A VETERAN'S VIEW
Bob Kerrey, War Hero
If you've never seen combat, don't be quick to judge.
BY JOHN MCCAIN
Friday, April 27, 2001
For a long time many Americans thought the Vietnam War was a bad war. The
citizen soldiers who defeated the fascists in Europe and the Pacific were
ennobled by their service in a good war. Vietnam veterans fighting
communists were not.
In a good war mistakes are seldom made. No one lies.
Breakdowns in discipline that lead to atrocities never occur. The
righteousness of the cause sanctifies the experience of all who fought in
it. In a bad war everyone lies. Innocents are slaughtered. Villages are
destroyed to save them. Combatants are corrupted. Casualties in a good war
are martyrs. In a bad war they are the wages of sin.
But this notion, as a veteran of any war can attest, is simplistic and
All wars occasion much heroism and nobility, but they all have their
corruptions, which is what makes war a thing worth avoiding if possible. I
hated my enemies even before they held me captive because hate sustained me
in my devotion to their complete destruction and helped me overcome the
virtuous human impulse to recoil in disgust from what had to be done by my
hand. I dropped many bombs in Vietnam, and I wish I could say that they
only destroyed military targets. But surely noncombatants were among the
The combatant, who may be a righteous, God-fearing, lovely human being,
must become inhumane day after day if he is to do what his country has
asked him to do. The injunction to love all as we would be loved is the
first casualty of war, any war. Wars are that awful, and anyone who tells
you otherwise is a fool or a fraud.
That does not mean that we should forget our humanity. Our experience does
not absolve us of our moral obligations, but they can be very hard to keep,
given the extraordinarily difficult and conflicting expectations imposed on
us: to kill and to be good.
Good men, heroes, make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes have the most
terrible consequences imaginable. We should not be spared criticism for
them, but it is unlikely that the judgments made by others will be as
severe as our own regret.
My friend Bob Kerrey made a mistake in Vietnam. He was sent into a
free-fire zone to kill for his country, and he helped kill the wrong
people. Those who now judge him must follow the dictates of their
conscience. But unless you too have been to war, please be careful not to
form your judgment of him on your understanding of what constitutes a war
hero. They are not the Hollywood copy you might expect.
Bob received a Bronze Star for his action that night. He would be the first
to agree that his conduct, no matter how unintentional, did not merit
commendation. But his conduct on another night, one month later, won him
the decoration our country bestows on only her greatest heroes. And were
you to read the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor, you would
know beyond a doubt he earned it.
When he came home from Vietnam, like many others, Bob Kerrey tried to bury
his dead. He did not want to remember, much less talk about, a lot of his
experiences, especially his mistakes.
But there are ghosts you cannot bury, like our shame over those occasions
when circumstances conspired with our own weakness to make an awful
experience worse. If the fact that he recovered his humanity, that he felt
remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country, does not strike some
as adequate compensation for his mistake, it is enough for his salvation,
and a harder task than most can imagine. That's a war hero, folks, a
sinner redeemed by his sacrifice for a cause greater than his
self-interest. That's Bob Kerrey, my friend and hero.
Mr. McCain is a U.S. senator from Arizona.
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