June 2001 [Volume 65, Number 6]
Bob Kerry, An American Shame
By Adolph L. Reed Jr. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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
This is how it was, and apparently remains, possible to
claim commitment to a country while degrading and butchering
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
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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