U.S. News & World Report
May 7, 2001
Is the ex-senator baring his soul and spinning his story?
By John Leo
No journalist is better than Mickey Kaus at cutting quickly to the heart of
an issue. Here is his opening comment about Bob
Kerrey last week on his kausfiles Web site: "There is already entirely too
much respectful attention being paid to the moral
and psychological agony of Bob Kerrey and to the 'healing' process. . . .
The question is what happened to the people who
haven't had the luxury of agonizing for 32 years because they've been dead.
Kerrey's agony is a distraction."
Exactly. Ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey is undoubtedly feeling a lot of stress after
finally admitting that his squad killed a lot of
unarmed women and children during a Vietnam raid in 1969. And his three
decades of silence (or coverup, if you like)
obviously took a toll. But his feelings are not the issue here. In an
Oprahfied culture, important moral and political issues
are always in danger of being obscured by huge clouds of media-created
empathy. This process is now so common that we
often hardly notice when it happens. After Janet Reno drew heavy criticism
for the Elin Gonzlez raid in Miami, Deputy
Attorney General Eric Holder said: "I held the attorney general in my arms
and she wept. She did not want this to happen."
But whether she wept, fled into the arms of a subordinate, or simply sat at
her desk playing solitaire is irrelevant. In
politics, we properly judge actions, not emotional states, especially ones
retailed to the media to generate empathy and
The Kerrey case is already a classic example of a serious moral issue
propelled before the public almost entirely in
psychological and therapeutic terms. "How hard this must be to stand up and
tell the world your secret," one network
reporter told viewers. Kerrey "is baring his soul about a 32-year-old
mission in Vietnam," burbled a sympathetic CNN
talk-show host. An Omaha World-Herald account begins: "Bob Kerrey is
confronting another wound from Vietnam, one
that left him with no physical scars." "We should all recognize the agony
that Bob has gone through," said the trustees of
Manhattan's New School University, whose new president is Bob Kerrey.
Coping with killing. The ex-senator kept issuing statements that encouraged
a close focus on his psychological struggle.
"Now I can talk about it. It feels better already," Kerrey told the Los
Angeles Times. The New York Times said Kerrey
spoke of the military's need to provide psychological training and how to
cope with killing.
The psychologizing flows freely through "What Happened in Thanh Phong,"
Gregory Vistica's April 29 New York Times
Magazine article that forced Kerrey at last to speak out. It begins with a
scene of Kerrey's hands trembling as he read
documents on the case. It goes on quickly to discuss his nightmares, his
fleeting thoughts of suicide, and Kerrey's weird
notion that his memories of the raid are personal ones that belong to him
alone. "Part of living with the memory, some of
those memories, is to forget them," Kerrey told Vistica. "I've got a right
to say to you, 'it's none of your damned business.' I
carry memories of what I did and I survive . . . ." But this is the way
somebody might speak to a therapist, not to a journalist
asking whether you massacred women and children. Try to imagine other people
who have been accused of killing unarmed
civilians-the New York cops who shot Amadou Diallo, for instance-trying to
argue that their memories of the night are
personal and nobody else's business.
Even Kerrey's argument that the killings were justified is couched in terms
of his effort to cope with the trauma: "Knowing
that the people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers and their missing
men had fired upon us, drawing our fire, has
not helped." Similarly, his occasional admissions that something horrific
occurred are also expressed in the language of
feelings: "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to
being right, because that's how it felt." In a press
conference, Kerrey announced: "I have chosen to talk about it because it
helps me to heal." This is not just an awful bit of
psychologizing. It's also untrue. Kerrey is talking about it because the
expos in the Times magazine was well on its way,
and he wanted to get his version out ahead of the story and spin it his way.
Stripped of psychologizing, the central issue is clear: Was this a war
crime? One-and only one-member of Kerrey's SEAL
platoon says, in effect, that it was. In this man's account, 15 or so women
and young children, including a baby, were herded
together and simply shot to death at close range. "We just basically
slaughtered those people," Gerhard Klann told Dan
Rather on the 60 Minutes II program that is to be broadcast this week.
Kerrey's version is that his men had been shot at and
fired back in the dark from a distance of about 100 yards. Besides, the
village was a free-fire zone, meaning that all who
lived there were regarded as enemies who could be fired on at will. Did that
policy amount to a blank check for American
troops to commit atrocities?
Even at this late date, we need to know the answer. And we need to have
testimony from each member of Kerrey's platoon
on just how and why the women and children of Thanh Phong were killed. No
more psychology, please. There are real
issues to deal with.
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