When war itself becomes the crime

May 01, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AND SO America makes its wary way back to the psychiatric couch, careful to avoid all manner of emotional land mines. It is Vietnam again: not only the war, but the prism through which we examine our collective conscience and wonder if there is any statute of limitations on beating ourselves up.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey belatedly declares he is not a war criminal. But, a third of a century after a night in which innocents were slaughtered, he does not entirely grant himself absolution. One moonless night in an isolated hamlet called Thanh Phong, at least 13 unarmed women and children were killed. And Kerrey, then a 25-year-old lieutenant and the leader of a group of Navy SEALS dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, was awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement.

Thanh Phong was a village of four or five thatch huts strung along a shoreline. Between 75 and 150 people lived there when Kerrey says his men approached, heard noise and opened fire. But not everyone agrees with his version of events.

"The thing that I will remember until the day I die," Kerrey told the New York Times, "is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead. I was expecting to find Viet Cong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children.

"Please understand," Kerrey said, "that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire."

It is the desire of an entire generation. We wish to forget the things that bring us pain, and Vietnam was the war that ripped the nation apart. In places like Baltimore's Fort Holabird, where kids fresh out of school filled the rickety wooden Army buildings by the hundreds each day, half the draftees who showed up had notes from sympathetic doctors angling for a way out.

And those unlucky enough not to find such a patron went off to a war for which they were psychologically unprepared, unclear over the shifting rules of engagement and unstrung by the things that they saw and felt. Thanh Phong was not the only place on the map where all sense of civilization seems to have vanished.

Kerrey's version of that night is inconsistent with the memory of another member of his outfit, Gerhard Klann, who says the squad rounded up the women and children of the village, questioned them and did not know what to do with them. They were deep in enemy territory. If they let them go, they might alert enemy soldiers.

Klann says Kerrey gave the order to kill them. Kerrey had been in Vietnam only two months, the village was dark, the night fraught with dangers of all kinds. From a distance of 6 to 10 feet, Klann says, they raked the women and children with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds, heard moans, and fired again for another 30 seconds. The final cry came from a baby. Klann's version of the story is supported by a Vietnamese woman, then 30 years old, who hid nearby and watched the murders.

To a nation that still remembers Lt. Rusty Calley and the murder of innocents at a place called My Lai, the revelations about Thanh Phong carry echoes of Vietnam that Americans still don't want to think about. We were there, the true believers thought, because we were the good guys, the patriotic descendants of those who handed out candy bars while liberating Europe.

But good guys don't kill women and children. Rusty Calley, convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 unarmed civilians at My Lai, was sentenced to life at hard labor but served three years under house arrest at Fort Benning.

Bob Kerrey, silent for more than 32 years about his own dreadful moment, collected his Bronze Star, and later his Medal of Honor, as symbols of his bravery and the foundation of a political career.

This man might have been president. Our first president to commit war crimes, some might say -- except that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon preceded him.

But that phrase -- war crimes -- has a choking effect on us now. From this distance, it sounds a little glib. Mighty America had thrust itself into the heart of some other puny country's civil war. But inside those jungles, it was a bunch of kids thrust into the middle of chaos against a bunch of other kids.

It's too easy to take shots at Bob Kerrey now. Nobody knows the terror, and the confusion, and the madness that went on in the middle of that war. His penalty has been living with his memories for a third of a century. Never mind talk of war crimes. The continuing lesson of Vietnam is that when nations commit young people to kill each other, war itself is the crime.

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