[sixties-l] Bob Kerry, An American Shame

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Jul 05 2001 - 21:42:26 EDT

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    The Progressive
    June 2001 [Volume 65, Number 6]
    Class Notes

    Bob Kerry, An American Shame

    By Adolph L. Reed Jr. <reeda@newschool.edu>

    An article published in the April 29 New York Times Magazine
    disclosed atrocities perpetrated during the Vietnam War by
    Bob Kerrey, former Democratic Senator from Nebraska,
    one-time and perhaps future candidate for the Democratic
    Presidential nomination, and the current president of the
    New School, where I teach.

    Beneath details that may be cloudy lie some incontrovertible
    facts. Principal among them is that in February 1969, Kerrey
    and Navy SEALs under his command killed between a dozen and
    nearly two dozen unarmed, noncombatant Vietnamese people --
    elderly men, women, and children -- in Thanh Phong, a hamlet
    in what was then South Vietnam. The incident occurred when
    Kerrey and his troops were on a mission to assassinate, or
    win over, a village official in the area.

    Kerrey's story is that the killings, or some of them, were
    accidental. He claims that his team opened fire wildly at
    night in the village when they thought they'd heard a
    gunshot or some other noise and only afterward learned that
    they'd killed more than a dozen people huddled together
    outside a hut. This story is frankly improbable. It strains
    credulity to believe that wild shooting in the black of
    night would leave no survivors, not even wounded ones. And
    Kerrey's interpretation is disputed by one of the men on his

    Gerhard Klann, the most experienced of his squad, asserts
    that their team rounded up the victims and shot them down in
    cold blood. Klann says that after they fired continuously
    for a time, the SEALs stopped, heard a baby crying in the
    mass of bodies, and unleashed another lengthy fusillade.
    Klann's account is corroborated independently by two
    Vietnamese women who report that they were hiding in the
    bushes at the time. Klann, now a Pennsylvania steelworker,
    appears to have no ax to grind with Kerrey and, more to the
    point, has had no contact with the Vietnamese who give an
    account almost identical to his. Two other members of
    Kerrey's team refused at first to give any details of the
    incident, and two others gave accounts that reportedly lay
    between Kerrey's and Klann's. All four have subsequently
    offered versions that converge on Kerrey's.

    In any event, there is no dispute that, when the team first
    approached the village, they came across another hut
    occupied by five people -- an elderly man and woman and
    three children -- and murdered them all by stabbing them
    repeatedly and cutting their throats. The descriptions of
    these horrible killings in the New York Times Magazine
    article and later on CBS's 60 Minutes II are chilling.

    I also tend to believe the more horrifying version of the
    massacre because it falls within the standard operating
    procedure of Navy SEALs, Rangers, and Special Forces units
    in Vietnam. They were specialists in "counterinsurgency"
    warfare, including torture, assassination, terror, and
    murder of civilians. This is the more important point that
    easily is overlooked in the mass-mediated investigation of
    Bob Kerrey's character or honesty.

    His defenders remind us that he was young and inexperienced
    and possibly confused or in over his head. (Presumably he
    brought from Nebraska no taboo against mass murder of
    elderly men, women, and children.) They say this was the way
    that ugly, ambiguous war was fought. Note the
    postmodern-tinged variant of the "just-following-orders"
    defense that failed so spectacularly at Nuremberg.

    Kerrey claims to have been tormented and wracked by guilt
    because of this incident, which he insists on characterizing
    as a tragic accident. But he was awarded the Bronze Star for
    his role in that war, and the citation justifying his medal
    credits him with having killed twenty-one Viet Cong. He
    neither rejected nor returned the medal; nor did he correct
    the lie about whom he had killed.

    He has represented himself as having become an opponent of
    the war, but, on closer inspection, his opposition is nearer
    to that of Chuck Norris than Benjamin Spock. He purports to
    have been incensed at Richard Nixon's extension of the war
    to Cambodia but freely, and without open hesitation, he
    accepted from Nixon the Congressional Medal of Honor for a
    subsequent action in which he lost part of his leg -- even
    though, he recently claimed, he felt that Nixon was using
    him as a pawn to support the Cambodian escalation. The
    portrait painted by the combination of Bob Kerrey's practice
    and preachment looks suspiciously like someone who has tried
    to have it every way at once. I found myself musing that he
    is what Bill Clinton would have been like if Clinton hadn't
    been able to avoid going to the Army.

    Naturally enough, particularly here at the New School, the
    disclosures about Thanh Phong have generated much discussion
    about Kerrey's credibility, and questions abound as to
    whether he should be considered a war criminal. These
    questions are especially troubling at a university that
    began as a haven for faculty persecuted for their opposition
    to World War I and that remains institutionally proud of
    having been a refuge a generation later for scholars fleeing

    I should make clear that I'm not prepared to denounce Kerrey
    as a war criminal, among other reasons because doing so
    seems to me to be a waste of time. My father, who is a
    veteran of the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge
    (he was sent, as he caustically puts it, to fight the racist
    Germans in a racially segregated army), has always looked
    cynically at the Nuremberg and subsequent war crimes trials.
    He maintains that all they mean is that you shouldn't lose a
    war. War crimes charges are imposed only on the vanquished.

    No one is going to bring Kerrey up on charges, and, if
    Kerrey were charged, it would be the equivalent --
    reprehensible though his actions were -- of targeting
    street-level drug dealers while permitting those controlling
    and directing them to go unscathed. William Calley,
    architect of the infamous My Lai massacre in which U.S.
    soldiers slaughtered as many as 350 unarmed Vietnamese
    civilians, was a scapegoat who -- though certainly guilty of
    perpetrating a heinous atrocity -- also took the rap for
    Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and a military command that
    waged total war on the population of Vietnam. (Kerrey,
    incidentally, to diminish the heinousness of his own
    actions, insists that Thanh Phong "was no My Lai," though
    the only significant difference appears to be the number

    Kerrey himself acknowledges the framework within which his
    "Kerrey's Raiders" operated when he notes that the area
    around Thanh Phong was designated a "free-fire zone." U.S.
    soldiers considered any living thing in that zone a
    legitimate military target. He adduces this as a mitigating
    circumstance for the massacre but does not draw out how that
    designation fit into the larger, genocidal strategy of the
    American war effort.

    In fact, despite his celebrated claim to anti-war sentiment,
    in a Washington Post op-ed piece last year Kerrey said, "The
    shame is that we, in the end, turned our back on Vietnam and
    on the sacrifice of more than 58,000 Americans. We succumbed
    to fatigue and self-doubt, we went back on the promise we
    had made to support the South Vietnamese, and the Communists
    were able to defeat our allies."

    This is not a view that can reasonably be understood as
    anti-war; rather, it expresses the mindset, popularized in
    the 1980s by Rambo films and the Reaganite right, that the
    war effort was undone by corrupt and inept politicians and
    bureaucrats, the American version of the stab-in-the-back
    myth about German defeat in World War I that the Nazis used
    to fuel their ride to power. It has also become a
    conventional rhetorical move in calls for national "healing"
    of our collective pain and division over Vietnam.

    This is also a view that denies the genocidal reality of the
    war. Think about it: How can declaring large sections of the
    country "free-fire" zones, thereby making much of its
    population into targets for slaughter, possibly square with
    a notion of supporting our allies? Who could those allies
    have been? The free-fire-zone designation was linked to
    Operation Phoenix, the CIA's systematic torture and
    assassination program aimed at extirpating the National
    Liberation Front's political and military infra-structure
    and base of support, and the "strategic hamlet" program,
    which forcibly rounded up peasant villagers and transported
    them from their indigenous areas to hybrid villages --
    concentration camps under U.S. and South Vietnamese military
    control. Many peasants, of course, resisted this forced
    relocation; those who refused to move were simply declared
    to be Viet Cong supporters and became candidates for

    By the Orwellian premises of the strategic hamlet program,
    any Vietnamese killed could be assumed to be a Viet Cong
    sympathizer by definition. The American domestic political
    imperative of showing that the U.S. was winning the war fed
    the sickness of the body count: the daily tallies of the
    killed and wounded. This macabre practice not only
    approximated charting box scores in a demonic sports
    reportage; it also passed down to line officers the pressure
    to maximize the count. Stir in a little zeal, a little
    ambition, and a lot of racist dehumanization, and it's not
    hard to see how massacres could become commonplace.

    Then there was the savage bombing campaign that destroyed
    the country's agricultural base and indiscriminately killed
    and maimed hundreds of thousands of these "allies" whom Bob
    Kerrey imagines felt deserted by American military
    withdrawal. Raining napalm from B-52 bombers flying too high
    to be heard turned unsuspecting villages into rolling
    fireballs. Under the campaign of "defoliation," ostensibly
    intended to eliminate vegetation that could conceal
    guerrilla troop movements, the U.S. sprayed the contaminant
    Agent Orange over large expanses of the country, with the
    effect of rendering agricultural cultivation impossible and
    visiting disease of untold magnitude on the population.

    How could such brutality be visited on one "ally" by
    another? The answer is simple. It can't be. The Vietnamese
    people were never our government's allies; they were never
    more than utterly dispensable objects of its imperialist
    geopolitical aspirations defined by its Cold War with the
    Soviet Union.

    The war's roots lie in the United States government's
    refusal to accept Vietnamese self-determination after the
    defeat of French colonial domination in 1954. The Geneva
    Accord signed in that year by France and the Viet Minh --
    the coalition movement that had fought successfully against
    Japanese imperial occupation during World War II and then
    for seven years against France's attempt to return as
    colonial power -- called for the country to be divided
    temporarily into two zones, north and south of the
    seventeenth parallel. The northern zone was to be under
    administrative control of the Viet Minh, led by the popular
    Ho Chi Minh. The southern zone was to be administered by the
    French. Under the terms of the accord, this arrangement was
    to last two years, until July 1956, at which time an
    election would be held, supervised by an International
    Control Commission made up of representatives from India,
    Canada, and Poland, to reunify the country under a single
    government. The United States brazenly blocked the election
    because it knew that Ho Chi Minh would have won. Washington
    then installed its own puppet government in the south headed
    by Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated in 1963 with the
    endorsement of President John F. Kennedy.

    South Vietnam was the pure creation of American imperialism.
    Throughout its brief, ugly history, South Vietnam was
    governed by military dictators and brutal, avaricious thugs
    backed by the U.S. military. These are the allies Bob Kerrey
    refers to.

    This is how it was, and apparently remains, possible to
    claim commitment to a country while degrading and butchering
    its population.

    Kerrey's expressions of remorse at the Thanh Phong massacre
    would be much easier to accept if they were accompanied by
    an honest acknowledgment of what that war really was -- from
    its beginnings before 1956 to its end -- and a full
    repudiation of the role that he and so many others were led
    to play in it.

    There is more at stake here than Bob Kerrey and the atrocity
    of which he was a part. The astounding savagery of
    imperialist war against a total population persists as a
    blithely arrogant prerogative in American foreign policy, as
    the Gulf War and inhumane sanctions against Iraq demonstrate
    all too clearly. This is an expansion on a horrific scale of
    the sentiment expressed by the American officer in Ben Tre
    during the 1968 Tet Offensive who famously said, "It became
    necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

    On reading the details of the Thanh Phong massacre and the
    feeble attempts by liberal "healers" to sanitize its
    heinousness with ambiguity and psychobabble, I found myself
    charged with the same outrage that I felt during the Vietnam

    The calls to write off the atrocity -- and, by implication,
    the many other ones like it -- to the nature of a confusing,
    unconventional war and to commiserate with Bob Kerrey's
    suffering are offensive to any decent human sensibility.
    They resurface, albeit in candy-coating, the jingoistic
    arrogance that only American lives and suffering count.

    Imagine a circumstance in which foreign combatants on
    American soil would skulk around suburbs slitting the
    throats of civilians who might give away their movements.
    Could bygones ever be bygones? How many generations would be
    required for measured conversation of "healing" to take

    Finally, I should say that I did not go into the military
    during the Vietnam years. For much of it, I had the class
    privilege of a student deferment from the draft. However,
    the experience of those who did serve is not entirely
    foreign to me. I spent several years working with troops at
    Fort Bragg, organizing for their rights inside the military
    and against the war. And like most of my age cohort, I had
    many friends who served, and too many who died, in Vietnam.
    I know all too well how the G.I.'s have been cast aside and
    ill served since they returned, but we can't let the right
    conflate redress of those grievances -- which are against
    the government that sent them to fight, not those of us who
    opposed their being sent -- with a demand to rehabilitate
    the war.

    I also know that it does no dishonor to the Americans who
    were forced to serve in that horrible, repugnant war to
    admit what it was. If there is any "healing" to occur, that
    honesty must be its foundation.

    Adolph L. Reed Jr. is a professor of political science on
    the graduate faculty at the New School University in New
    York City and is a member of the Interim National Council
    of the Labor Party. His most recent book is "Class Notes:
    Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene"
    (New Press, 2000).

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