SINCE BOB Kerrey's confession that his unit killed about 20 unarmed civilians in Vietnam, there has been a lot of talk about "the fog of war" and the "moral ambiguity" facing our soldiers there.
Especially noteworthy is the way other veterans have rallied to his defense. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "The injunction to love all as we would be loved is the first casualty of war." War's traditional first casualty is, of course, truth.
The "war is hell" defense was the standard American reaction to the revelations of the My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in 1968. The person in charge was another lieutenant, William R. Calley. He was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life; he was released after three years of house arrest.
Watching Mr. Kerrey's television interviews about what he acknowledges was "an atrocity" committed by his unit in 1969 has been painful. His account has varied: His men were fired on, but maybe it was just "a noise"; he was surprised that civilians were present even though his squad had interrogated civilians there 12 days earlier; he "will not contradict" the memory of Gerhard Klann, a member of the unit who says they rounded up women and children and executed them.
The former Nebraska senator says, "It's not my memory of it," then later he denies it outright: "That did not happen."
Much has been made of the vagaries of memory. But we know there are things past forgetting -- for example, shooting people at close range. The event appears seared into the memory of Mr. Klann, who first confessed his participation to a SEAL officer 20 years ago and whose account is independently confirmed by at least two Vietnamese witnesses.
Mr. Kerrey invokes the "just following orders" defense ("We were instructed not to take prisoners."). As if the women and children he encountered in that village fit the definition of prisoners of war.
Mr. Kerrey wants to confess; his guilt and shame are palpable. Then he tries to split hairs between an atrocity and a war crime. He accepted a Bronze Star that he knew he didn't deserve with a citation that claimed "21 Vietcong killed -- two enemy weapons captured," both fabrications. (What are we to think of the official description of the action for which he received the Medal of Honor three weeks later, which he says he didn't deserve?)
In a final disservice to all who served honorably in that war, Mr. Kerrey explains his silence: "I don't think it's fair to say I kept a secret for 32 years. We don't expect veterans of the Second World War to come forward and tell everything they did," because "their cause was just."
Expanding on the theme of how unfair it is to be a Vietnam veteran, he says, "We come back, we find out that the American people didn't want us to do it. And ever since that time we've been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don't like it."
This is an odd bit of self-pity from someone who owes a considerable part of his political success to his status as war hero. It also draws on the myth of Vietnam veterans as victims and overlooks the real casualties of Mr. Kerrey's actions, the unfortunate residents of Than Phong.
The intentional killing of unarmed civilians by a member of an armed force is a war crime. There is persuasive evidence that Mr. Kerrey is guilty of this, but he will never stand trial.
In fact, he may be in the process of receiving a public exoneration, couched in the language of understanding and forgiveness. Mr. McCain believes that because Mr. Kerrey "recovered his humanity, that he felt remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country -- is enough for his salvation."
Perhaps it is unfair to judge someone for the worst thing he ever did, but our prisons are full of such people.
In the end, if the Vietnam War demonstrated anything, it was that we cared little for those on whose behalf we were ostensibly fighting. Two million of them died but the only names inscribed on a memorial are those of 58,000 Americans. The Vietnamese dead lie nameless and unmourned except by those who loved them.
Gordon Livingston, a Vietnam War veteran, is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.