Vietnam never ceases to surprise

April 30, 2001|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - It wasn't exactly enemy fire that former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey faced here the other day when he called a news conference to field a barrage of probing questions about that fateful mission in Vietnam 32 years ago that now casts him in less than a hero's role. But it probably seemed so to him.

Mr. Kerrey, in what clearly was a painful exercise, held his ground against the claims of an old subordinate on the Navy SEAL team he had led against a Vietnam village in 1969, that he ordered the cold-blooded killing of a dozen or more Vietnamese women and children.

His own memory of the raid on a "moonless" night, and those of all the other team members, he said, was quite different. They all fired into the village, what he called "a free-fire zone" where "reliable intelligence" said the enemy was meeting, only after they had been fired on. They were shocked, he said, to find that they had hit only women and children.

Mr. Kerrey himself first brought the story to light eight days earlier in a military college speech as a long account of the incident was about to be published in the New York Times Magazine. He denied he was speaking out now only because that story was about to break, noting he had cooperated with the writer in its preparation.

Rather, the former senator said, the experience had haunted him all these years and he felt he needed for his own peace of mind to talk about it.

Maybe, he suggested, there was in it a lesson for the country to learn about the folly of the Vietnam War and "asking young men to risk their lives [and] asking them to take the lives of others."

Mr. Kerrey treated the incident in Vietnam for what it may well have been - only a tragic mistake committed in the course of carrying out orders in what he believed was a clear case of self-defense. But the allegation of his squad subordinate cast it in a much more somber light.

Smaller My Lai

He said Mr. Kerrey had ordered the women and children lined up and shot when no enemy troops were found in the area, fearing leaving them alive would imperil the SEAL team's escape from the hostile village.

That version painted the raid as a smaller My Lai, the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in March 1968 in one of the prime incidents that caused Americans at home to re-evaluate that ill-conceived U.S. military involvement.

If there was any possibility that this version of the incident might have been true, you would expect that the Pentagon would immediately undertake an investigation to determine whether indeed a war crime had been committed.

Instead, the Defense Department said only it had no current plans to review the award of the Bronze Star to Mr. Kerrey for that action.

Revealing and rehashing the whole affair is a terrible ordeal for Mr. Kerrey.

Shortly after it, he also won the Medal of Honor for another SEAL raid in which he lost a leg. Although he made a point at the news conference that he never had claimed he was a war hero and had never spoken of his medals as a presidential candidate in 1992, his military record obviously was a factor in his political success, first in being elected governor of Nebraska and later one of its two senators.

Mr. Kerrey said "yes" when asked directly whether the disclosure of the 1969 tragedy means he won't be running for president again in 2004, as had been widely speculated until the story broke. That, however, is the least of the sad ramifications of the revelation that either a horrible mistake or a war crime took place on that awful night in Vietnam.

That Mr. Kerrey carried the story with him untold for all those years challenges his longtime reputation for unusual candor in politics, although he made a strong case for all men who experience the horror of war and never talk about it as a means of putting it behind them.

Recently remarried, with his wife, Sarah, expecting their first child and with a new job as president of New School University here, Mr. Kerrey has suddenly been pulled back into the past he has tried to forget. So it also is, as he pointed out, for a nation that after all these years still hasn't come to terms with its role in Vietnam.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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