Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey's acknowledgment that he led a Vietnam mission that resulted in the deaths of unarmed civilians dredges up the horrors and ambiguities of war, any war. It more specifically adds another chapter to the prolonged reckoning that a conflicted nation has had with an unpopular conflict.
The interest now in Kerrey's experience as a Navy SEAL, of course, arises from his status as a former senator and a potential Democratic presidential candidate. There are questions about what he did, and about the timing of his explanation. But this tale also reminds us of ... the pressures of battle conditions and how war's ugliness reveals itself in the revisionism of history.
The atrocities that exist alongside individual acts of heroism always have been known to participants of war. ... Vietnam was a defining time in this regard. Beyond the fissures it caused in the social fabric, it stripped away some cherished conventions of honor and glory in war.
The growing chasm between official pronouncements and battlefield realities spawned an era of mistrust of government. For those on the ground, like Kerrey's small SEAL team, it might come down to a matter of not being able to tell who was who. Youngsters fresh from towns in California, the Midwest or New Jersey could be thrust into villages where the population and the enemy could not be distinguished by the textbook or their training. ...
The idea of Kerrey as a war hero of course does not emerge untarnished from this story. It also seems unlikely he would have provided such a detailed version of horrifying past events were it not for an investigation of his role carried out jointly by two news organizations.
As a leading public figure under scrutiny for long-past battlefield actions, Kerry embodies in a highly visible way the contradictions of war. He came to public service on a trail cleared by a Medal of Honor for another action, and today we find that, as can happen in combat, an entire war record is less clear-cut.
Los Angeles Times
Late in 1998, U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska abruptly decided that he wouldn't seek the presidency in 2000. ... What Kerrey didn't say was that a Newsweek reporter was on the verge of revealing a disturbing episode from a war that cost Kerrey part of a leg and also made him a hero. For reasons that still are unclear, Newsweek didn't publish the story after Kerrey pulled out of the presidential race. That has left Kerrey to brood in private about what the article would have reported.
Ever since he was awarded a Bronze Star for his squad's 1969 killing of 21 Viet Cong fighters at a Vietnamese village named Thanh Phong, Kerrey has known that the official version of his heroism that night isn't accurate. His squad - Lt. Kerrey and six other Navy SEALs - in fact had gunned down 13 or more unarmed civilians. "It was not a military victory," Kerrey told a Virginia gathering of ROTC cadets last week. "It was a tragedy, and I ordered it. How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake?"
The nature of what Kerrey calls his mistake is in dispute. The Newsweek reporter has left the magazine. But his story, which reports conflicting versions of events, will be published Sunday in the New York Times Magazine. Kerrey and one of his men say they were on a mission to capture a Viet Cong leader when they came under attack and frantically returned fire through the darkness. When the shooting stopped, they discovered that they had killed civilians, many of them women and children. But another member of the squad says the Seals rounded up the villagers, debated what to do with them, and opened fire when Kerrey ordered them to do so. ...
Assaults on civilians are a frightful staple of war, as the Allied terror-bombing of Dresden, Germany, amply proved during World War II. The nature of the Vietnam War added confusion; this was a largely guerrilla conflict with fluid fronts, too few enemy uniforms and strange terrain in which friends and foes looked alike.
In truth, the unfolding Kerrey saga is a microcosmic metaphor for this nation's confused role in Vietnam. The war was a muddle of debatable motives and tragic effects that drained this nation's soul. ... That psychic ambivalence stranded young Americans like Kerrey, then 25, and his Seals in ferocious battle zones like the Mekong Delta, where blood flowed freely in and around desolate hamlets like Thanh Phong.
Now that the wound has been pricked, it's possible that more participants will come forward to speak about what happened there in 1969. The public judging of Bob Kerrey is sure to continue. ...
Long after its cessation, the Vietnam War clings fiercely to its casualties - the dead and the living alike.