BOB KERREY AND THE CRIME OF VIETNAM: WILL WE LEARN?
By S. Brian Willson, May 13, 2001
My Air Force Combat Security unit was dispatched to Binh Thuy on March 7,
1969, to fortify a Vietnamese controlled airbase a few miles northwest of
Can Tho City along the Bassac River. This was in Phong Dinh Province,
about 100 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. I was the First
Lieutenant in charge of this unit of nearly forty men. Tet 1969, though far
less intense than the devastating Tet offensive of 1968, had been launched
by the Viet Cong (VC) less than two weeks earlier, on February 23.
Everybody was on edge. Two days later, on February 25, then Lieutenant and
now ex-U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey and six other Navy Seals (Sea-Air-Land
forces) under his command committed an atrocity at Thang Phong where as
many as 24 villagers were gunned down, at least half of whom were women and
children. Thang Phong rests near the South China Sea in Kien Hoa Province,
about 50 miles directly east of Can Tho.
During Tet 1968, the Delta, as most of South Vietnam, had been hit hard.
Thirteen of the sixteen provincial capitals had been seriously penetrated
by the VC. Binh Thuy airbase had received eighteen different attacks in
February and March 1968, far more than the other ten airbases in South
Vietnam, with the exception of Tan Son Nhut in Saigon, which was also hit
eighteen times. The U.S. response had been furious, especially against VC
operations in Can Tho City, and in My Tho and Ben Tre in Kien Hoa Province
to the east, not far from Thang Phong. At that time, The New York Times
(February 6, 1968) reported infliction of at least 750 civilian casualties
in My Tho, 350 in Can Tho, and 2,500 in Ben Tre. Ben Tre had been so
pulverized by U.S. firepower that a U.S. Major explained, "It became
necessary to destroy the town to save it."
Some months later, in December 1968, Operation "Speedy Express," conducted
primarily by the Ninth Infantry Division, had begun sweeping missions
designed to finish off VC units in the Delta, especially in the provinces
of Kien Hoa and Vinh Binh. This operation was in full swing when I
arrived. According to military historian, retired Col. Harry G. Summers,
Jr., when Speedy Express had concluded operations in May 1969, there were
nearly 11,000 "enemy" casualties.
As a combat security officer I had to quickly acquaint myself with
intelligence reports on "enemy" activity, and locations and types of
friendly resources. I had not been in Vietnam more than a month or so when
it seemed to me that virtually everybody, other than Vietnamese business,
political, and military leaders, was at least secretly hostile to the U.S.
presence, and alternately sympathetic with the Vietnamese struggle for
independence from ANY outside political/military force. Though at first I
did not want to believe this "sense," it became confirmed by a combination
of other experiences: discussions with other U.S. Air Force personnel and
members of the Vietnamese military, interactions with members of the U.S.
Army's Ninth Infantry Division, conversations with numerous Vietnamese in
Can Tho City and various villages in the area, examination of Seventh Air
Force bombing reports that conflicted with my own personal knowledge of
bombings, and the reading of a history of U.S. intervention written by two
Cornell University professors [George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, The
United States in Vietnam (New York: Dial Press, 1967)].
After Tet 1968, the CIA Phoenix program had begun intense efforts to
eliminate perceived political and military leadership in the VC. U.S. air
and ground forces had become much more indiscriminate in killing Vietnamese
while glibly considering most of them VC. By 1969 I had been briefed that
three-quarters of South Vietnam had been designated by the U.S. military
command and local Vietnamese officials as a "free fire zone," meaning that
virtually any villager in that vast area could be killed with little
question. Nonetheless, in my continued visits to various villages
northwest and northeast of Can Tho, there seemed little real support among
villagers for the U.S. and our South Vietnamese political/military ally.
Bob Kerrey, as leader of the Navy SEAL team, was likely participating in
Operation Speedy Express and/or the Phoenix assassination program. Many
Navy SEAL units were identified as "hunter-killer" teams, and were
especially skilled at infiltrating areas by sea in small boats or as
frogmen. Their rigorous training explicitly prepared them for just such
It became obvious that we in the U.S. military knew little or nothing about
the Vietnamese people, their history, or their authentic sentiments. I
doubt if many of our political leaders in Washington or those in our
military chain of command knew much. The Vietnamese had a long history of
successfully resisting outside forces, no matter the heaviness of their own
losses. They fought the Chinese for nearly a thousand years and then the
French for a hundred. Since the end of World War II the French had suffered
nearly 175,000 casualties in their effort to restore their pre-war colony,
while the the Vietnamese had suffered perhaps more than a million dead in
defending their independence.
The unilateral U.S. intervention began in 1954, immediately following the
humiliating French defeat. Unfortunately, we military troopers had been
tragically duped! Our ignorance as U.S. Americans, along with our intrinsic
cultural racism and historic sense of superiority, combined to manifest in
a lawless, brutal force that knew virtually no limits in our violent
assaults against the humble but proud Vietnamese people and their culture.
We troopers had simply been guinea pigs! We did not realize the Vietnamese
were prepared to defend their sacred independence at any cost. We did not
even believe that the Vietnamese had the right to their independence.
The July 21, 1954 Geneva Agreement concluded the French war against the
Vietnamese and promised them a unifying election, mandated to be held in
July 1956. The U.S. government knew that fair elections, in effect, meant a
genuine democratic victory for revered Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. This
was not acceptable! Therefore, in June 1954, prior to the signing of the
historic Agreement, the U.S. began CIA-directed internal sabotage
operations against the Vietnamese, while setting up puppet Ngo Dinh Diem
(brought over to VN from the U.S.) as "our" political leader. No elections
were ever held! This set the stage for yet another war for Vietnamese
independence - this time of unwanted U.S forces and their S. Vietnamese
puppets. The Vietnamese had been betrayed!
The seriousness of the U.S. government to interfere with independence
movements in Asia cannot be underestimated. U.S. National Security Council
documents from 1956 declared that our "national security...would be
endangered by Communist domination of mainland Southeast Asia." Secret
military plans stated that "nuclear weapons will be used in general war and
in military operations short of general war." By March 1961, the Pentagon
brass recommended sending 60,000 soldiers to western Laos accompanied by
air power that included, if necessary, use of nuclear weapons to assure
that the Royal Laotian government would prevail against the popular
insurgency being waged against it.
The covert operations intended to destabilize the Vietnamese independence
movement were, of course, in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements.
They were also in violation of the United Nations Charter and other
international laws. This covert war lasted nearly eleven years until the
overt invasion by U.S. forces commenced on March 8, 1965. This invasion
was also in violation of international laws, as well as the U.S.
Constitution which requires a Declaration of War by Congress prior to
initiating acts of war.
For the next ten years the U.S. continued its lawless behavior, unleashing
forces that caused (and continue to cause) an incomprehensible amount of
devastation in Vietnam:
* Eight million tons worth of indiscriminate bombing (four times the
amount used by the U.S. in all World War II), destroyed an area
the size of the State of Maine, if laid crater to crater;
* Utilization of eight million additional tons of other kinds of ordnance;
* Dropping of nearly 400,000 tons of napalm on people targets, a totally
indiscriminate incendiary weapon;
* The callous identification of as much as three-fourths of South Vietnam
as a "free fire zone" justified the murder of virtually anyone found in
thousands of villages in those vast areas;
* An historically unprecedented level of chemical warfare in the
indiscriminate spraying of nearly 20 million gallons on one-seventh the
area of South Vietnam. The vestigial effects of chemical warfare poisoning
continues to plague the health of adult Vietnamese (and ex-G.I.s) while
causing escalated birth defects. Samples of soil, water, food, and body
fat of Vietnamese continues to the present day to reveal dangerously
elevated levels of dioxin.
* Today Vietnamese officials estimate the continued dangerous presence of
35 million landmines left over from the war, and 300,000 tons of unexploded
ordnance. Tragically they continue to explode when farmers and children
accidentally detonate them in their work and play activities, and kill or
injure several thousand every year. The Vietnamese report 40,000 people
killed alone since 1975 by land mines and buried bombs. That means that
every day 4 or 5 Vietnamese are continually killed due to U.S. ordnance.
The war against the Vietnamese, thus, goes on and on.
It is now believed that the U.S. and its allies killed as many as 5 million
Southeast Asian citizens during the active war years. The numbers of dead
in Laos and Cambodia remain uncounted, but as of 1971, a Congressional
Research Service report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations
Committee indicated that over one million Laotians had been killed,
wounded, and refugeed, with the figure for Cambodia being two million. More
than a half million "secret" U.S. bombing missions of Laos that began in
late 1964 devastated whole populations of ancient cultures there.
Estimates indicate that around 230,000 tons of bombs were dropped over
northern Laos in 1968 and 1969 alone. Increasing numbers of U.S. military
personnel were added on the Laotian ground in 1961. Land invasions of Laos
occurred for two months in early 1969, and again for one week in early
1971. "Secret" bombing of Cambodia had begun in March 1969. An outright
land invasion of Cambodia had occurred from late April 1970 through the end
of June, causing thousands of casualties. And the raging U.S. covert wars
in these countries did not finally cease until August 14,1973, inflicting
countless additional casualties. When the bombing in Cambodia finally
ceased the U.S. Air Force had officially recorded dropping nearly 260,000
tons of bombs there. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Laos over
eight-and-a-half years exceeded two million.
The consensus now is that more than 3 million Vietnamese were killed, with
300,000 additional missing in action and presumed dead. In the process the
U.S. lost nearly 59,000 of her own men and women, with about 2,000
additional missing, while four of her allies lost over 6,000 more. South
Vietnamese military counted nearly 225,000 dead. All this carnage in order
to destroy the basic rights and capacity of the Vietnamese to construct
their own independent, sovereign society. None of these people deserved to
die in war. Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and U.S. military grunts were
all victims. All of these corpses had been created because of the
perpetuation of an incredible LIE - a "cause" that had been concocted by
White male plutocrats in Washington, many of whom possessed Ph.Ds from
prestigious universities. These politicians and their appointees, along
with their profitable arms makers/dealers, desired, as did most of their
predecessors going back in U.S. history, to assure the destruction of
peoples' democratic movements that threatened the virtually unlimited
hegemony of the U.S. over markets and resources - in this case those
located in East Asia - and the profits to be derived therefrom. But never
did a small country suffer so much from an imperial nation, as the
Vietnamese did from the United States.
To grasp the nearly incomprehensible consequences to the Vietnamese society
it is instructive to reflect that during the U.S. war against the
Vietnamese, nearly one in ten, or 10 percent of her population of
approximately 35 million was grievously killed. In addition, vast areas of
territory were devastated by bombing and chemical warfare, and Vietnam's
infrastructure was largely destroyed. This contrasts with one in 3,300, or
.03 percent of the U.S. population who needlessly died in the lawless
intervention. What would be the effects on the U.S. society if we had
suffered losses of twenty million, or 10 percent of our population in a
war? Furthermore, how would it have affected us if vast regions of our
country had been bombed and chemically defoliated, simply because we
insisted on the right to be free from a foreign power intending to dominate
and control our political ideology and functioning society?
During the devastating U.S. Civil War, slightly more than 185,000 Union and
Confederate soldiers died out of a population of about 32 million, or about
.6 percent of the U.S. population. During World War II, with a population
of about 135 million, the U.S. lost nearly 300,000 soldiers, or .22
percent. In the latter war, the U.S. suffered no property damage with the
exception of the destruction of their military base at Pearl Harbor, but
that was located on colonized land taken from Hawaiian natives formally
annexed in 1898 against their will. The people of the United States simply
have no comprehension of the amount of damage and destruction our policies
have caused others, as we have never faced anything closely comparable to
what we did in Vietnam. Similarly, in Korea only ten years earlier, though
unknown to virtually all Westerners to this day, there was a similar effort
on the part of Koreans throughout its Peninsula to be free of U.S.
occupation and subsequent military intervention following the Japanese
surrender in August 1945. That conflict ultimately culminated in what we
call the Korean War, where it is now believed that a shocking 5 million
were killed, 4 million of whom were Koreans and one million Chinese. Korea
had a total population of about 30 million, meaning that Korea's population
losses were greater per capita than Vietnam's - greater than one in seven
killed, or more than 13 percent!
To repeat: Bob Kerrey and I, along with 3.5 to 4 million other U.S. men and
women were thrust into a fundamentally immoral, lawless intervention
against the authentic desires of the Vietnamese to build an independent,
sovereign nation. (The Pentagon appears to not know a precise number of
military personnel assigned to Southeast Asia due to significant numbers
assigned temporary, versus permanent, duty, and others participating in
classified, unreportable missions. For example my entire unit in Vietnam
was considered temporary duty with our official location identified at an
airbase in Louisiana.) Most of us simply did not understand the historical
context at the time. We believed we were doing our duty for our country to
protect Vietnam from the evils of monolithic communism. Of course, our
government did not want us to know the authentic history, even if it did
know. My job was, in essence, to protect airplanes in between their
bombing missions. Since the villages they were bombing had been identified
as being in a "free fire zone," it was easy to rationalize destroying
everything. On occasion, through ground observations, I witnessed the
horrific aftermath of these bombing missions - villages with bodies of only
young women, many children, and a few elderly strewn on the ground. I never
saw any weapons in these virtually defenseless villages. The bombing of
villages which at first I thought must be the result of mistakes, I later
concluded was deliberate and systematic. I was feeling sick about what I
was realizing was happening but I had no one to talk to.
Now we know more about United States history, and that our violent
intervention in Vietnam was, unfortunately, not an aberration. The defining
and enabling experience of our U.S. civilization was the Holocaust
perpetrated against the millions of original inhabitants living on the
Hemispheric land base. That experience was followed by the kidnapping and
transporting of millions of Africans to the Americas providing "free" labor
for building our original agricultural and mercantile system. Two-thirds
of those originally apprehended in Africa perished while resisting arrest
or during the deplorable conditions of transport across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Free" land at gunpoint. "Free" labor at gunpoint. This is an intrinsic
part of our cultural ethos and karma.
It is known that the U.S. has historically intervened militarily exceeding
400 times in more than 100 nations expanding our control over global
resources and markets. And it is now believed that the U.S. covertly
intervened in a variety of destabilizing actions anywhere from 6,000 to
10,000 times in over 100 countries since the end of World War II. No one
knows just how many people have been murdered and maimed by these
aggressive (and lawless) actions, but the figure is in multiples of
millions. This is a tough conclusion, one that is extremely painful, to
acknowledge about the nation of our upbringing and citizenship.
Obsessive addiction to our disproportionately privileged American Way Of
Life (AWOL) exacts heavy demands upon Mother Earth and her citizens. As a
nation we have but 4.5 percent of the world's population, yet insist on
consuming anywhere from 25 percent to nearly half of the world's resources,
depending upon which asset is examined. For example, the U.S. consumes
slightly more than 25 percent of the world's oil production, but higher
percentages of other critical resources. The U.S. has nearly 500 passenger
cars per one thousand people, nearly six times the rate for the entire
world's population, consuming high percentages of the globe's steel and
rubber resources. People in the U.S. consume paper at seventeen times the
rate of those in the "developing" world, and nearly six times the rate of
the total world population. We in the United States are carefully
insulated from experiencing the incredible pain and suffering that directly
results from our ignorance and arrogance.
We veterans who now understand this grotesquely unfair reality can exercise
a choice to take courageous responsibility for our actions, especially
since our cowardly government which made the intervention decisions is
sadly unlikely to do so. Regularly forgotten is that the Paris Peace
Accords signed by the United States and Vietnamese governments on January
27, 1973, and subsequent letter signed by President Nixon on February 1,
promised more than $4 billion for healing the wounds of war and postwar
reconstruction. The U.S. shamelessly reneged on this promise and the aid
has never been provided.
In a profound way the entire U.S. American society needs to take
responsibility for the crime against Vietnam. The U.S. Constitutional
democracy and its political structures representing the people and
taxpayers of the United States, made a series of choices, all of them
criminal and in violation of both international law and its own
Constitution, to invade the nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,
devastating the people, their infrastructures and cultures. Nonetheless,
veterans who viscerally participated in the tragic war have an opportunity
to pursue our own healing and set an example for our society. Bob Kerrey
and his men killed for this lie, and participated in this terrible assault
on the Vietnamese people. Though Kerrey had been on a mission designed to
likely result in the direct killing of villagers, my duties led me to only
witnessing the aftermath of bombings that murdered large numbers of
Vietnamese. I viewed the sickening sight of dozens of bodies of women,
children, and elderly. I was a participant, nonetheless, in the killing
machine, even being minimally complicit in the bombing campaigns that
murdered far more Vietnamese (and Cambodians and Laotians) than all ground
I herein offer a healing prescription for Bob Kerrey. Other U.S. souls
still haunted by participation in that criminal war might consider
First, Mr. Kerrey, please publicly return your Bronze Star received for the
killing of the civilians at Thang Phong. You need to clearly renounce it
as a medal drenched in the blood of the innocent people of that village.
Second, Mr. Kerrey, I urge you to travel to the village of Thang
Phong in the Province of Kien Hoa to personally express your sorrow for the
consequences of your actions, asking those people for forgiveness.
Third, Mr. Kerrey, create a reparations or atonement fund, in
cooperation with the Vietnamese people in that area, as a concrete effort
to repair in some way the harm done. This will make saying your sorry
possess more meaning.
And fourth, Mr. Kerrey, and perhaps the most important act for your
own healing and for the healing of our entire nation, begin publicly
speaking and teaching about the authentic history of the Vietnamese people
and the U.S. role in sabotaging the 1956 unifying elections as mandated by
the 1954 Geneva Agreements, how the U.S. fabricated an alternative puppet
government not supported by the vast majority of the Vietnamese people, how
the U.S. maintained its posture through a series of incredible lies that
put the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and U.S. men and women in harm's
way, causing the needless death and maiming of millions. Thus you can
educate the U.S. American society on why so many civilians were murdered in
confusion about who was a VC or not, as the vast majority of Vietnamese
were simply defending their rights to be free of unwanted outside forces.
We would likely do no less if invaded here at home.
Never has there been a more critical time in our nation's history for there
to emerge a dramatic new consciousness rooted in humility and genuine
respect for other nations and people, including all of our own citizens.
Veterans have a unique standing to initiate courageous leadership in a
national healing process. This requires speaking truth to what we know,
including that all people and the earth are intrinsically interconnected.
It requires recognizing that at a deep level we feel lonely sadness, which
we have often defended with anger, but begs to be grieved with voluminous
tears. Our souls, and the soul of our country, are at stake. Furthermore,
the future of peace in the world may rest on a profound reckoning on the
part of U.S. Americans that our historical imperial policies have been
wrong, and that we now want to truly make amends for our crimes, for our
arrogance. I urge all veterans, especially those from Vietnam, to find the
courage to reveal our own, and our country's, dark role, and disclose the
incredible lies that our government perpetuated against us, leading to the
murder of millions of innocent human beings. The future of the human
condition, not just our souls, may actually be at stake!
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