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05-07-01: Media Beat-Media and Vietnam: apparitions of innocence
By Norman Solomon
May 3, 2001
Media commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what happened 32 years
ago in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalists seem eager
to exonerate the former senator. Others appear inclined to turn him into a
lightning rod for national guilt.
Syndicated columnists have been a bit unpredictable. "This is a murder
story that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require,"
liberal Thomas Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive:
"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."
In some media quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times editorial
declared: "It is a story that-with its conflicting evidence, undeniable
carnage and tragic aftermath-sums up the American experience in Vietnam
and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale
except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides."
The punditry duo on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" condemned the Times as
terribly unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was "an act of moral arrogance
rarely seen," Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: "Mark stole my
thunder beating up the New York Times." Similar noises, on "Fox News
Sunday," came from the host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," Juan Williams,
who claimed that reporters were giving Kerrey shabby treatment.
Striving to encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of
media-as-traitors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so
irresistible as commanders in chief. "It's disgraceful," Kerrey complained
during an Associated Press interview in late April. "The Vietnamese
government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times
and CBS are now collaborating in that effort."
New York Times columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar themes
these days. While not bothering to note his own specialized war-making
services as a top speechwriter in the Nixon administration, he rushed to
the defense of Kerrey-and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried a
"humiliating accusation of national arrogance," Safire urged us to "recall
a noble motive."
But when motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have
Commonly, in the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war's
victims-including a few million dead people in their home countries of
Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia-are rendered as little more than props for the
anguish of Americans. How much we have suffered as a result of killing
those people! Their importance grows only to the extent that they
underscore our own.
A year ago, Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concluded:
"Was the war worth the effort and sacrifice, or was it a mistake? Everyone
touched by it must answer that question for himself. When I came home in
1969 and for many years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it.
Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the
benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by
dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain."
Only our own national narcissism, mendacity and denial can preserve the
binary myth that the war was either "worth the effort" or "a mistake." The
war was wrong not because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was,
fundamentally, mass murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces
invaded Vietnam-welcomed by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington
installed and propped up.
Kerrey did his deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Brian
Willson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security
officer, he saw bombing operations up close and witnessed effects on the
ground, in villages. "The only difference between Kerrey and myself is
that I was never in a position to personally kill while in Vietnam,"
Willson says. "But I was part of a killing machine, even being complicit
in the bombing campaigns, and I saw dozens and dozens of the bodies of
women and children."
Willson went on to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied the
Pentagon Papers and other official documents clearly showing that- from
the outset-U.S. leaders knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese
wanted the U.S. out of their country. "It was true that we could not
determine friend from foe," Willson remembers. "Most, at least secretly,
were foe." Vietnamese people "were defending their integrity and
sovereignty from us invaders." The entire war was "immoral and illegal."
One day in 1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace
activists for civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A
train-carrying munitions on the way to Central America-ran him over. At
the time, Willson was trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined
for use in warfare largely aimed at civilians.
Since the early 1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq have killed
at least several hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar
military aid package from the United States, under the guise of a "war on
drugs," is boosting the death toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy
business as usual. Rest assured, we have no blood on our hands.
"They have destroyed and are destroying . . . and do not know it and do
not want to know it," James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added:
"But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be
innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."
Norman Solomon's book "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media"
won the 1999 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution
to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, presented by the National
Council of Teachers of English.
Norman Solomon's archived columns may be found at
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