Bob Kerrey's Mission Impossible

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The British don't understand their own history, because so much of it happened overseas. — Salman Rushdie

Rushdie's tart observation about the British may hold true for Americans, too, if the furor over the latest revelations about Senator Bob Kerrey's Vietnam career is any measure. The forthcoming issue of the New York Times' Sunday magazine contains a painful confession by the decorated Navy SEAL that he was awarded a Bronze Star for leading an operation in February 1969 that has all the appearances of an atrocity against Vietnamese civilians. And the revelations, both through Kerrey's own shifting recollections and the even more damning account offered up by one of the men he commanded that fateful night at Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta, look set to stoke the fires of anguish over a war that continues to haunt America to this day.

Indeed, Vietnam has become a kind of moral benchmark in the public's judgment of presidential candidates. President Clinton was pilloried for finding a way to duck the draft, a mark against him that all but defined his relationship with the Pentagon for the duration of his presidency. By contrast, Al Gore is credited with having gone, albeit in the relatively protected guise of the Army journalist, despite his objections to the war. The fact that President George W. Bush's father managed to keep him in country in a relatively cushy assignment at the Texas Air National Guard was raised as something of a question-mark early on in his campaign, particularly when facing Senator John McCain, whose survival of incarceration and torture in Vietnam gave him an unimpeachable moral advantage.

Decorated but flawed?

McCain's lofty position also has held true for Kerrey. The former Nebraska Senator later lost part of a leg when a grenade exploded under him, part of an action for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. From this side of the Pacific, the straightforward story of a bemedalled, wounded hero resonated easily with a public which would rather not face up to the fact that Vietnam wasn't a replay of World War II — the so-called "Good War" — but a messy, muddled civil conflagration that could not be fought without compromising the values America cherished, and even then could not be won given the nature of the enemy.

And it's precisely that reluctance to confront the bigger questions over the Vietnam War that will make Kerrey's revelations has proved so troubling to many.

Here is an American hero, twice decorated for his heroics in the heat of battle, and later one of the most respected legislators on both sides of the aisle in the Senate telling the nation that despite the medal, he believes he did nothing heroic that night in Thanh Phong. Although the military honored him for killing 21 Vietcong in the operation, he now maintains that the only people who died were unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children.

Still, this does not make Bob Kerrey a monster; merely one of thousands of young Americans sent by their leaders to do an often monstrous job. Raised in the belief that their nation fought always and only for freedom and sent to Vietnam ostensibly to protect its people from an invading force of communists from the north, Kerrey and his men — like hundreds of thousands of others — found themselves in a moral vortex. While the politicians in far-off Washington never had their illusions challenged by daily reality, those sent to do the fighting were quickly apprised of the fact that for many South Vietnamese, the invaders were not the North Vietnamese, but the Americans. And often they found themselves in situations where their enemy included the civilian population of South Vietnam that supported and sustained the Vietcong guerrillas.

Fighting a guerrilla war

Kerrey opines, in the Times story, that the civilians of the village his men attacked were, in all probability, Vietcong supporters. And a local woman interviewed for the story makes no bones about the fact that her husband was a guerrilla. Because the Vietcong were not an invading force from the north; they were an indigenous guerrilla army that survived, prospered and the ultimately prevailed because of the support they received not only from their compatriots and commanders in the North or from Moscow and Beijing, but, more important, from within the civilian population of the south.

Ho Chi Minh and his cohorts were communists, to be sure, but it was their nationalist credentials that earned them popular support. They had led their nation's resistance to Japanese occupation and French colonialism, and their defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 prompted France to sign a withdrawal agreement at Geneva. The Geneva agreement temporarily divided the country into northern and southern zones for purposes of demobilization, pending nationwide elections for an independent government. But with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. was furious at the French for setting up a Southeast Asian "domino" to fall to the communist bloc, and set about reversing the decision. And they found a willing partner in the Bao Dai government, later led by Ngo Dien Diem, which had been set up by the French in the late '40s as a palatable alternative to Ho Chi Minh, and which wanted no part in national elections which the communists were bound to win. Both Washington and Diem rejected the Geneva agreement, and the U.S. poured in aid and advisers to help Diem resist its implementation.

Politicians' fantasies

Vietnam, then, was always at best a civil war, in which a large proportion of the nation the U.S. was ostensibly defending actually supported the other side. The conflict escalated to the point of drawing in U.S. troops directly in 1964 precisely because so many people in South Vietnam had continued to back the communists and created a support base for their insurgency. Never mind the fantasies of the politicians; when those U.S. troops arrived it soon became clear that in many cases the enemy they had been sent to fight was also the civilian population they'd been sent to protect.

At Thanh Phong, Kerrey and his men were on a "behind-the-lines" mission, but they were also not very far from Saigon. In the Vietnam war there was no frontline; the enemy was everywhere. Not in uniform, not always armed, not always a male of fighting age. And if a whole South Vietnamese village supported the Vietcong, providing a base, logistics and intelligence to soldiers who were often their husbands and sons, then where exactly was the line drawn between civilians and enemy personnel? It was that reality that gave rise to oft-quoted statement by an American officer in the field that "we had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Actions like those described by Kerrey were not, for the most part, the product of poor judgment or malice on the part of field commanders. The principle of individual accountability notwithstanding, the ultimate moral responsibility for what happened that night in Thanh Phong — and in countless other Thanh Phong's, both documented and undocumented — lies less with those who did the actual killing, but with those who sent a half million young Americans on a moral, political and military mission impossible.