CIA operative Bob Kerrey: The Life and Times of a Throat-Slitter
CounterPunch Online, May 18, 2001
Bob Kerrey: The Life and Times of a Throat-Slitter
By Richard Gibson
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, operating 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 and Newsweek. 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 after 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 whom 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
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 without bombs.
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 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 do."*
Such is the choice, drowning cats or universal solidarity against
*The Vietnam Reader, edited by Walter Capps, Routledge, New York (1990)
[Richard Gibson is a professor of Education at San Diego State
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