Bob Kerrey Faces His New Enemy: From Mekong Delta to 12th Street

Bob Kerrey’s moment in the confessional box included the

penitential ritual that we have come to expect and perhaps even demand: He said

some good might come of his disclosures. “I hope my words today can convey

something useful,” Mr. Kerrey said at his televised news conference on April

26. This was, of course, the kind of language the television audience has come

to expect in afternoon fare, and it is certainly what every cornered politician

of recent memory has said when confronted with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing.

The sight of Mr. Kerrey in a business-blue sackcloth should

have inspired his listeners to don neither the shawl of pity nor the shield of

cynicism. The full effect of his public act of contrition was not for his media

inquisitors to judge, but it surely achieved a measure of its goal. For a

moment, we no longer were talking about interest rates, p-e ratios, the

politics of magazine covers, the mating habits of movie stars and the lingering

effect of a Presidential dalliance. Instead, the psychic scar tissue of a

generation had been laid open, and out poured forgotten phrases and place

names: the Mekong Delta, free-fire zones, Cam Ranh Bay, hooches, in-country.

All these years later, the names and phrases can and do conjure memories, real

and received, of the absolute chaos of war.

I spoke with the British war historian John Keegan, author

of The Face of Battle and many other

books, about the unimaginable anarchy of combat. I told him that my

father-in-law, a U.S. Navy man attached to the British armed forces, landed on

Sword Beach on June 6, 1944, amid the deadly confusion that led teenage

soldiers to blaze away at passing American and British aircraft. “Sword Beach,”

Mr. Keegan said, “was Central Park compared to Vietnam.”

He was referring to the contrast in terrain-beyond the shore

defenses and a line of buildings at Sword, the Norman countryside was wide

open; Vietnam was a dense jungle-but he might have been talking about the

popular image of the two wars. Sword Beach has an honored place in the history

of the good war, World War II, when G.I.’s gave out chocolate bars to displaced

urchins. Vietnam was where bombs landed on thatch-roofed huts and American

centurions ran roughshod over a petrified civilian population. “It’s almost a

crime just to have been in Vietnam,” Mr. Keegan said, summing up the view of

ideologues in the American media and on campus, two repositories of the smug

and the deferred.

Appropriately, then, the media converged on a campus-the New

School University, where Mr. Kerrey is the newly installed president-to relive

the story of a night patrol gone wrong 32 years ago. After indulging themselves

in fashionable irony for more than a decade, the media were transported back to

a time when the actions of government were deemed too important to leave to

late-night joke writers and vacuous celebrities; when Washington made war

against a Communist insurgency 10,000 miles from the California coast and sent

Bob Kerrey and hundreds of thousands like him to kill for an uncertain cause in

an inhospitable land. “When I was in the coastal areas of Vietnam, I remember

saying to myself, ‘What a horrible place to fight a war,’” Mr. Keegan told me.

“There were tiny clearings in the forest, small fields, tiny villages crowded

in on each other. I was astonished that this was the terrain the Americans had

fought on.”

Gregory L. Vistica’s story in The New York Times Magazine , which prompted Mr. Kerrey to speak out

about the raid he led on the village of Thanh Phong, suggests that today’s

celebrated commentators are mistaken if they believe the actions of politicians

are either of no real consequence or are simply less entertaining versions of

Hollywood melodramas. The village woman who recanted her firsthand description

of the raid told of hearing the cries of a baby, mortally wounded, after Mr.

Kerrey’s SEAL team left. Is she lying? Probably, at least on the specifics.

Generally, however, she is telling the truth-about Vietnam, about the Middle

East, about West Africa, about modern war, about the failures and sins of

political leaders, about the post-Vietnam victories we celebrated and then

forgot: Panama, the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia. Politicians call out the troops

when diplomacy fails; the troops show off their expensive training and jazzy

hardware; babies die. The gang on cable television examines approval ratings;

the panelists on Politically Incorrect

speculate about which studio will make a movie about the war in question.

One reporter observed that 

Mr. Kerrey seemed unprepared for the barrage that followed his prepared

remarks at the New School press conference. One would hope so, for if Mr.

Kerrey bears any resemblance to the reflective, introverted and tortured soul

he appears to be, he could not have anticipated puffed-up questions about his

political prospects after speaking about his role in the killing of a dozen

women and children. One would assume it requires a special kind of person to

pursue such a line of inquiry at such a moment, and Mr. Kerrey evidently was

surprised to discover that so many special people were gathered in the same

room on West 12th Street to question him.

But What About 2004?

Some inquisitors, unable to escape the talk-show culture,

saw Mr. Kerrey as either a run-of-the-mill politician who may or may not run

for President some day or a troubled person in need of public healing. “Are you

ruling out a run in 2004?” somebody asked as Mr. Kerrey talked about the deaths

of innocent women and children. “Did you make any attempt to contact family

members” of the raid’s victims, another asked, no doubt entertaining images of

Mr. Kerrey embracing aging villagers live on Oprah .

This grafting of dumb attitudes from the 1990′s onto a

tragedy from the 1960′s was merely annoying. It was the righteous assertion of

moral judgment that gave the news conference a horrible but instructive drama.

An unidentified reporter began her indictment by informing Mr. Kerrey that

“under international law, it is not just people like you who pull the trigger

and kill civilians who bear different levels of responsibility.” Thus the

unspoken was made explicit: Mr. Kerrey was in the dock, accused of murder. That

he remained impassive as he listened to this recitation is extraordinary; that

he made no mention of the wounds he suffered in service to his country speaks

to a reticence not associated with his generation.

It is tiresome but necessary to point out that if Mr.

Kerrey’s story is correct, what happened at Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969, was a

horrible accident, neither a “war crime” nor an “atrocity,” which were the only

two alternatives the reporter cited. Whether her enthusiasm for a war-crimes

tribunal extends to those on the other side who routinely slaughtered

civilians, or those who accorded John McCain and other prisoners of war

treatment barred by the Geneva Convention, must be left to our imagination.

Looking prematurely old and gaunt as he answered the media’s

inquiries, Bob Kerrey faced the judgment of those Mr. Keegan called “his

enemies,” standing in for every Vietnam veteran slandered for not being his

G.I. father. Precisely what distinguishes the Vietnam vet from the beloved

members of the Greatest Generation remains unclear, save that the results were

different. “This one turned bad,” Mr. Kerrey said of Vietnam. It surely did,

but far more civilians were killed in the one that turned good, World War II.

Popular history and folk memory, however, have little place for the dead women

and children of Dresden and Hiroshima. The Axis war on civilians and the Nazi

murder of Europe’s Jews obviously are part of the war’s canon. But the horror

of Allied strategic bombing is not, and while not comparable to genocide or

deliberate mass murder, the bombings of German and Japanese cities are a

counterpoint to the sanitized mythology of the good war.

Mr. Kerrey said he hopes his “experiences” will “help

Americans to make better decisions about when to use military force, because we

will more fully understand its cost, that in addition to asking young men and

women to risk their own lives, we are asking them to take the lives of others.”

It is dangerous folly to believe that those others will include only

combatants. The face of battle is ugly beyond description.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kerrey said he has come away from his

combat experience “more patriotic” than he was before, because “I have seen the

generosity of my country in fighting for the freedom of others.”

As I finished my transatlantic telephone conversation with

Mr. Keegan, he interrupted his goodbyes to pass along a message to my

father-in-law, the D-Day veteran.

“Tell your father-in-law,” Mr. Keegan said, “we said thanks

for his help. And his firepower.”