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.