Kerrey’s Terrible Story Shows Journalism Split

In recent days, the conventional wisdom has hardened on the

Bob Kerrey story: Who are we to

judge?

Many of the people saying this are the old antiwar crowd.

The New School University trustees say soberly, “War is hell. Traumatic events

take place.” Newsweek calls the story

the “terrible wages of war.” And there is 60

Minutes , which on May 6 turned on its offspring, 60 Minutes II , which had broadcast the Kerrey story the previous

week, with two commentaries that basically dismissed the story as a hash seen

through the fog of war. This is no My Lai, Mike Wallace said.

Of course Thanh Phong is no My Lai. No one could make that

argument. But My Lai was reported 31 years ago in the middle of war time; in

some ways, My Lai was modern journalism getting born with a bang, and in those

same ways Thanh Phong is My Lai’s natural, whimpering successor.

Vietnam veterans have actually been more critical of Bob

Kerrey’s conduct than the journalists have; indeed, the journalists’ resistance

to the story suggests a shell-shocked anguish among the journalists about their

calling. Journalism is hell, they are saying; it maims the innocent.

The journalists have

seen themselves coming through the door, young again, 30 years ago, and don’t

recognize who they were.

Any middle-aged journalist has a memory of My Lai. Mine is

of Seymour Hersh, the reporter who helped to expose the massacre, coming by my

college newspaper.

A group of us surrounded

him and wouldn’t let him go. He was a noble and exciting figure. One reason I

do journalism now is that I watched spellbound as this manic Jew in a rumpled

suit talked about running up his credit cards and putting on 50,000 miles of

air travel to go around the country interviewing as many men as he could who

had witnessed a horror-everywhere from Orem, Utah, to Fort Dix to Fort Benning,

where he had drinks with Rusty Calley.

Mr. Hersh tried to sell his My Lai story to Look and Life magazines, but they both turned him down. So he did his work

for Dispatch News Service, which was run by a 23-year-old. That was the spirit

of the time. Mr. Hersh had lately been Gene McCarthy’s press secretary during

the renegade Senator’s antiwar Presidential campaign.

Soon Mr. Hersh’s courage

was answered by Woodward and Bernstein’s, and before long journalists working

in Vietnam’s dark shadow had helped topple three Presidencies in a row. Who

didn’t want to be a journalist? America loved journalists. Hollywood made a hit

movie about Woodward and Bernstein.

Of course, the heroics didn’t last. We took ourselves far

too seriously, and our motivation began to seem questionable. We gained stature

and income, and had less and less of importance to say, and our audience turned

with spiteful relief to Morton Downey and Robin Leach, as if to say, “We know

what you guys are up to, and these carnies are giving it to us straight.” Don’t

forget that the other reporter besides Seymour Hersh who played an important

role in exposing My Lai was Joe Esterzhas at the Cleveland Plain Dealer . A few years pass, and long-haired Joe

Esterzhas is writing Basic Instinct .

Just try to connect those dots.

Then came Monica

Lewinsky. If war is hell and you can’t explain it to anyone else, well-how many

journalists who were there have really come to terms with Monica Lewinsky? No

one can feel very good about it.

During the Monica follies, Newsweek stood out by its vacillation. Indeed, the scandal began

when Newsweek spiked the first Monica

Lewinsky story in January 1998, evidently regarding it as a painful invasion of

a public person’s privacy.

You can see Newsweek ‘s

timidity in post-Vietnam terms. A year and a half before, the magazine’s Evan

Thomas and Gregory Vistica made an appointment with Navy Admiral Mike Boorda to

ask him about some combat decorations he was wearing that he shouldn’t have

been, and before the interview, Boorda killed himself. Anyone with half a

conscience has to ask, Is this job really worth it? Any journalist with even a

spoonful of sensitivity has to develop a fear of journalism (as Janet Malcolm

said, more eloquently). Only months after it spiked the Monica story, Newsweek spiked the Kerrey story. In

justifying this decision last week, Jonathan Alter wrote feelingly about

hounding Bob Kerrey and “gotcha” journalism.

Nonetheless, Newsweek ‘s

decision not to run the Kerrey story will go down as a colossal mistake. The Times Magazine story about Thanh Phong

was powerful and thoughtfully put together (in ways that the strident 60 Minutes II piece was not).

Compassionate and investigative at the same time, it has set off an important

national conversation. It has, to paraphrase Bob Kerrey, potentially changed

the country.

The most important aspect of that story is also the most

confusing one: Thanh Phong was no My Lai.

My Lai, in March 1968,

was a vicious, vengeful and unmitigated horror in daylight. Hundreds of

civilians were butchered. A few Americans tried to prevent it, the story got

around. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about My Lai in retrospect is

that it took the country almost two years to learn about it. Today, the

massacre loop is a lot faster.

Thanh Phong happened at night, 11 months after My Lai. It

has taken 30 years to come out, in large part because Thanh Phong was far more

routine. Arguably, it was the sort of tactical massacre that happens frequently

in war, a massacre of innocents that occurs-in the worst case, if you believe

Gerhard Klann-because the actual battle rules are vague and hateful, and

because panicked, fearful men believe killing civilians will help preserve

their own lives.

As many defenders of Mr. Kerrey have pointed out, these

types of things happen all the time-inevitable or inadvertent or even expedient

butcherings. They happened in World War II, and that’s why so many veterans

came home and went quiet. They couldn’t explain what they’d witnessed to people

who hadn’t lived through it.

This is the arena in which Greg Vistica, as opposed to

Seymour Hersh, has operated: the remembrance of war. In 1999, Mr. Vistica published

an article in Newsweek about a 1950

Korean War massacre that was based on painful remembrance. “I just had to

repent,” one veteran told Mr. Vistica.

The reason these old war

stories are coming out now is that the psychic rules have changed. It’s widely

believed that people shouldn’t go through trauma and not speak of it; it’s

corrosive. All the journalists arguing that this sort of outrage is routine in

war are missing the point. If it’s routine, then why is it secret? The recovery

movement has instructed us that secrets are powerful: They wound the bearers

and separate them from society.

No one has told us much

about Gerhard Klann, Mr. Vistica’s source for the Kerrey story, but there is

some suggestion that he has had exposure to the recovery movement because of an

alcohol problem-indeed, Mr. Kerrey sought to undermine him by hinting on 60 Minutes II that Mr. Klann was

recovering memories of events that never took place.

Mr. Klann’s torments had apparently increased in midlife.

Ben Goodwyn, a former commanding officer of a Marine infantry company who lives

in Texas, says such remembrance is common. His own preoccupation with events of

30 years back began when he made plans to revisit Vietnam.

“You stuff it and you stuff it, but sooner or later it’s going

to come out,” he told me. “It really starts gnawing you down. It hit me in ’95;

I was then 55. Constantly pacing. The inability to sleep. Waking up every hour,

as if I’m going out and checking on the lines. Or sleeping on an elbow, with

both ears open. An incredibly heightened awareness. You have a tremendous sense

of alertness of what is around you, to the detriment of your future, what’s

down the road. If I don’t take medication, I’m continually playing scenarios in

my mind.”

Bob Kerrey has plainly been

going through a similar process. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people

describing me as a hero and holding this inside,” he told The Wall Street Journal

four days ahead of the Times story,

in his effort to preempt The Times Magazine .

Mr. Kerrey’s most inauthentic statement is his claim that

this terrible story has come out now because he came forward, and that he did

so to prompt America’s “ethical examination of what is permissible in war.”

Plainly, Mr. Kerrey’s

prominence is the reason that we can have this discussion, but Mr. Klann-with

his post–traumatic stress syndrome-gets the medal for bringing it out. Mr.

Kerrey wouldn’t have gone public if it hadn’t been for Mr. Klann and an

enterprising journalist.

And meanwhile, the former Senator gathered the other five

men who served under him that night and, following a dinner in New York, issued

a statement repudiating Mr. Klann. “There are seven guys with seven different

versions,” he had told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, but by

Saturday it was six guys with one version and one guy with another. If Mr.

Kerrey is sincere about wanting the country to have a conversation about the

ethics of warmaking, that isn’t the way to go about it.

The journalists are more

confused than Mr. Kerrey. The disagreement over whether this was a story-the Newsweek position versus the New York Times position-underlines a

feeling of vast aimlessness in my generation at midcourse. We don’t know where

we stand; we worry that we have never stood for anything but ourselves. The

romanticization of the Vietnam War has quietly begun in the culture, and much

of the antiwar spirit now looks like the boomers’ determination to save their

own ass, whatever the cost, from a national undertaking, however wrong.

Some journalists have deeply mixed feelings about that time.

“Those of us who didn’t serve can only witness their [the veterans’] anguish,

and learn,” Jonathan Alter concluded, with what struck me as a lick of

journalist guilt.

So the haute-bourgeois

peaceniks wrestle with the consequences of a youthful choice not to become

their fathers. Maybe that’s why 50-year-old men wear sneakers and baseball hats

backwards, and read books about the greatest generation. They’re still the kids

who didn’t want to go off and be baby-killers. Gerhard Klann, who says he

killed babies, has done more to come to terms with his old self than the

journalists have.

We may not be the greatest generation, but we have our

points, and one of them has been the open exploration of private horrors, what The Times

Magazine did bravely with Mr. Klann’s

assistance.

Some of us still believe that society can be transformed

when those who have been through trauma share their stories with those who have

not. Veterans seem to have a clearer understanding of this than the people who

are supposed to be writing it down. Maybe it’s their time to do the journalism.