Bob Kerrey and Collateral Damage

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That night when Bob Kerrey's men attacked a village in the Mekong Delta, the women and children who died were, in the heartless phrase, "collateral damage." They were victims of the fog of battle, or of the atrocity of Oops! You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

Vietnam was some omelet. But it was a war, after all — a tragic, confusing, mishandled business in which the enemy merged with the civilian population, and the girl who did the laundry might blow you up with a grenade hidden beneath the folded underwear. Brave, decent men like Bob Kerrey got hurt or killed and sometimes made mistakes that killed the innocent.

Timothy McVeigh appropriated the term collateral damage to describe the 19 children whom he murdered in Oklahoma City. But what exactly was McVeigh's war? A free-lance fanaticism that is idiot cousin to the real thing, I suppose. McVeigh's victims, his collateral damage, were just as dead. They perished without the small prestige of having died in a conflict that meant something — anything.

The military historian John Keegan ended his classic study "The Face of Battle" (published a year after the last helicopters lifted ignominiously off the American embassy roof in Saigon) by saying that, what with Vietnam and nuclear weapons, "the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself." It is pretty to think so. What we have left, in any case, is chronic but localized messes — and terrorism of the McVeigh or bin Laden variety.

If big war is for the moment obsolete, collateral damage remains, as if to keep up tradition. We no longer have the higher moral purposes (such as eliminating Hitler or saving human freedom) but keep the ghastliness of war. We have drifted far out of sight of the Geneva Conventions, or of any rules at all. "Women and children first," once the formula of lifeboat gallantry, takes on an evil meaning.

Serbian snipers at work in the hills above Sarajevo a few years ago kept themselves dosed with slivovitz around the clock (as extra insurance against inhibitions of conscience) and potted away at women and children darting through the city under their cross hairs. Collateral damage is supposed to mean a mistake, but this killing was deliberate, focused and recreational. War is a great and terrible permission. A spirit of satanic play shoots a jolt of lethal impulse through the trigger finger. This is absolute power, on a person-to-person basis. It tends to corrupt absolutely. Degenerate violence takes on a life of its own. It feeds especially on women and children, the victims of convenience. It seeks them out. In the drug wars, a shadow struggle, an American woman and her adopted daughter got carelessly shot down the other day over Peru.

The devils snipe. The giants brawl; they trample the flowers. They break things. Sunt lacrimae rerum — the world's sad mortality. But collateral damage is a wily concept, and you have to make distinctions. There are varieties. Sometimes, as at My Lai, it occurs as atrocious revenge. (One detail made My Lai indelible in my mind: the murderers took a lunch break.) Sometimes, as at Kent State, or Amritsar in 1919, the damage may be the consequence of bad crowd control. Stupidity and atrocity are closely related.

True awfulness sets in when collateral damage is no longer collateral but becomes the intended point. Innocents are terrorized as a matter of policy. Stalin's Ukrainian famine, the rape of Nanking, the London Blitz, Dresden, the Tokyo fire bombings — all these accomplished a purposeful slaughter of bystanders in order to break an enemy's will. Sometimes the collateral damage has a moral justification — kill more than 100,000 civilians at Hiroshima, for example, in order to end the war and spare millions of lives, American and Japanese, that might have been lost in an invasion of the home islands. That argument persists, of course.

Now and then, collateral damage has even aspired to achieve an extermination. The Holocaust represented the ultimate infliction of the form. Tribes less well organized than the Germans (Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi) conduct raggedy versions of a similar ethnic malevolence.

The term collateral damage implies something secondary and unimportant. But it's the collateral damage that most haunts us later on. It's because of My Lai, or incidents like Bob Kerrey's night in the Mekong Delta, that that war keeps coming back and back and back to the surface of the American conscience, all these years later — unquiet ghosts that you may still see flickering, from time to time, in Kerrey's troubled eye.