Who Made Bob Kerrey Do It?


I would not call it a war crime. To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that’s how it felt. —Bob Kerrey, CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes II: “Memories of a Massacre,” May 1

Soon after The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II focused on the sharply dissonant stories of what happened in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong on a dark night in 1969, there were pickets outside New School University—Robert Kerrey, president—on West 12th Street.

They were from the Internationalist Group, part of the League for the Fourth international—in short, Trotskyites. Amid the shouts, they distributed a flyer with the headline:

“Drive Out War Criminal Bob Kerrey! He Should Be Brought to Justice by a Court of His Surviving Victims in Ho Chi Minh City!”

But now, the pickets gone, Kerrey is off the front pages, as well as the inside ones, and his name is seldom heard on talk radio or television.

In a May 3 article in the Lincoln, Nebraska, Journal Star, which used to be the former senator’s hometown newspaper, Kerrey was described as “relaxed . . . The public’s fixation on that night in Thanh Phong could be over, he said. . . . ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Kerrey added.

It does indeed look as if there will be no official investigation of the charge made by one of the seven members of Kerrey’s Raiders that night, Gerhard Klann. On 60 Minutes II and in the April 29 New York Times Magazine, Klann said that at Kerrey’s direction, 15 or so young children, including a baby, were herded together and, at close range, shot to death.

“We just basically slaughtered those people,” Klann said. After the fusillade, the baby was still crying. Says Klann: “The baby was shot to death like the rest of them.”

Kerrey denies Klann’s account. He says they were in a free-fire zone on a moonless night. The seven Navy SEALs were fired upon and returned fire in the dark. Only when they went into the village did Kerrey and others see the corpses. (U.S. Naval Observatory records say the moon was 60 percent visible until an hour after the killings.)

According to Gerhard Klann, “Kerrey kneeled on an old man’s chest and slashed his throat.”

The worst may be over for Kerrey so far as most of the media is concerned. But questions remain. Columnist Michael Kelly (New York Post, May 2): “Why, as Kerrey admits, were the corpses all found huddled in a group in the middle of the village, in a manner suggestive of an execution, and very hard to explain under Kerrey’s version?” (The May 5 Economist asks the same question.)

As soon as the story broke, three United States senators who had served in Vietnam—John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Chuck Hagel—said of their former colleague:

“Many people have been forced to do things in war they are deeply ashamed of later. Yet for our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the worst, and regrettably, most frequent mistakes we as a country can make.”

This resolution—if not total absolution—appears to be the consensus of the majority of those, in and out of public life, who have spoken about that night in Thanh Phong. Robert Mann, who has written about the Vietnam War, summed it up in the April 30 New York Times:

“Let us not forget that official decisions made in Washington—in the White House and in Congress—resulted in the needless death of millions.”

Even at New York’s War Resisters League, the nation’s most persistently active group of pacifists, this was the core reaction, as Felicia Lee reported in the May 6 New York Times: “With Kerrey, we are blaming the victim again. . . . He was doing what tons and tons of people were doing.”

A.J. Muste—the radical pacifist who turned Martin Luther King on to direct-action pacifism and was a key strategist in the antiwar and civil rights movements—would have agreed with that analysis. But he would have gone deeper, as I think the War Resisters League knows.

In my biography of A.J., Peace Agitator, I quote Muste—who has had an abiding influence on my life—as saying more than once that each of us must understand that “this naked human being is the one real thing in the face of the mechanics and mechanized institutions of our age.” And A.J. cites the antiestablishment political scientist C. Wright Mills as requiring “the resolution of one human being to take his own fate into his own hands.”

(See also Christopher Hitchens, “Leave No Child Behind?” The Nation, May 28.)

In all the commentary about Kerrey’s anguish about the atrocity—and the original sin of those in the White House and Congress who were fundamentally responsible for all the killings in Vietnam—one voice stood out. Patricia Sette’s letter in the April 30 New York Times:

“Everyone, including Mr. Kerrey, seems to think that this story is about him. It’s almost as if those who were killed have become mere stage props in some morality play instead of real human beings who suffered a terrifying and undeserved death. No matter what degree of understanding Bob Kerrey deserves, it is the victims who are at the center of this story.”

On 60 Minutes II, Kerrey would not call the terrifying deaths of those victims a war crime. Had there been any survivors, would that distinction have made a difference to them?

And as Michael Kelly asks: If Kerrey’s version—that Kerrey’s Raiders just returned fire—is true, “Why did they all die? Why did none survive with only wounds?”

What of the baby who was still crying and had to be terminated with extreme prejudice? To be continued.