Robert Kerrey: War Criminal
By Richard Gibson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Like Drowning Cats.....
Former Senator Robert Kerrey has admitted that as leader of
a Navy Seal unit he participated in the murder of civilians
in Vietnam. The Seal unit was part of an assassination
squad, functioning under the guidance of Operation Phoenix
which, in the course of the war, killed more than 30,000
Vietnamese, using what its leader, William Colby, called a
"scatter-gun approach," in later congressional hearings.
Villagers on the scene say Kerrey's Seals not only shot more
than 100 women and children with automatic fire, but slit
the throats of five people, all judged less than human:
Gooks, Slants, Slopes, Cong, Charlie, VC.
Kerrey's admissions came in the New York Times Magazine, a
story initially quashed by the television networks. Clearly
indictable under existing war crime statutes, Kerrey
participated in a cover-up of his unit's killings for nearly
three decades while he used his claims to valor to promote
his political career.
Following the New York Times revelations, though, two
interesting things happened, both relating to how history is
constructed, not only as a vision of the past, but as a call
to action in the future. In that context, Kerrey's thinking
about his experience in Vietnam, written not too long afer
he returned, is instructive.
As the Times article developed, Kerrey and his friends first
began to commiserate with one another about the tough times
they had, the strain on their consciences, the difficulty
they had in living with dirty secrets, how their reputations
of valor may be imperfect. Besides, what were we to do when
everyone was an enemy? This experience traces the path of
many convicted fascist war criminals in Germany who, exposed
long after WWII closed, said the same thing.
Second, the debate shifted to who we shall call heroic. The
mainstream outlook is now at least two-fold: perhaps nobody,
or maybe people like Kerrey since war is hell. Three kinds
of heroes are missed altogether.
Certainly those working-class US youth who found themselves
enmeshed in a web that led directly to the front lines of
battle in Vietnam, those of them who refused to go on
burn-all kill-all missions, those who shot their own
officers and blew them up in their tents, creating a new
word in the lexicon, fragging; those who returned to the US,
joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and, denouncing
the war, threw their Medals of Honor back at congress; those
young men and women, black and white, like Bill Marshall and
Scott Camil, wounded and decorated heroes who rejected the
war, are mostly unnoticed.
The working class anti-war movement is almost equally
opaque, as if the resistance emanated from Harvard and
Columbia, behind the cavalier lead of rich liberal children
with bombs like Billy Ayers, whose contempt for people
sought to substitute explosives for a mass conscious
movement. In fact the blue-collar student movements at Wayne
State in Detroit, San Francisco State, Kent State, and
related schools seriously took up the issues of people who
had a lot to lose, whose draft deferments were not coming
from counsel with connected pals in the medical school, and
who could wield real power by exerting their natural
influence in their birth-class. Often under the leadership
of Black and Latin youth, those people then led the mass
sit-down strikes in auto in Detroit, and the community
uprisings throughout the US, while the terrorists hid in
million-dollar homes, returning to academic prominence after
legal wrist slaps a few years later -- now rich liberals
Further outside the imperial gaze, even today, is the
heroism of the Vietnamese, not only those who Kerrey and
many other US officers caught up in the genocidal invasion
sought to exterminate, but those who defeated the empire,
politically, militarily, and morally, causing imperial
troops to run away in their helicopters, pushing their
allies off the struts as they ran. Despite every effort to
reconstruct that piece of history, whether through
relentless Hollywood endeavors to recapture the good old
days of World War II, or the repositioning of responsibility
to suggest that all US troops in Southeast Asia were war
criminals, and hence none of them were, nothing ever will be
the same. The US has never been able to field a reliable
army ready to fight extended conflicts since the people won
in Vietnam US citizens have never again trusted the tyrants.
There are no Vietnamese victors on the Vietnam Wall, yet
millions of them died -- and changed the world.
However, for purposes of clarity, it is worthwhile to look
back on what Robert Kerrey wrote after he returned from
Vietnam, more than twelve years ago, perhaps when his
recollections were sharper, less opportunistically censored
by the polish of electoral success. This is what Nebraska's
Robert Kerrey said in the opening paragraph of an article
titled, "On Remembering the Vietnam War:"
"Around the farm, there is an activity that no one likes to
do. Yet it is sometimes necessary. When a cat gives birth to
kittens that aren't needed, the kittens must be destroyed.
And there is a moment when you are holding the kitten under
the water when you know that if you bring that kitten back
above the water it will live, and if you don't bring it back
above in that instant the kitten will be dead. This, for me,
is a perfect metaphor for those dreadful moments in war when
you do not quite do what you previously thought you would
Such is the choice, drowning cats or universal solidarity
*The Vietnam Reader, edited by Walter Capps, Routledge, New
Richard Gibson is an associate professor of Social Studies in the College of Education at San Diego State University.
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