- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Author Bruce Catton recalls growing up in rural Michigan among aging Civil War veterans who would carry their wounds and, in many cases, terrible stories, to their graves. An aging berry picker, with just enough of his forearm to carry the bucket of cherries he would peddle, never told him, he said, "about the wounded men who were burned to death in the forest fire which swept [through the battle of the Wilderness]; nor had any of his comrades who survived that fight and went through the whole campaign to the last days at Petersburg ever mentioned the lives that were wasted by official blunders, the dirt and war-weariness and the soul-searching disillusionment that came when it seemed what they were doing was going for nothing."

Now, more than 30 years after a terrible battle of his own in Vietnam, former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey has chosen to speak out about his part in a fight whose part in history might never have amounted to more than dusty military records and fading memories of its aging survivors. Prompted by new accounts of the fight by the New York Times and by CBS´ "60 Minutes Two" as well as perhaps, by his own conscience, he discussed what had happened at the Virginia Military Institute and with other news outlets. He did not in any way have regrets about the mission itself, he said, but only about the ensuing killing of some 20 Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, as a result of his team´s attack.

At issue now is whether the civilian deaths resulted from their being caught in the middle of a firefight or whether the Navy SEALs Mr. Kerrey was leading that night simply massacred them. Mr. Kerrey, backed by a member of the squad, says it was the former. Another member of the squad, backed by Vietnamese civilian who says she saw what happened that night, says it was a massacre.

The target of the mission in February 1969 certainly was not innocent villagers. U.S. intelligence sources suggested that a key Viet Cong leader was supposed to be holding a meeting in a strategic hamlet on the South China Sea. Kerrey´s Raiders, as they were known, were supposed to kidnap or assassinate him as part of a plan to break down the organized opposition of the Viet Cong to U.S. forces in Vietnam. It was a night mission in a dangerous area, and Mr. Kerrey was well aware of the risks his team was taking. He recalls taking fire from the enemy as the mission was proceeding and ordering his SEALs to return fire. When it was over, they found only a group of unarmed dead villagers. What could have happened?

Mr. Kerrey says he believes he was just returning fire on his own troops. The implication is that the Viet Cong used the villagers as decoys or as shields and fled. (Seemingly innocent Vietnamese civilians often fought for the Viet Cong, confusing the facts even further.) Gerhard Klann, a member of the team, says that Mr. Kerrey, having found only the villagers and not the Viet Cong leader, was afraid to let them go for fear they would compromise the safety of the mission and his men; so he ordered them shot.

Mike Ambrose, another member of the team, "wholeheartedly" disputes Mr. Klann´s account, just as firmly as the Vietnamese civilian´s memory confirms it. But Mr. Ambrose´s account is instructive: "It got ridiculous pretty much once the guns got going. I was in survival mode. It was dark, you´re not seeing much but movement and shadows. You couldn´t tell if they were women or men."

That´s an indictment of war, particularly in Vietnam, not Mr. Kerrey. It´s another reason why this country must have sufficient military might and vigilance that it need never put aging berry pickers or Navy SEALs in a position where they must take such memories to their graves.

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