Kerrey should be investigated
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Samantha Power, 5/3/2001
The Boston Globe
May 3, 2001, pg 15
EXECUTING CIVILIANS is a war crime. Under international and American law, it
does not matter whether the victims are American, Vietnamese, or Bosnian.
Though there are credible reports that former US Senator Bob Kerrey may have
ordered the murder of women and children, many Americans seem quicker to
sympathize with the former war hero and to lament the ''horror of war''
rather than focus on the real issues of crime and justice.
It is certainly true that we should not make Kerrey a scapegoat for the
Vietnam War. But we should also not reflexively invoke the character of that
war to prevent official scrutiny of deeds that might be criminal.
Americans need to ask three questions. Did Kerrey commit murder on Feb. 25,
1969, in Thanh Phong? How should US authorities and the public respond to
credible allegations of war crimes, whether committed by Kerrey or any
American? And, if the United States is to exercise moral leadership on human
rights abuses around the world, what reforms must it undertake so that it
vigilantly uncovers and prosecutes the war crimes of Americans?
Kerrey has a long record of distinguished public service. But this does not
render his account more believable than that of anyone else, particularly
since we already know that he accepted a medal on the fraudulent grounds
that 21 Viet Cong were killed in the raid and that he has altered his story
repeatedly in recent days. Our experience working with the testimony of
thousands of war criminals who deny their crimes shows that it is essential
to look at the full range of evidence.
Kerrey maintains that his Navy SEAL unit killed several Viet Cong in a hut
and then unwittingly killed more than a dozen women and children in a
firefight. Five members of his team back up most of his story.
Another member, Gerhard Klann, has offered a vastly different version: At
the hut Kerrey helped Klann slit the throat of an old Vietnamese man and
also executed a woman and three children. Then the SEALs, following Kerrey's
orders, killed about 15 unarmed Vietnamese women and children in their
Two Vietnamese survivors have independently corroborated Klann's version
that it was an execution, including critical details of his account.
American and Vietnamese alike remembered that the SEALs killed children in
the hut and that one of the last Vietnamese alive after the Americans'
initial point-blank gunfire into the huddled victims was a crying baby.
While Kerrey certainly should be presumed innocent, the weight of the
evidence already compiled is surely sufficient to suggest that his unit
might have committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. That five of
his men support him is hardly dispositive since they are also exonerating
themselves. That Klann, who is implicating himself in murder, and Vietnamese
survivors concur - without the Vietnamese or Klann knowing of each other's
testimony - is, however, weighty evidence against Kerrey and his unit. That
the 15 Vietnamese dead were clustered together is consistent with Klann's
account (not Kerrey's) and with an execution (not a battle).
To call for an inquiry today is not, as has been claimed, to make Kerrey a
scapegoat for a bad war or for a war fought badly. Discontent with a war and
its memory should also not serve as an alibi to let Kerrey off the hook
preemptively - any more than it should have prevented prosecution of
Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre, of Germans for war crimes
during World War II, or of Serbs for slaughtering Muslims. The issues here,
as for any alleged war crime, are: Were unarmed civilians executed, and, if
so, what would justice for those executed demand?
Congress should launch a full investigation, under the guidance of an
independent, outside counsel with expertise in war crimes, which would seek
to introduce unexamined forensic evidence and to uncover the facts of the
case. All witnesses, including and especially the Vietnamese, should testify
before the hearings.
This would enable the survivors to be heard, which most victims consider a
vital part of justice. Disturbingly, in many accounts and discussions of the
raid, the Vietnamese testimonies have been omitted, as if the claims of
victims are not worth mentioning or are delegitimized solely because they
are being made by Vietnamese. An investigation might find that restitution
should be given.
Since prosecution does not appear possible under military or civilian
jurisdiction in the United States, a public airing would at least bring the
SEALs before the court of public opinion and potentially catalyze a national
discussion on how best to prevent such killings in the future and to respond
to them when they occur.
Whether or not one believes that the American war in Vietnam was a national
shame or even criminal, any American who executed civilians did undeniably
shame this country and act criminally. The notion that investigating
allegations of such criminality is not good for this country is perverse. It
is a healthy thing for a democracy, particularly for the most powerful
country in the world, to focus on the crimes committed in its name.
And it is in the interest of the United States that it strengthen the
procedures it has put in place since Vietnam to ensure that such
allegations, whether about past or future crimes, are impartially
investigated and, when warranted, promptly prosecuted. This may mean
transferring jurisdiction from the American military, if it can not properly
investigate itself, to civilian authorities or even to an international
criminal court. If the United States is to continue its recent, worthy
efforts to prosecute war crimes by foreigners, then it must not ignore
serious charges against its own soldiers and civilians.
But this country's broader interests are not the reason to investigate
Kerrey's and the SEALs' deeds that day. The dead Vietnamese man, women, and
children are. How can anyone in good conscience countenance a cover-up of
how and why they were killed?
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is author of ''Hitler's Willing Executioners.''
Samantha Power is executive director of Harvard University's Carr Center for
Human Rights Policy.
This story ran on page 15 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001.
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