If you haven't already read Bob Kerrey's "confessions" to the New York Times and CBS' 60 Minutes by now, you owe it to yourself. It is a stirring, compelling story.
It seems unfair to summarize this riveting account, but the basic facts are important. In February 1969, Bob Kerrey, a Lieutenant, the commander of a Navy Seals Squad, led his men into the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta. Shots were fired. "Thirteen to twenty" unarmed women and children were dead.
That's really all there is. Well, you know, there is of course a long story with it. No one can live with himself having murdered twenty women and children without have a long story about it. And I don't necessarily mean that Kerrey excuses his actions. But I do mean that when you add a long story and you admit that you are confessing a terrible secret and the secret is that you murdered twenty women and children, the truth is that you believe that what you did was different in some way from what a cold-blooded murderer does but very, very awful, but different, but awful... well, how far back can you step, from the basic facts? On my first reading of the account published in the New York Times, it certainly struck me that Bob Kerrey was confessing to a very serious crime. Just above his confession is a link to a story about attempts to prosecute the men who set a bomb off at a church in 1963 in Alabama which killed four children. You understand: we are trying to prosecute these men. And I had to wonder, of course, if anyone is going to try to prosecute Bob Kerrey.
Kerrey tells us that the women and children were killed because someone fired upon them and his men returned fire, and when they examined the bodies, they found only women and children. But he admits that before they returned fire, and before someone allegedly fired upon them, they had already murdered an old man and an old woman and three children in a hut on the outskirts of the village. If there is ambiguity about what happened to the people in the village proper, there is no ambiguity about the actions of the men earlier. They were afraid that these villagers would reveal their presence to the others. They had to be silenced. They were murdered.
Gerhard Klann, who was with Kerrey that night, doesn't agree with Kerrey's version. Neither does Mike Ambrose, who was also there, nor a Viet Namese woman who claimed to have witnessed the incident. Pham Tri Lahn. Klann says they were never fired upon. Instead, they rounded up the women and children and when they realized that the man they were looking for, a Viet Cong officer, was not present, they decided to kill the villagers. They did not want to leave witnesses to the earlier murder of the grandparents and three children, and they did not want any enemy in the area to know they were there. Of course, as the Times points out, firing your weapons would certainly give away some information about yourself.
Now, there are a lot of people out there who will immediately object to my use of the word "murder". I would expect they would argue all or any of the following:
1. "civilians"-- women and children included-- were known to operate as part of the Viet Cong and sometimes killed unsuspecting U.S. soldiers, therefore, Kerrey was justified in treating them as a threat to their lives.
2. This was war, after all, so you have to accept civilian casualties. The normal rules don't apply.
3. It was all a regrettable mistake, but not something you could compare to a deliberate act under entirely different circumstances. The men were justifiably frightened.
The trouble is that all Western nations agree that, even in hostile territory, the deliberate murder of unarmed civilians is not permitted. This is the military speaking-- not some pie-in-the-sky liberal pacifist. This is the standard that German officers were held to at Nuremberg. This is the standard that the U.S. has publicly agreed to in treaties and protocols signed and ratified by the government. This is the standard we are holding above the thugs and murderers of Kosovo and Serbia.
The trouble is, the civilians were unarmed. They did not attack the soldiers. They did not call out for help from hiding Viet Cong commandos. They did as they were told. They waited for the men to complete their search. Then they were shot in cold blood.
The trouble is that even if Kerrey's account is to be believed-- that they were fired upon first and that they returned fire in self-defense-- they still murdered the old couple and three children in the first "hooch" in cold blood. That is a war crime. That is cold-blooded murder.
And Kerrey's account is troubling. If they were fired upon first and returned fire in a random, panicked spree of self-defense... why were all of the civilians killed? Were none wounded?
In the movie, "The Great Escape", a German officer informs an American commander that a group of the escapees were killed while fleeing their pursuers. "How many," asks the American, "were wounded". The German officer, whom we are given to understand is a honorable man fighting for the wrong side (a typical myth of militarists everywhere: that honorable men can fight for evil causes and still be "honorable") painfully admits, "none".
We know exactly what he means. And we know why it is so troubling that Kerrey tells us that none of the unarmed villagers were "wounded". This is the part of the evening that Kerrey, while claiming to have made a damning confession, refuses to discuss.
There are strange ambiguities in the world. We still prosecute Nazi war criminals when we find them. We're trying to prosecute the murderers of those four black girls in Alabama in 1963. An international tribunal in Holland is trying to bring Milosevic and his cronies to justice for similar crimes.
We throw children and young adults into brutal prisons for long terms for smoking a harmless weed. We try to impeach presidents for having sex with women they are not married to. We ruin the lives of athletes and politicians and business executives who lie or cheat or harass.
In Viet Nam, on a dark night thirty years ago, a group of American men entered a village and murdered 20 civilians. I think Kerrey is genuinely sorry it happened. But so is everybody.