Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

May 4, 2001

Kerrey, Blanton and the Liberals

It’s not as though we can’t reach back into the past, identify the suspect, put him in the dock and then convict him. That’s what a jury in a courtroom in Birmingham, Alabama, just did to 62-year old Tom Blanton, sentencing him to life for the church bombing that killed four little girls in 1963. No one is talking about the "ambiguities of that bitter and divided time," or the "fog" of the fight over segregation in the South. No one is saying that Blanton was just a compliant footsoldier in a struggle for which the commanding officers in Dixie – Strom Thurmond and the others – bear responsibility.

Yet listen to the forgiving words from liberals for Bob Kerrey, yesterday a US Senator and today the President of the New School in New York. Bob Scheer, Los Angeles Times columnist, liberal Democrat, writes that Kerrey is "a good man", and that our anger should be reserved for Robert McNamara, Pentagon chief in the JFK-LBJ years.

Or listen to Vanity Fair and Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, on a Fox talk show the evening of May 1, the day Tom Blanton was put away.

COLMES: What’s your view on Bob Kerrey?

HITCHENS: Of Bob Kerrey? Well, he’s my president, in fact, since I teach at the New School, and I think he wouldn’t – he wouldn’t have made that bad a president. I know him slightly. I like him very much…But look, none of the people he killed were raped. None of them were dismembered. None of them were tortured. None of them were mutilated, had their ears cut off. He never referred to them as gooks or slopes or afterwards. So... for one day’s work in a free-fire zone in the Mekong Delta, it was nothing like as bad as most days.

It’s not as though Hitchens is ill-attuned to the idea of war crimes. He has, after all, just published a long indictment of Henry Kissinger, one of McNamara’s successors in administering the Vietnam strategy that put young Kerrey and his fellow SEALs in that tiny Vietnamese village the night of February 24, 1969, set to kill anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path.

Why does Scheer say Kerrey is a "good" man and Hitchens confide to the Fox audience that "I like him very much"? Would they not ridicule some neighbor of Blanton’s who dared to say that he is "a good man," for whom he entertained feelings of affection. And what evidence is there that Kerrey has any valid claim to the adjective "good"? There’s far more evidence to say "Bob Kerrey is an evil man." His political career offers meager evidence to back any plea that Kerrey improved the human condition, and if we are to say that he is a good man solely because he voted against the war on Iraq, then we have to call Sam Nunn "good" too, and I doubt that even Scheer would want to do that.

Scheer, an unrelenting apologist for Bill Clinton down the years should surely remember that it was Kerrey who sabotaged Clinton’s first budget, back in 1993. In Scheer’s book that surely classes Kerrey as a bad man. His associates in the Senate mostly thought Kerrey was an arrogant shit. A Republican staffer who dealt with him down the years described him to Jeffrey St. Clair, my CounterPunch coeditor, as "the Democrats’ Alan Simpson. Smug, holier than thou and a vicious backstabber." That’s exactly the impression I had of Kerrey when I saw him on the campaign trail in New Hampshire in 1992. A cold fish, and a nasty one.

Now I can see that Hitchens was maybe trying to hit a vein of Swiftian irony in his remarks on that Fox show, trying to say that by the standards of what US forces were doing in Vietnam at that time, Kerrey’s unit was as well mannered as a dinner party designed by Martha Stewart. He only killed the women, he didn’t rape them first. But Hitchens should know that irony doesn’t work on TV, and there’s no palatable Martha Stewart-like comportment when you’re cutting throats and shooting babies at a range of ten feet.

Why did Hitchens have to insist he likes Kerrey "very much" Well, Hitchens has a taste for creeps, but usually they’re a little more offbeat than the president of the New School. Maybe Hitchens wants tenure at the New School. So instead of urging the New School students and faculty to demonstrate outside Kerrey’s office and demand he be sent to the International Court at the Hague to stand trial, and his salary be sent to Thanh Phong as reparations, he’s kissing Kerrey’s ass. People will do anything for tenure.

Jim Goode, late great editor, once said to me fiercely, "Alex, is your hate pure?" I said I hoped it was. What happened to Scheer and Hitchens? What happened to the cold steel of their hate? Actually, Scheer never had the cold steel of pure hate. He wanted comfort too much and now he’s got it. Long since, he’s gone soft in Santa Monica, going to parties with Oliver Stone and Barbra Streisand. Hitchens is a hater, but too obsessively. Just because Clinton put his hand up the skirt of some woman Hitchens cared for, he confused him with Pol Pot.

Kerrey’s an admitted war criminal. "Following orders" is no defense. Just listen to his disgusting disclosures to Dan Rather in 60 Minutes II, Monday night.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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Rather: If in fact it did happen. If there was an old man, an old woman and three children being killed. Was it or was it not within the rules of engagement for you and your men as you understood it, if necessary, to kill those people?

Kerrey: Yes, Again, I don’t know how you’re gonna cut this tape, but I don’t have any doubt that the people that we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong. And at the very most, were supporting their efforts to kill us.

Rather: Old men, women and children

Kerrey: Yes, I mean, the Viet Cong, in a guerrilla war, the people that get caught in the middle are the civilians. And the Viet Cong were a thousand per cent more ruthless than any standard operating procedure that any American GI or Navy SEAL had.

Here’s Scheer’s "good man" STILL saying that the babies he killed "were a thousand per cent more ruthless" than any US force or procedure.

A slice of Rather’s CBS interview with Kerrey’s fellow SEAL, Gerhard Klann:

Narration: This is also where Bob Kerrey says his unit came under attack.

Rather: Did you take fire coming in?

Klann: No.

Rather: Gunfire of any kind?

Klann: No.

Rather: Anything even remotely sounding like gunfire?

Klann: No, not that I can recall. No.

Rather What’d you do this time?

Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.

Rather: What was the make-up of this group?

Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.

Rather: So you got all the people out of there.

Klann: We herded them together and in a group.

Rather: Were any of these people armed?

Klann: I don’t believe so.

Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?

Klann: I didn’t see any.

Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?

Klann: Yeah we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?

Rather: What did you do then?

Klann: We killed em.

Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?

Klann: We shot em all.

Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?

Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.

Rather: What was the order?

Klann: To kill em.

Rather: Why?

Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.

Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation was it to say that?

Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.

Rather: Do you remember him saying that?

Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.

Rather: And then what happened?

Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.

Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?

Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.

Rather: At roughly what range?

Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.

Rather: Then did the shooting stop?

Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.

Rather: Was it quiet?

Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.

Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?

Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.

Rather: What happened to that baby?

Klann: Shot like the rest of em.

Rather: On camera we told Bob Kerrey about Gerhard Klann’s account of the events at Thanh Phong, and also revealed to him that much of Klann’s story is supported by a woman who says she was an eyewitness in the village. Senator Kerrey seemed stunned, but then conceded that what happened at Thanh Phong may have been worse than he remembers.

As Chris Caldwell wrote in New York Press, Kerrey maybe didn’t remember too clearly what happened at Thanh Phong because his unit was doing the same thing every night.

Kerrey’s been claiming that he’s felt anguish and remorse down the years. Nothing he’s said in recent weeks supports this claim. Mostly he’s been saying that it was all an honest mistake, perpetrated under orders that permitted him to kill anything in Thanh Phong that moved.

Rather: All but one of the victims were women and children. There was one man described as an older man. That being the case, why shouldn’t it be considered a war crime? Or an atrocity? Or be an investigation?

Kerrey: To describe it as a war crime, I think is wrong. Or to describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right. Because that’s how it felt and that’s why I feel guilt and shame for it.

Rather: Are you concerned at all about the consequences of this becoming public?

Kerrey: Well am I, certainly, I’m that’s a possibility. I’ve got to be prepared to tolerate any consequences of this. I understand that that are all kinds of potential consequences, up to and including somebody saying, this is a war crime. And let’s investigate and charge him and put him in prison.

That’s reasonable. Let’s push a trial of Kerrey, and of his commanding officers. Let Kofi Annan send a UN unit down Fifth Avenue to the Village, to seize Kerrey. If Blanton can get put in the dock for what he did in the Sixties, so can the former Senator, now running the New School where fugitive scholars from Hitler’s Germany were given shelter, and where Hannah Arendt taught.

In the preface to her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt wrote, "We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain."

STOP PRESS! I have now received a call from Hitchens. He is eager to stress that at the time he made those comments on Fox he was not up to speed on Kerrey’s account of his actions at Thanh Phong. (We should note that Hitchens appeared on Fox on Monday, April 30, by which time the Kerrey affair had been headline material across the weekend.) In his call Hitchens was at particular pains to stress his disgust at the New School’s board members who have issued a statement asserting that it is improper to attribute specific blame for war crimes, which, as noted above, has been a standard liberal line.

He said he was forwarding the text of an open letter to his colleagues at the New School. I have received portions of this, though a middle section is lacking, and in its place, possibly owing to Hitchens’ lack of proficiency in using his computer there is what appears to be the email address of the NYU faculty. However, I do have the creditable final section, which runs as follows:

"It [the statement] also – but this is only a detail – takes at face value the sleazy and evasive and self-pitying utterances made by our new President and my former friend. That passive acceptance might just have passed muster if Kerrey had said ONE WORD about the Vietnamese civilians he admits to having killed. (Let's pass over the ones he isn't so sure he killed.) But examine the remarks issued under his name and under the names of Tishman and Scaturro [NYU trustees]. There isn't even a polite nod in the direction of the victims. This is a scandal pure and simple. Should I dilate on the supposed principles of the School? Why embarrass myself, or you? Last month you didn't know that Kerrey had left a ditchful of civilians behind him and accepted a medal for an action that read – officially phrased – 21 VC KIA (BC). That means twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action (body count). So – a liar as well as a killer, since he knew the figures were falsified. This month you do know. So perhaps by the watercooler or in the corridor we hear: ‘Oh hi Bob! Shit happens, right?"

Copyright © 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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