>From the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer, 5/4/01
by Marty Jezer
By now everyone knows about Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from
Nebraska, and his Vietnam War revelation. In February 1969, as a lieutenant
in the Navy SEALS, Kerrey led his squad on a combat mission against Thanh
Phong, a village in South Vietnam. Cadre of the National Liberation Front
were supposedly having a meeting there, and Kerrey's order was to kill them
all. When the killing was done he discovered, to his horror, that he and his
men had killed more than twenty civilians. Some were old men, the rest women
and children. In the military report of this action, Kerry and his squad
were credited with killing more than twenty "Viet Cong," and Kerrey received
the Bronze Star for his role in the "battle."
Kerrey's revelation was first published in the N.Y. Times Sunday
Magazine (4/29/01). Kerrey was then interviewed by Dan Rather on the CBS
show, Sixty Minutes II. I urge those who only saw the show to read the
magazine article as well www.nytimes.com. Rather's interview was a shameful
assault on Kerrey's veracity. Rather deliberately ignored the larger
questions about Vietnam in order to badger Kerrey into admitting "war
There is controversy as to what happened in Thanh Phong. One member of
Kerrey's squad says that Kerrey knew his victims were civilians and that
they were killed in cold-blood. His testimony is collaborated by a
Vietnamese witness. Other squad members support Kerrey's recollection that
he and his men did not know whom they were firing at. Memory is subjective
and distorted by trauma. We'll never know what truly happened, and so be it.
What's important, for me at least, is that Kerrey came home from Vietnam
and, like many Vietnam vets, spoke out against the war. He learned from his
experience. As one of a few Senators to vote against the Gulf War, he
explained, "I hope you understand what we've done here today. This is not
just some play on the geopolitical chessboard. We are sending boys and girls
off to risk their lives and to kill people in the name of our country. You
make sure that the American people understand that." Of his actions in
Vietnam, he says, "Others have justified it militarily to me. I haven't been
able to justify it either militarily or morally."
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, another Vietnam vet who spoke out
against the war, has said, "The faults of Vietnam were those of the war, not
the warriors." As a public advocate of draft resistance and a participant in
nonviolent civil disobedience against the war, I agree with John Kerry and
have no judgement to make on what Bob Kerrey and his SEAL squadron did in
From start to finish, the war in Vietnam was a lie. The Vietnamese
Communists were our allies in the war against Japan and, at war's end, pled
for our support to gain their independence from the French. We not only
turned them down but supported France in its war against Vietnam.
In 1954 when the Vietnamese defeated the French, we refused to sign the
Geneva Accords because they called for free elections which we knew the
Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, would win. We then installed a series of
ineffectual puppet governments in South Vietnam. When they tried to suppress
the Communist-backed liberation movement, civil war broke out. The North
Vietnamese came to the aid of their comrades in the South. Americans crossed
the ocean and intervened. We justified our intervention with a series of
lies, the most notorious being the 1964 Tonkin Incident in which we accused
North Vietnamese patrol boats of attacking a navy destroyer. The attack
never happened and American leaders, including President Johnson, knew it.
From the beginning, Washington policy-makers knew the fight was
hopeless. President Johnson escalated the war because, as he himself
acknowledged, he lacked the courage to admit defeat and end it. Peace
negotiations in 1968 were sabotaged by Presidential candidate Richard Nixon
(with the help of Henry Kissinger who was working publicly for the Democrats
while advising candidate Nixon). Had Nixon not undermined the peace effort,
Hubert Humphrey would have become President and there might have been a
cease-fire and no need for Kerrey's SEALS to attack that Vietnamese village.
This is speculation, but Nixon's subversive activities are not.
Thanh Phong was within what Americans defined as a "free fire zone."
Vietnamese residents were ordered to abandon their homes, farms, and
villages to live in government-created strategic hamlets. Those who refused
to leave were considered Viet Cong. As such, they could be strafed, bombed,
napalmed, shot or otherwise killed close-up. This was a politicized version
of "ethnic cleansing." Serbian leaders who were responsible for ethnic
cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo are under indictment for their crimes. The
architects of the Vietnam War have never had to stand trial?
In Vietnam, we revived the idea of strategic or carpet bombing, used in
World War II to bring the horror of war home to Japan and Germany. In
Vietnam it was really strategic terrorism. The idea was to bomb Vietnamese
civilians in order to persuade the Vietnamese government to throw in the
towel. Since we claimed that North Vietnam was a Communist dictatorship, it
made no sense to bomb civilians who, in our view, had no power to influence
their government. Nevertheless, B52s bombed a lot of jungle, as well as
cities, villages, homes, hospitals, and even Catholic Churches. Where we
didn't bomb, we poisoned. Indiscriminate spraying of the toxic herbicide
Agent Orange was an act of chemical warfare that caused leukemia, cancers,
birth defects and skin diseases among those exposed to it - and their
children. The American manufacturers of Agent Orange settled a lawsuit
brought by Vietnam veterans for $180 million. Vietnamese victims, however,
have never been offered restitution.
"In Laos and Vietnam the war is over; in the United States, it's not,"
Bob Kerrey says. That is wrong, for the affects of the war, both in physical
destruction and in personal memories and losses, are still present in
Vietnam. I don't think Bob Kerrey would argue with that. Like many Vietnam
veterans, he grapples with the war. I respect him for that. But Kerrey's
angst is a personal matter. What our country did in Vietnam is public; it's
a festering wound that won't ever heal until the crimes we committed are
Marty Jezer is the author of Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark
Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960. He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont and
welcomes comments at email@example.com
Visit my web site http://www.sover.net/~mjez
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Copyright 2001 by Marty Jezer
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