Former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska) was a presidential hopeful and a rising star in the Democratic party when, for some reason, this January he suddenly decided to drop out of politics. At the time, his decision puzzled his friends and supporters: now, they know why. For he knew that the real story about what happened "One Awful Night in Thanh Phong" as Gregory L. Vistica's piece on Kerrey's career as a war criminal is entitled was about to come out. If you want to read a story that just about sums up the horror and immorality of the Vietnam war, then follow the link to the New York Times Magazine article by Vistica on the 1969 massacre carried out by "Kerrey's Raiders" in the small Vietnamese hamlet of Thanh Phong. According to Vistica, Kerrey, in command of an operation to "take out" a local Vietcong official, led a small band of American soldiers as they slaughtered at least 13 civilians, including women, old men, and children. Sicken yourself, and read the nausea-inducing account of how Kerrey and the men under his command came upon a Vietnamese dwelling, which Kerrey claims they did not know contained an old man, an old woman, and three children, and slaughtered them all. Kerrey does not deny it, exactly, but is obviously trying to minimize his own role. However, dramatic testimony by Gerhard Klann a former Navy Seal and member of "Kerrey's Raiders" who has been haunted by the truth all these years tells a different story.
Back in 1998, Klann gave a detailed account of the Thanh Phong massacre to Vistica, a respected defense correspondent for Newsweek, who had heard it from a commander, who had heard it from Klann. Vistica's story, originally intended for Newsweek, was killed by the editors when Kerrey decided against a presidential run, leading Howard Kurtz to opine that "Newsweek's decision almost seems to suggest that being involved in the wartime killing of civilians is newsworthy if a man is running for president but not if he is a United States Senator." A Newsweek editor is apparently not embarrassed to admit that he thought the story was "less relevant" once Kerrey had dropped his White House bid almost as if they were blackmailing him on behalf of the Clinton gang, who were satisfied once Kerrey was no longer a threat to Clinton's anointed heir. But, then, they wouldn't do that, now would they?
Yet the truth, as they say, will out. Vistica went to the New York Times Magazine with his story, and this coming Tuesday [May 1, 1, 9 p.m. ET/PT], Klann will speak out on CBS's Sixty Minutes II. Vistica's account is chilling:
"Klann says he grabbed the man, placed his hand over his mouth and took him away from the children so they couldn't see what he was about to do. 'I stuck him here,' he says, pointing to a spot just below his rib cage. 'Then I did it again,' pointing to his upper back. The man turned and grabbed Klann's forearm, the one with the knife, and pushed it away. 'He wouldn't die. He kept moving, fighting back.' Klann says he signaled for assistance and, as Ambrose watched, Kerrey came over and helped push the man to the ground. Kerrey put his knee on the man's chest, Klann says, as Klann drew his knife across his neck."
Let's be clear. We aren't talking about an armed combatant, here, but an old Vietnamese man, the grandfather of the three children cowering behind their grandmother. American soldiers, heavily armed and on the prowl, jumped an old man, and knifed him, but "he wouldn't die," testifies Klann, he kept "fighting back." Yes, this is one of the many inconveniences that aggressors have had to face throughout history. It has often been their undoing: their intended victims, instead of letting themselves be conquered, have the temerity to fight back. Another inconvenience is that the truth about the brutality of the conquest or attempted conquest, in the case of Vietnam very often comes out, in spite of the best efforts to cover up the truth. This discredits would-be empire-builders in the eyes of their own subjects, and exposes their policies to a rigorously critical analysis they otherwise would not have to endure.
Kerrey, incredibly, says he doesn't remember his role in killing the old man. Is that the sort of thing a man is likely to forget? But Klann hasn't forgotten: he says it was Kerrey, and Mike Ambrose, another member of "Kerrey's Raiders," seems to corroborate Klann's gut-wrenching story. It was only fifteen minutes after the first series of murders that "Kerrey's Raiders" committed their second war crime of the evening. According to Klann, they then came upon a cluster of thatched hut dwellings, which they quickly invaded, rounding up 15 or more people again, unarmed civilians: women, children and old people questioning them as to the whereabouts of their quarry. They "debated their options," says Klann, and finally decided that they had to kill them all on the grounds that, if they let them go, the presence of the Americans would soon be known to the enemy a development, they believed, that would surely be fatal. The results of this militarized moral calculus translated into a war crime, as described by Klann via Vistica:
"Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting raking the group with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds. They heard moans, Klann says, and began firing again, for another 30 seconds. There was one final cry, from a baby. "The baby was the last one alive," Klann says, fighting back tears. 'There were blood and guts splattering everywhere.' Klann does not recall the men firing at the people who, in Kerrey's memory and the after-action reports, tried to run away after the initial massacre."
For this, Kerrey received a Bronze Medal: "I never bragged about it," he avers, and I suppose for that we ought to be grateful. The ex-Senator from Nebraska has changed his story several times, but Klann has been consistent: he and the rest of "Kerrey's Raiders" committed a war crime in in Thanh Phong, and this would appear to be legally as well as morally correct. The rules of warfare acknowledged by the US absolutely forbid the killing of unarmed noncombatants, especially prisoners. The irony here is that, for alleged crimes such as these, Radovan Karadizc and other Serbian "war criminals" (including Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-leader of Yugoslavia) have been indicted by the self-sanctified "International Criminal Tribunal" for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and arrest warrants have been issued. But who will go up to the New School and slap the handcuffs on Kerrey?
Kerrey is naturally trying to wriggle out of it, and deny his culpability: no doubt that, before this is over, he'll go on the "Today Show" and cry his eyes out, just like US Navy commander Scott Waddle of the infamous Ehime Maru incident, who avoided a court martial proceeding and got off with a slap on the wrist and a full pension.
But the real point to be made here is that the war crimes committed by "Kerrey's Raiders" were almost inevitable, given the decisions of US policymakers. The prospect of a land war in Asia had long been feared by opponents of US intervention: John T. Flynn, the Old Right radio commentator and journalist, sounded the alarm bells as early as the mid-1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower started giving mostly covert support to Vietnam's French overlords and their native allies. No less a personage than General Douglas MacArthur joined Flynn in his forebodings of disaster: in April 1961, MacArthur warned JFK that it would be a big mistake to fight in Southeast Asia, and that America's line of defense ought to be Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines. General Matthew Ridgway, MacArthur's successor as Army Chief of Staff, made a similar argument, contending that a land war in Asia would be a disaster for the US. Another critic of intervention at the time, General J. Lawton Collins, said that he did not "know of a single commander that was in favor of fighting on the land mass of Asia."
Fighting a battle they were bound to lose, the US military faced with an impossible situation recognized no rules, but rather made them up as they went along. According to David Marion, then a captain assigned as the senior American military advisor to the local warlord, Tiet Lun Duc, the policy in force at the time was to drive out the Vietcong "by almost any means." Marion cited Duc as saying: "If you are my friend, you will do fine. You support me and the government of Vietnam, we get along. You do not, you're Vietcong, you die." "And those," says Marion, "were the rules."
These rules obey, or die were enforced to the hilt by local American commanders, such as Captain Roy Hoffmann, Kerrey's superior in the chain of command, described by Vistica as "a cigar-chomping officer who brandished an M-16 assault rifle and wore a revolver when he visited troops in the field." Kerrey recalls that "he was the classic body-count guy. Bunkers destroyed, hooches [houses] destroyed, sort of [a] scorekeeper." Hoffmann gives the classic apologia for the massacre at Thanh Phong: "This was war," Hoffmann said in an interview with Vistica. "This wasn't Sunday school." And Hoffman was determined that it would never be mistaken for Sunday school. He requested, and was granted, a request to higher-ups that the rules be changed. Up until this point, US troops had not been allowed to fire unless they were fired upon first: now, they were allowed to shoot if they "felt threatened." "I told them you not only have authority, I damned well expect action. If there were men there and they didn't kill them or capture them, you'd hear from me."
Kill or you'd hear from the strutting, cigar-chomping martinet Hoffmann, and perhaps spend a few weeks in the brig. So they killed, without compunction, enforcing the edict of Warlord Duc who decreed most of his Thanh Phu district to be a "free-fire zone." This policy, which allowed US forces to destroy "targets of opportunity," was the logical (albeit crazed) consequence of a policy imposed by civilians, which in effect compelled US soldiers to engage in widespread war crimes. Some of these crimes, such as the massacre at My Lai, were exposed back then: more are now coming out, and this should hardly be surprising.
What is baffling, however, is that there remains any doubt that it was the policymakers who were and are the real criminals: yes, Kerrey and his comrades committed war crimes, but the really culpable ones are the civilians who not only formulated the war policy, but rationalized it long after its failure was widely recognized. As Marion points out, Vietnam's peasants were told that they had to give up their ancestral lands and move to "strategic hamlets," but "they had been there for generations. They weren't going to leave, and basically they didn't care who was in charge." Those who refused to move were considered "Vietcong sympathizers," and therefore fair game. Eventually, all of Vietnam and a good part of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Laos was turned into a "free-fire zone," as the frustrated Americans turned to increasingly desperate measures and were, finally, driven into a murderous rage.
If there is any justice in this world, Bob Kerrey will be placed under arrest, charged with multiple counts of murder, as well as conspiracy to cover it up, and told that he has the right to remain silent. That this will never happen is proof in excess that the idea of justice is not universally applicable. It bends, and mutates, depending on the nationality and circumstances of the accused: the US Justice Department is still pursuing and deporting Nazi war criminals, but as for our own war criminals, they not only roam free, but they are in the highest councils of state, and are even counted among our potential presidential candidates. As the Wicked Witch of the West put it, as she was dissolving under the assault of a pail of water from Dorothy's bucket: "What a world! What a world!"
I am speaking on the "The Truth About the Kosovo War," this Saturday, at San Francisco State, on a panel organized by "Projected Censored." The panel will take place from 1 2:15, pm on campus, in Gym 146. Follow this link for more information about the event. It also will be broadcast on the Web. If you're in the area, you really ought to stop by: it should be fairly interesting, as this is a meeting of lefties, the kind of folks who think that "Cuba leads the world in organic farming" is one of the top 12 censored stories of the year. Yikes! I can hardly wait….
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