- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

Gregory Vistica's book, "The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey" is one more illustration of the fact that Vietnam is the war that simply won't go away. The story that Mr. Vistica tells is one that broke in early 2001, concerning the role of Bob Kerrey, the highly respected former senator from Nebraska, Medal of Honor recipient, and one-time presidential aspirant, in the killing of Vietnamese civilians some 34 years ago during a nighttime SEAL mission in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.
Mr. Kerrey admitted that the civilians had been killed during a mission that went badly awry, but claimed that they had died during a firefight with Viet Cong soldiers who used them as human shields. His admission was prompted by a lengthy New York Times Magazine story in 2001 by Mr. Vistica that went further. Mr. Vistica's story contained the explosive charge that not only were the civilians killed during the incident, but also that then-Lt. j.g. Kerrey had ordered the civilians to be rounded up and then shot point blank to facilitate the SEAL team's escape.
"Sixty Minutes II" followed up with a program based on Mr. Vistica's investigation, including interviews with both Mr. Kerrey and Gerhard Klann, a member of Mr. Kerrey's SEAL team and the source of the claim that the civilians were killed at Mr. Kerrey's direction. If this allegation is true, what happened that night in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong was more than a terrible tragedy of war it was a war crime.
"The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey" is an expansion of Mr. Vistica's New York Times Magazine article. Based on extensive interviews, Mr. Vistica paints a revealing portrait of a war hero haunted by a terrible secret. On the one hand, there is the Bob Kerrey that captured America's attention for years. A media star, he had it all.
In stark contrast to another prominent Democrat, former President Bill Clinton, Mr. Kerrey had served his country with distinction in Vietnam, losing part of his leg in the process and receiving the nation's highest award for valor. Yet after his return, he questioned both the wisdom and the conduct of the war. In politics, he was the quintessential maverick, although always reliably liberal. He dated a movie actress. He was hip. He was laid back in a quirky, intellectual way.
On the other hand, there is Bob Kerrey, the manipulator: Mr. Vistica claims Mr. Kerrey tried to kill his story by attacking him to his editors and on three occasions tried to buy him off by offering him a position at the New School, which Mr. Kerrey now heads up. He also claims that Mr. Kerrey orchestrated the response of the other members of his SEAL team in an attempt to undermine the credibility of Gerhard Klann. Mr. Vistica also paints Mr. Kerrey as a man, in contrast to his public reputation, who does not care much about principles or loyalty.
Mr. Vistica clearly believes Gerhard Klann. For one thing, according to he author, Mr. Klann's story never varied over time while Mr. Kerrey's did. For another, why would someone come forward to admit a crime in which he himself was implicated?
As might be expected, many of the commentators who served in Vietnam, especially in ground combat, have tended to accept Mr. Kerrey's version of events that his team, deep in Viet Cong-controlled territory on a mission to "snatch" a VC official, took fire and responded in kind and the team did not realize that they were firing into a group of unarmed civilians. These commentators stress the play of "friction" in war, even under the best of circumstances. They emphasize the chaos and confusion of combat, especially during night actions, during which fear is magnified far beyond what those who have not experienced it can comprehend.
But there have been exceptions. H.G. "Jug" Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and author of the incomparable "Stolen Valor," argued that Mr. Kerrey's account of the action is riddled with discrepancies. And a Marine veteran of the war whose opinion I greatly respect e-mailed a number of correspondents with his impression of the "Sixty Minutes II" program. "Gerhard Klann," he wrote, "a Vietnam warrior attempting to clear his conscience. Sen. Bob Kerrey: A Clintonesque politician covering his ass."
These objections notwithstanding, there is evidence to support Mr. Kerrey, evidence that Mr. Vistica ignores or downplays. First of all, every other member of the SEAL team who took part in the operation has held to his support of Mr. Kerrey. Second, Mr. Klann did not pass the credibility test when Mr. Vistica's story was first under consideration by Newsweek in 1998. Third, the main Vietnamese witness, the wife of a Viet Cong soldier, has backed away from her claim that she actually observed the events of Feb. 25, 1969 in Thanh Phong.
But there is another piece of evidence that lends credibility to Mr. Kerrey's account and perhaps answers some of the questions raised by the combat veterans who have been skeptical of his description of the events in Thanh Phong. To my knowledge, the only person to cite this evidence is James Webb in his Wall Street Journal op-ed of May 1, 2001.
Mr. Vistica notes that archived records of U.S. Army radio transmission reveal that on Feb. 28, 1969, "an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26, 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC." This seems to confirm the claim of Mr. Kerrey and the other members of his SEAL team that they came under attack before returning fire, that the VC were using the civilians as a shield as they attempted to escape, and that the civilian deaths were a tragic but unintended result of the fire fight.
Of course, as Mr. Vistica makes clear in his epilogue, the events at Thanh Phong go far beyond Bob Kerrey. He takes the United States to task for its refusal to support an international criminal court. He criticizes the "nationalist fervor and … environment of fear in which anyone who seeks to hold our soldiers to standards of conduct risks being bludgeoned as unpatriotic." In short, for Mr. Vistica, Thanh Phong was merely a microcosm of American foreign policy in general, from Vietnam to the present.
Mr. Vistica claims that "The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey" is about remembering the Vietnam War. But as his epilogue illustrates, the very act of remembering Vietnam places one in the midst of a culture war, a war that has gone on for nearly four decades and will no doubt continue long after the last Vietnam veteran and the last Vietnam War protester have passed from the scene.
The perspective of the "Vietnam was evil" side still dominates the media.
The Kerrey affair demonstrated two points beyond a shadow of a doubt: 1) that for many members of the American media and the liberal elite in general, service in the Vietnam War (bad) trumps anything "good" that may have occurred later; and 2) many in the press are predisposed to believe the worst about those who fought in Vietnam, no matter how far fetched.
The first point is illustrated by the fact that for the press, Mr. Kerrey's liberal credentials didn't matter once the story broke. Now he was just another likely war criminal. Reporters confronted him with hostile questions, playing a game of "gotcha" about memories three decades old. They might as well have been chanting, "Bob Kerrey, hey, hey, hey! How many babies did you kill today?" One wonders what the response of the press would have been had Oliver North been accused of an atrocity.
The second point was on display not too long ago with the "Tailwind" story the ludicrous claim that U.S. special forces used nerve gas during an operation in Vietnam intended to assassinate American defectors to the communists. Anyone with an ounce of sense could see that this story was ridiculous, and indeed, it began to fall apart almost from the instant that it was reported, ultimately ruining the reputations of important people at CNN and Time magazine.
Would anyone have believed such a story about World War II and the "greatest generation?" Of course not, but many in the media have always been willing to believe that U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were capable of any atrocity. The Kerrey story is merely one more example of this predisposition. Much of the press acted as though it really wanted its old favorite to have committed a war crime.
The hard core left has taken advantage of the Kerrey affair to argue that atrocities were an everyday occurrence in Vietnam. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were far from widespread. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Of course, the fact that many crimes, either in war or peace, go unreported, combined with the particular difficulties encountered by Americans fighting in Vietnam, suggest that more such acts were committed than reported or tried.
But even Daniel Ellsberg, a severe critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, rejected the argument that atrocities like My Lai were in any way normal events: "My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They knew it was wrong … .The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves."
Mr. Vistica tips his hand by claiming that "Vietnam was a mistake and is considered by many to be a national shame." But this view is based on the old saw of moral equivalency.
In fact, it mattered who won. The "liberation" of South Vietnam cost, in addition to Saigon's 250,000 war dead a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the communist liberators, a million and a half "boat people," and a like number of individuals sentenced to "reeducation camps," genocide in Cambodia, and a perceived shift in the "correlation of forces" that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s. Perhaps Mr. Vistica and others who denigrate the American role in Vietnam might think about that.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and a contributing editor to National Review Online. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.


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