Mr. Clark, Abroad Again

February 10, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

WASHINGTON — Washington. SOME AMERICANS ARE upset when one of their countrymen goes to an enemy capital and speaks out against U.S. bombing, asserting that many civilians are being killed cruelly and unnecessarily. But it happens.

It happened 19 years ago in Hanoi, and it happened last week in Baghdad.

The outspoken American this time was not Jane Fonda, who won the sobriquet of "Hanoi Jane" when she went there during the Vietnam war and posed at an anti-aircraft gun pretending to fire at U.S. planes. She has sort of apologized since then, and her youthful indiscretions have not kept her from making millions the red-white-and-blue capitalist way.

But another career controversialist has had the guts, or the monomania, or the political bitterness, to go to both Hanoi and Baghdad -- and say virtually the same thing both places. He is Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general of the United States.

Subtract the geographical references, and his remarks then and now are indistinguishable. In North Vietnam in 1972, he was driven to outlying towns and returned to report that civilian dams and dikes were damaged by U.S. air strikes. In a recorded interview over Hanoi radio, he said "hundreds or even thousands could have been killed" in "terrible bombings and destruction of living areas of Haiphong."

"We are bombing hell out of that poor land. We are hitting hospitals. . . . There is absolutely no excuse for bombing North Vietnam and there never has been," he added later.

In Iraq in 1991, Mr. Clark was driven to the port city of Basra and returned to report that allied bombs had destroyed civilian homes, shops, clinics -- and, of course, hospitals. He said that on the long drive to Basra he did not see a single military vehicle, but there were hundreds of civilian trucks destroyed. "You don't have to bomb cities," he said; what he saw was "a human and civilian tragedy."

In 1972, some outraged officials here maintained that he had been "duped" and that the things he said were "contemptible." I don't recall that anyone accused him of treason per se, but clearly what he did was of aid and comfort to the enemy.

Mr. Clark's defenders, of course, argued that he was only telling the truth, and surely they will say the same about his latest excursion. After all, U.S. bombs did kill civilians in Vietnam, and they are killing civilians in Iraq. Whether the civilian toll is as extensive and the destruction as tragic as he said remains a matter of opinion.

There are, however, ways to judge a reporter's reliability. If one report is not directly checkable, another may be, and that may reflect on his credibility.

In Hanoi, for example, Mr. Clark said that he traveled more than 600 miles and found "no efforts that I could detect to influence me or prejudice my judgment."

His most telling report came after interviewing U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam. He found those Americans "unquestionably humanely treated, well treated," he said. Most of us remember those prisoners' condition and accounts of torture when they were eventually released.

At this writing, Mr. Clark had not been invited to interview the current allied prisoners whose bruised faces and forced words have been transmitted over Baghdad television. If he has that opportunity, it will be interesting to hear his description of how they are being treated. As in the past, his reports can be held up against each other to help judge their accuracy.

Mr. Clark has been in and out of public life for more than 30 years. Since he was attorney general in the last years of Lyndon Johnson's administration, he has appointed himself to any number of peace-making efforts around the world. By now he might be seasoned enough to avoid saying he has been escorted around an enemy country without noting any effort to influence or prejudice him.

But human naivete is infinite. Gullibility is profoundly affected by political baggage; usually, the traveler sees what he expects to see and is blind to obvious things that mar his preconceptions.

Perhaps Mr. Clark is offering us, at last, a true and objective picture from inside Iraq. Anyone who thinks so should consider why his hosts have allowed him, and not the one professional American reporter left in Baghdad, to do such extensive sightseeing.

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