.
There had been attempts at cover-up. Prior to Ridenhour’s letter, the Army promoted the story that C Company had killed 128 VC and captured three weapons in the March 16 action. (Note the 128 figure—which Powell, in his memoirs, uses in describing the number of enemy kills he supposedly found in the journals. In his book, he is repeating the cover story, not recalling what was actually in the journal.) And information pertaining to My Lai disappeared from the Americal Division’s files. A military review panel—convened after the Hersh stories to determine why the initial investigations did not uncover the truth of My Lai—found that senior officers of the Americal Division had destroyed evidence to protect their comrades. Powell keeps that out of his account.
Powell has never been implicated in any of the wrongdoing involving My Lai. No evidence ties him to the attempted cover-up. But he was part of an institution (and a division) that tried hard to keep the story of My Lai hidden—a point unacknowledged in his autobiography. Moreover, several months before he was interviewed by Sheehan, Powell was ordered to look into allegations made by another former GI that US troops had “without provocation or justification” killed civilians. (These charges did not mention My Lai specifically.) Powell mounted a most cursory examination. He did not ask the accuser for more specific information. He interviewed a few officers and reported to his superiors that there was nothing to the allegations [see “Questions for Powell,” The Nation, January 8/15, 2001]. This exercise is not mentioned in his memoirs.
Powell notes that “My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam…. The involvement of so many unprepared officers and non-coms led to breakdowns in morale, discipline, and professional judgment—and to horrors like My Lai—as the troops became numb to what appeared to be endless and mindless slaughter.” Yet he is silent on how the military brass (including himself) responded to the horrors. Too often, in-the-field warriors who witnessed or engaged in tragedies or atrocities involving civilians—men like Bob Kerrey and his fellow SEALs—kept their secrets. Too often, their superiors—men like Powell—were not interested in unearthing these awful truths (which usually were the results of their orders and demands), and certainly they had no desire to share that side of the war with the public. The willful denial of the war’s managers is as much a part of the dark memory of Vietnam as the lethal misdeeds and mistakes of the soldiers.