[sixties-l] Bob Kerrey: Anti-Hero

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri May 04 2001 - 17:11:09 EDT

  • Next message: radman: "[sixties-l] Robert Kerrey and the bloody legacy of Vietnam"



    by the Editors

    Post date 05.03.01
    We all know that we will never all know what happened in the nocturnal
    jungle at Thanh Phong on February 25, 1969; but still there is something a
    little grotesque about the alacrity with which Bob Kerrey seems to have
    been understood and forgiven. After all, a war hero was confessing to the
    possibility that he may also have been a war criminal. It was also not
    especially uplifting that Kerrey made his confession only after a reporter
    discovered that his seal team had murdered women and children, and many
    years after building a political career not least on his valor in Vietnam,
    and on his stirring representation of the predicament of the Vietnam
    veteran. The revelation about the massacre at Thanh Phong unleashed yet
    another bout of bathos about America in Vietnam, about our "shame" and our
    "glory." The commentary about this atrocity was curiously self-regarding,
    nationally and generationally. We moved ourselves. We felt deeply. What we
    did not do was think critically.
    In the public mind, Kerrey has been exonerated on two grounds. First, that
    it was a good war, and he was doing his job. Second, that it was a bad war,
    and he was doing his job. Weirdly enough, both sides in the most
    excruciating debate in contemporary American history seem to be in
    immediate agreement that there is no moral scandal. The supporters of the
    war are worried that the dead of Thanh Phong will further disgrace the
    cause: My Lai was damaging enough. (It should be said immediately that the
    American culpability at My Lai was unequivocal, whereas it is the equivocal
    character of the events at Thanh Phong that has provoked this week's
    reckonings.) The opponents of the war are not surprised by the dead of
    Thanh Phong. Since they insist that the American evil in Southeast Asia was
    systematic and deranged, you might call this the Chomsky-Coppola analysis
    of the war, they are reluctant to make it personal and contrite. And so
    Kerrey is given a quick pass. Anyway, he is plainly a decent man, as the
    evidence of his subsequent career shows.
    All this is much too simple. What if the war in Vietnam was a good war that
    went bad? What if Kerrey is a decent man who committed an indecent act?
    These are the kinds of complexities that embarrass ideology and
    sentimentality. Senator John McCain, who speaks about this subject with a
    special authority, observed on television that "our job ... is to try to
    heal the wounds of war and not reopen them because of any specific
    incidents." But this is not at all obvious. The more we learn about the
    past, the better we comprehend it. And we learn about the past only by the
    study of "specific incidents." Surely "healing" is not accomplished by an
    indifference to truth. Or is the ascendancy of "healing" as an American
    ideal owed precisely to its indifference to truth, to its emotional
    efficiency, to its promise of an instant absolution and a swift "moving on"?
    There is another reason for Kerrey's smooth passage through this ordeal of
    memory. It is the view that war is dirty. This view has the entire history
    of warfare to support it. But it, too, cannot explain the Kerrey disclosure
    away. Even if all war is dirty, not every soldier's every deed in war is
    dirty. Soldiers kill, but they are not all war criminals. There were many
    atrocities in Vietnam, so many, in fact, that they justified the
    extrication of the United States from the conflict, but atrocities were not
    the norm. It is hard to understand Senator Max Cleland's comment about
    Kerrey's conduct at Thanh Phong that "[i]n many ways it's a microcosm of
    what we all went through." Surely not every American soldier in Vietnam
    returned with the blood of women and children on his hands. In this sense,
    too, Kerrey appears to have distinguished himself.
    But the issue is not only historical. We are living now in a golden age of
    atrocity, and American foreign policy is torn over the question of
    "humanitarian intervention." In the Balkans, the United States and its
    allies are seeking ways to bring to justice soldiers who were responsible
    for Thanh Phong-like outcomes in Bosnia and Kosovo. More and more we are
    relying upon truth commissions and international tribunals to record the
    unpleasant truths about recent conflicts and catastrophes, and to secure
    those unpleasant truths against the faulty memory of politics and culture.
    The culpability of Bob Kerrey has not been definitively established, but a
    country that makes such culpability into a burning question of policy
    cannot simply look away from what it has just learned about one of its
    leaders. He has to reckon with his conscience; but we have to reckon with
    our consciences, too. Idealists, if that is what we wish to be in our
    actions abroad, are not people who forgive themselves easily.

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