May 7, 2001
Former Governor and former Senator of Nebraska Bob Kerrey has been featured recently in the New York Times magazine and on 60 Minutes Two. He was interviewed this time, not about his presidential aspirations, but about his past role in Viet Nam as the leader of the Navy Seals commando squad which carried out a raid in 1969 in Thanh Phong, a village in the Mekong Delta. Kerrey was later awarded a Bronze Medal for this operation.
Another Seal who participated in this mission –in fact, a friend of Kerrey's –has recently spoken publicly about what took place in Thanh Phong. His version was corroborated by independent statements made by people interviewed in Viet Nam. Kerrey disputes some of what comes out. But everyone agrees that at least 20 unarmed women, elderly men, children and even a baby were killed in brutal fashion during the raid on this tiny village.
Kerrey, who kept silent about Thanh Phong for many years, now states candidly that he has had continual nightmares of this mission, wondering what happened, was it a panic, inexperience or a real military necessity. He knows he has blocked things out, he says, and perhaps distorted his own memory of what took place as a mode of survival. Kerrey wrote recently, " ... the greatest danger of war is not losing your life but the taking of others', and that human savagery is a very slippery slope." Kerrey knows, what millions of other soldiers, in too many generations, also know.
But when asked whether he considered what he did as a war crime, Kerrey says no. He accepts the reasoning made by the Pentagon about Viet Nam –that it was necessary to kill civilians.
In a war, the invader is often considered the enemy by the civilians of that country which is invaded. This was the situation in Viet Nam, where the U.S. invader was the enemy of the population. This is why the U.S. army not only condoned the killing of civilians, but even awarded medals, like the bronze given to Kerrey, to those who killed civilians. Civilians had to be terrorized. Villages had to be destroyed "in order to save them," as was often said. And potential survivors of a raid had to be killed before they could expose what had happened.
Undoubtedly, a number of Vietnamese women and children did kill U.S. soldiers when they could. And why shouldn't they have? It was their country, their villages and their homes which were being invaded by the U.S. forces. That is why opposition to the U.S. imperialist invasion was massive in Viet Nam. That is why the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army had the overwhelming support of the population –even as the U.S. military continued to destroy the country, "in order to save it from communism." Fifty thousand U.S. soldiers died in this war, but over two million Vietnamese were killed, decimating the population of 20 million.
What Kerrey did himself is a secondary issue. The real criminal act was imperialism's war, which set the framework for the massacre in Thanh Phong and so many other places.
Kerrey eventually joined others of his generation, including many other future politicians, in turning against this war when military victory seemed out of reach and its unpopularity grew at home.
But this didn't stop Kerrey, a presidential hopeful, any more than it stopped President Clinton, from supporting other wars and other massacres in the so-called "good wars" –whether it be the massive and deadly fire bombing of Tokyo, Dresden, Darmstadt or Italian cities in World War II; or the slaughter of Iraqi civilians both during and after Desert Storm. Those slaughters they justify, meaning that for Kerrey, Clinton and others, war crimes are judged by the popularity of the war and not by what actually takes place.
Kerrey and many others who fought in Viet Nam were undoubtedly affected by the individual actions they took, differently perhaps than the bomber pilot who drops laser-guided missiles into populated neighborhoods below. But for the men, women and children who are murdered wholesale, the consequence of U.S. imperialism's military actions are the same as in Thanh Phong, Viet Nam.