[sixties-l] War and Accountability

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri May 04 2001 - 16:13:33 EDT

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    May 21, 2001

    War and Accountability



    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
    Kerrey has been an uncommonly thoughtful, constructive, independent public
    figure. Volunteering to serve his country in what he believed was a just
    war, he found himself instead in a slaughterhouse devoid of reason. (Upon
    returning to the United States, he became a fervent opponent of the war.)
    He has flatly stated, for instance, "We were instructed not to take
    prisoners." If so, he was instructed to commit war crimes, doubly, if the
    potential "prisoners" were civilians. According to the US military adviser
    on the scene, David Marion, the policy of the local Vietnamese district
    chief toward civilians in the area was, "If you are my friend, you will do
    fine. You support me and the government of Vietnam, we get along OK. You do
    not, you're Vietcong, you die." Marion, who observed the results of these
    policies firsthand, confirmed to Vistica that in practice, "Those were the
    I can testify from my experience in Vietnam as a reporter in 1967 that the
    rules in other parts of the country were the same. In the northern
    provinces of South Vietnam, villagers in "free-fire zones" were warned that
    if they supported the NLF their villages would be bombed, and I witnessed
    the execution and the results of this policy throughout Quang Ngai and
    Quang Tri provinces. The policy, which contravened the laws of war
    forbidding the deliberate targeting of civilians, was nowhere written down
    in government documents, but it was announced in millions of leaflets
    showered from planes on Vietnamese villages, and it was carried out. One
    leaflet, for example, read, "Many hamlets have been destroyed because these
    villages harbored the Vietcong. The hamlets of Hai Mon, Hai Tan, Sa Binh,
    Tan Binh, and many others have been destroyed because these villages
    harbored the Vietcong. We will not hesitate to destroy every hamlet that
    helps the Vietcong...."
    These de facto policies obviously placed an extraordinary moral burden on
    the young men sent to carry them out. However, the struggles of Bob Kerrey
    to come to terms personally with his experience are of secondary
    importance. What is of first importance is exactly what was done that day,
    what the response of the American public and government to this will be and
    whether anyone is to be held accountable. A serious war crime has been
    credibly alleged. Did it happen? Is anyone responsible? Will they be held
    So far, it looks as if, through a series of subterfuges and evasions, there
    will be neither an adequate investigation nor any accountability. In its
    editorial, the Times commented: "With the emergence of this story, Mr.
    Kerrey's career has entered a new phase of public assessment." Even this
    muffled admonition, however, was too much for Mark Shields of the NewsHour
    With Jim Lehrer, who called the editorial "an act of moral arrogance rarely
    seen." Kerrey, he explained, had not ducked service in Vietnam, as so many
    others had done, and had never bragged about that service. But the
    question, of course, is not whether Kerrey was a coward or a braggart, he
    obviously was neither, but whether on February 24, 1969, he twice ordered
    the massacre of civilians, first at the hut, second in the village. The
    debate so far has concentrated on whether there was hostile fire before the
    killings in the center of the village, as if the unit's entire conduct
    could be excused by it. However, that question has no bearing on the
    horrifying scene at the hut, which remains without explanation. If the
    nation should not engage in any reassessment of Kerrey, should it at least
    try to find out, by means of a Pentagon investigation, what happened that
    night? Three senators who served in Vietnam and were decorated for their
    valor, John Kerry, Max Cleland and Chuck Hagel, think not, as they said on
    ABC's This Week. (A fourth, John McCain, wanted to leave the decision up to
    the Pentagon.)
    Their reasons are noteworthy. You have to take into account the special
    circumstance into which the war placed Kerrey, the senators said. The
    SEALs' mission "was to take out the civilian infrastructures," John Kerry
    observed. The Phoenix program, whose objective was "assassination" of NLF
    leaders, was in operation, he added. It was the nature of war that
    civilians "suffer the most," Hagel said. Civilians had been killed in the
    tens of thousands, Kerry continued, by the firebombing of Dresden and at
    Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In short, they cleared the individual by condemning
    the war. As Kerry said, if Bob Kerrey was to be judged, then "you'd have to
    investigate the whole war."
    Others made similar points. Doyle McManus of PBS's Washington Week in
    Review said that the debate was in a "time warp," because in Vietnam it was
    policy to kill civilians in free-fire zones, whereas in the more recent
    Gulf War this was forbidden. All of that is factually true. What was left
    unanswered, however, is whether there could be any accountability for the
    deed or for any others like it if they were committed by Americans. If in
    fact it was American policy to declare that in wide areas civilians were to
    be killed, that policy was a crime against humanity in the strict
    definition of the term. Then criminal responsibility would in fact be much
    clearer than it would be if soldiers had massacred civilians in violation
    of orders. However, the senators were not suggesting a wider investigation;
    they opposed any investigation. If the individual soldiers should not be
    brought to account (and credible allegations of a war crime should not even
    be investigated) because the fault was in policy, not in individuals, and
    yet no policy-makers are to be held responsible either, then there will be
    no accountability. The answer, the four senators agreed, is to "blame the
    war," not the "warrior." But they suggested no method by which a "war"as
    distinct from the people who guided the war and fought it, could be held
    Approval of the deed was symbolized by the Bronze Star that Kerrey received
    for the action. Reporters asked him whether he planned to return it, and he
    answered with annoyance that he didn't care about it one way or the other.
    So far, the Pentagon has not asked for it back.
    Some have suggested that the United States has anguished long enough over
    the Vietnam War and that it's long past time to put it behind us. The
    debate over Thanh Phong, however, occurs in a new context. Today, nations
    all over the world, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Poland, the Czech
    Republic, Serbia, Rwanda, to name just a few, have been struggling to come
    to terms with crimes committed in their recent past. In some countries,
    judicial proceedings are under way. In others, truth commissions, offering
    amnesty in exchange for full confession, have been founded. Elsewhere,
    lustration -- laws preventing wrongdoers of the past from holding office --
    has been the recourse. Western countries have been liberal with their
    advice. "International civil society" has added its voice. Hundreds of
    academic conferences have been held. In still other cases, international
    tribunals have been created at The Hague to bring committers of crimes
    against humanity to justice. Special tribunals are in operation to
    prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic
    cleansing of Kosovo by Serbia. The United States is among many countries
    that have sought the extradition of the former President of Serbia,
    Slobodan Milosevic, and others to face justice at The Hague. More
    important, thirty countries have ratified an agreement to establish a
    permanent international criminal court. Taken in their entirety, these
    efforts amount to a sort of movement, in the wake of the terrible violence
    of the twentieth century, to create a bare minimum of accountability for
    the worst crimes in the twenty-first.
    The reactions of journalists and senators on news programs in the United
    States to the Thanh Phong massacre will not decide the outcome of these
    efforts. But if as a nation the United States, the self-styled "world's
    only superpower"cannot investigate, cannot condemn, cannot assign
    responsibility for the killing of the women and children of Thanh Phong,
    then state-licensed murderers everywhere will take heart and those who are
    seeking to bring them to justice will be discouraged. The United States
    cannot condemn in others what it covers up when committed by its own. The
    movement for justice will continue, but the voice of the United States will
    be discredited. We'll be missing in action.

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