Who Made Bob Kerrey Do It?
Gerhard Klann: We Just Slaughtered Them
by Nat Hentoff
May 23-29, 2001
I would not call it a war crime. To describe it as an atrocity, I would
say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt. Bob
Kerrey, CBS-TV's 60 Minutes II: "Memories of a Massacre," May 1
Soon after The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II focused on the
sharply dissonant stories of what happened in the Vietnamese village of
Thanh Phong on a dark night in 1969, there were pickets outside New School
UniversityRobert Kerrey, presidenton West 12th Street.
They were from the Internationalist Group, part of the League for the
Fourth international, in short, Trotskyites. Amid the shouts, they
distributed a flyer with the headline:
"Drive Out War Criminal Bob Kerrey! He Should Be Brought to Justice by a
Court of His Surviving Victims in Ho Chi Minh City!"
But now, the pickets gone, Kerrey is off the front pages, as well as the
inside ones, and his name is seldom heard on talk radio or television.
In a May 3 article in the Lincoln, Nebraska, Journal Star, which used to be
the former senator's hometown newspaper, Kerrey was described as "relaxed .
. . The public's fixation on that night in Thanh Phong could be over, he
said. . . . 'Enough is enough,' " Kerrey added.
It does indeed look as if there will be no official investigation of the
charge made by one of the seven members of Kerrey's Raiders that night,
Gerhard Klann. On 60 Minutes II and in the April 29 New York Times
Magazine, Klann said that at Kerrey's direction, 15 or so young children,
including a baby, were herded together and, at close range, shot to death.
"We just basically slaughtered those people," Klann said. After the
fusillade, the baby was still crying. Says Klann: "The baby was shot to
death like the rest of them."
Kerrey denies Klann's account. He says they were in a free-fire zone on a
moonless night. The seven Navy SEALs were fired upon and returned fire in
the dark. Only when they went into the village did Kerrey and others see
the corpses. (U.S. Naval Observatory records say the moon was 60 percent
visible until an hour after the killings.)
According to Gerhard Klann, "Kerrey kneeled on an old man's chest and
slashed his throat."
The worst may be over for Kerrey so far as most of the media is concerned.
But questions remain. Columnist Michael Kelly (New York Post, May 2): "Why,
as Kerrey admits, were the corpses all found huddled in a group in the
middle of the village, in a manner suggestive of an execution, and very
hard to explain under Kerrey's version?" (The May 5 Economist asks the same
As soon as the story broke, three United States senators who had served in
VietnamJohn Kerry, Max Cleland, and Chuck Hagelsaid of their former colleague:
"Many people have been forced to do things in war they are deeply ashamed
of later. Yet for our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is
among the worst, and regrettably, most frequent mistakes we as a country
This resolutionif not total absolutionappears to be the consensus of the
majority of those, in and out of public life, who have spoken about that
night in Thanh Phong. Robert Mann, who has written about the Vietnam War,
summed it up in the April 30 New York Times:
"Let us not forget that official decisions made in Washingtonin the White
House and in Congressresulted in the needless death of millions."
Even at New York's War Resisters League, the nation's most persistently
active group of pacifists, this was the core reaction, as Felicia Lee
reported in the May 6 New York Times: "With Kerrey, we are blaming the
victim again. . . . He was doing what tons and tons of people were doing."
A.J. Mustethe radical pacifist who turned Martin Luther King on to
direct-action pacifism and was a key strategist in the antiwar and civil
rights movementswould have agreed with that analysis. But he would have
gone deeper, as I think the War Resisters League knows.
In my biography of A.J., Peace Agitator, I quote Mustewho has had an
abiding influence on my lifeas saying more than once that each of us must
understand that "this naked human being is the one real thing in the face
of the mechanics and mechanized institutions of our age." And A.J. cites
the antiestablishment political scientist C. Wright Mills as requiring "the
resolution of one human being to take his own fate into his own hands."
(See also Christopher Hitchens, "Leave No Child Behind?" The Nation, May 28.)
In all the commentary about Kerrey's anguish about the atrocityand the
original sin of those in the White House and Congress who were
fundamentally responsible for all the killings in Vietnamone voice stood
out. Patricia Sette's letter in the April 30 New York Times:
"Everyone, including Mr. Kerrey, seems to think that this story is about
him. It's almost as if those who were killed have become mere stage props
in some morality play instead of real human beings who suffered a
terrifying and undeserved death. No matter what degree of understanding Bob
Kerrey deserves, it is the victims who are at the center of this story."
On 60 Minutes II, Kerrey would not call the terrifying deaths of those
victims a war crime. Had there been any survivors, would that distinction
have made a difference to them?
And as Michael Kelly asks: If Kerrey's versionthat Kerrey's Raiders just
returned fireis true, "Why did they all die? Why did none survive with only
What of the baby who was still crying and had to be terminated with extreme
prejudice? To be continued.
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