May 1, 2001
former Senator Bob Kerrey murder harmless women and children in
Vietnam one night in 1969?
No, says Kerrey: he and his men were
just returning fire from the tiny village of Thanh Phong. It was dark, and
only after firing 1200 rounds of ammunition did they discover that they
had inadvertently killed more than a dozen noncombatants.
Yes, says Gerhard Klann, a member of
the six-man SEALs team Kerrey led that night. He says the village was
already subdued when Kerrey ordered the civilians an admittedly
blurry category in that war lined up and shot, for fear that they
might help the enemy later.
Other members of the team vaguely
support Kerreys story but dont want to speak to the media
about the incident. They may be telling the truth, or they may feel that to
accuse Kerrey would be to admit their own guilt in participating in the
Klanns account is vivid, and he
cant be suspected of self-exculpation: he says he cut an old
mans throat with Kerrey helping hold the victim down. This is what
lawyers call an admission against interest: the fact that
the witness is willing to make himself look bad gives his testimony
special weight. But who knows? The details are too few, too indistinct,
and too confusing to allow certainty either way.
One thing is clear, though. If you want
war, this is the sort of thing you are going to get. Combat veterans always
come home with memories they dont care to share, often guilty
memories. Kerrey says he is still haunted by the memory of that dreadful
night. But is his conscience bearing any fruit?
suppose you found yourself in combat in Vietnam at the age of 25. In a
moment of rage and terror, not knowing where danger lay and finding the
natives incomprehensible and exasperating, you and your platoon cut loose
and did something awful. Something youd never imagined doing
back when you were mowing the lawn in the suburbs. Something you hope
nobody on earth ever finds out about.
A few months later you go home,
minus part of your leg, dreaming every night about the scene youre
glad your family has no inkling of. They think youre a war hero. So
does everyone. You modestly demur, but without explaining why: let them
think youre just being self-effacing.
You publicly protest against the war,
and your words mean more to the folks than the words of some
draft-dodging hippie college kid, because youre a war hero. In a
few years you run for office, letting your promoters portray you as a war
hero even though the phrase war hero sounds, to your inner
ear, like a contradiction in terms.
Those who know you, know nothing of
your inner life, how you hate war, or the real reason why. You wince when
they praise your courage. They think youve already met, and passed,
the test of your lifetime.
Maybe, without revealing your terrible
secret, you can use your conscience productively in politics. You can help
make sure other boys dont have to go through what youve
endured what youre still enduring.
You wind up in the U.S. Senate. You
have to join in debates and votes on whether to send American military
forces into combat, whether to impose harsh sanctions on other countries,
whether to let the president order the bombing of cities without a
declaration of war. Knowing what you know about how the innocent get
hurt and knowing that your president, a fellow Democrat, is using
his power cynically to distract attention from his pending impeachment
what do you do?
Do you use your reputation as a war
hero to prevent needless bloodshed? Do you speak out against sanctions
that mean disease and starvation for thousands of children? Do you
denounce a criminal president for inflicting death abroad to save his own
Or do you keep a low profile to save
your own political hide? Do you quietly sit out the debates on war and
sanctions? Do you join your party in protecting your president and voting
to acquit him when you know he is guilty as charged no, much
guiltier than charged?
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