Who commits a war crime?

May 03, 2001|By David D. Perlmutter

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Before he left for Vietnam as a young officer, former Sen. Bob Kerrey should have met my grandfather.

In 1921, his troops entered Turkey as part of Greece's "Vietnam" -- a disastrous war of liberation of the Christian peoples of western Anatolia. The enemy's tactics were simple but effective: scorched earth and scorched babies. Whenever the Greek army entered any village, they found the Greek population slaughtered and the Greek district in ashes. There was no one left to liberate.

Reprisals seemed inevitable. Greek troops had plenty of Turkish civilians available to punish in the name of dead compatriots and cousins.

My grandfather, then a captain and one of Greece's most decorated soldiers, gathered the men of his company and told them that to kill noncombatants, whatever the excuse, was to lose all honor. Then he brandished his revolver and announced that he would execute any man who assaulted or killed any Turkish civilian.

As a historian of war, I have heard few examples of such a threat. I know of no invocation of this kind to have emerged from the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kerrey's version of events in 1969 in Thanh Phong, when his SEAL team killed 13 to 20 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, raises the same issue of responsibility in wartime. His explanation, however, gave the reasonable defense that they didn't know civilians were in the line of fire.

But the rush to forgive Mr. Kerrey by practically every commentator and politician in the pundit Rolodex before all the facts are known is troubling. So is Mr. Kerrey's McCarthyistic accusation that journalists who question his story are "collaborating" with the enemy.

After all, the United States created a standard by which to judge our own actions. All American military personnel in Vietnam received two pocket-sized cards. One was the "Nine Rule[s]" for "winning" the struggles for the hearts and minds of the civilian population by showing them "understanding and generosity."

Among the rules were to "treat women with politeness and respect" and "reflect honor upon yourself and the United States of America."

The second card outlined the proper (and honorable) techniques to handle prisoners and included a message from President Lyndon B. Johnson: "The courage and skill of our men in battle will be matched by their magnanimity when the battle ends."

The weight of the evidence from veterans' testimonies and war histories (as well as the recollection by the Vietnamese) is that while many U.S. troops obeyed the spirit of such rules, many others broke them.

The problem was two-fold.

First, the Vietnamese "enemy" was indistinguishable from the civilians. Veteran Steve Hassna recalled in the Short-Timers Journal that often the innocently smiling old man sitting by the side of the road was a trail watcher setting you up for an ambush. So, he asked, "Do you shoot him" just to be safe?

Second, most combat GIs were unprepared for a counter-insurgency war. Trained to re-fight World War II, in-country for only a 365-day rotation and forced to play out ridiculous tactics of search-and-destroy and vertical envelopment, they suffered exasperation and rising fury. Civilian atrocities often arose out of the inability to strike the combat enemy.

So who are the war criminals? The Viet Cong and their allies committed many atrocities against their own people. But are they the standard against which we should hold ourselves? My grandfather would probably say that military and political leaders who allow their troops to commit war crimes -- whatever the justification -- not only failed their men but also dishonored their country.

In the name of some 55,000 dead Americans and some several million dead Vietnamese, we have the right to ask who was responsible for what war crimes in Vietnam.

How can we in good conscience hunt down Nazi bureaucrats or Bosnian Serb generals while refusing to consider the equivalent guilt of some of our own statesmen and commanders?

David D. Perlmutter is senior associate for research at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University. He is the author of "Visions of War" (St. Martin's, 1999).

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