In recent days, the conventional wisdom has hardened on the
Bob Kerrey story: Who are we to
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.