FORMER SEN. Bob Kerrey was a young Navy SEAL lieutenant when he commanded a raid against a Vietnam hamlet 32 years ago.
The enemy was almost impossible to discern. Was that villager a Viet Cong spy or an innocent civilian who wanted nothing to do with war?
The perilous conditions hardly justify Mr. Kerrey's action on that moonless night in Thanh Phong Feb. 25, 1969, when his forces killed at least 13 innocent women and children. They only help explain.
Mr. Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska and now president of New York's New School University, won the Medal of Honor and lost part of a leg in Vietnam. He considered running for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination before a reporter caught wind of Thanh Phong. As the story breaks, he's trying to do damage control, telling his version of events. His account is spotty.
Time and denial may repress or distort memories. Five of Mr. Kerrey's SEAL team members support his version, though one member and a Vietnamese witness give a different, more horrible account.
One thing is clear: Innocent people died that night in Thanh Phong. Humanity lost.
The United States, fittingly, honors Vietnam War veterans with a solemn memorial in Washington. More than 58,000 brave and valiant soldiers lost their lives in a conflict that had great opposition here and unforeseen perils there.
Innocent war victims need to be remembered, too. Not just victims of Bob Kerrey's team but also those in such places as Rwanda, Kosovo and the Sudan.
Civilian deaths -- even atrocities -- often accompany intense ground warfare. Rules of engagement can be forgotten under duress. At other times, soldiers are unnecessarily brutal.
The nation may never figure out which was the case in Thanh Phong. But we can mourn innocent victims of that disaster.