- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

Three U.S. senators who saw combat in Vietnam say the Pentagon should not investigate an alleged 1969 massacre of civilians by a Navy Seal unit led by Bob Kerrey. To former Navy Secretary James Webb, the story smacks of “the condescending arrogance” of those who didn't serve “yet microscopically judged every action of those who had risked everything.” The Wall Street Journal's editorialists snort, “Forgive us if we don't join the media crusade to discover if former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey is a war criminal.”

Which raises the question: What are they afraid of finding out? Do they think it's unimportant whether a respected national leader once carried out a cold-blooded execution of women and children?

If Kerrey is telling the truth about the events of Feb. 25, 1969, of course, what happened was regrettable but not the least bit shameful. By his account, the killings were inadvertent: Kerrey and his men came under fire and returned it — but then found they had killed only women and children.

James Webb insists this was merely “a tragic consequence of a war fought in the middle of a civilian population.” Maybe so. But why the rush to reach that verdict?

The accusation, after all, doesn't originate with smug, draft-dodging civilians. Nor was it lodged by antiwar liberals straining “to justify their opposition to the Vietnam War,” in the words of the Journal's editorial writers — who somehow forget that Kerrey himself ended up opposing the war.

It comes from Gerhard Klann, the most experienced member of Kerrey's squad. He told his story to reporter Gregory Vistica, whose account appeared in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

The evidence also comes from some other people with a claim to be heard — Vietnamese civilians who were in the village that night, including a woman, then 12 years old, whose family was killed. Only days after the episode, in fact, the Army learned a villager had come forward to report that the Seals had murdered 13 women and children and an elderly man.

John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate who is a political science professor at the University of Chicago, notes that the statements by Kerrey and the other Seals raise several questions. Kerrey told Vistica that his team fired after being fired on. But later he said he “couldn't be absolutely certain that shots were fired.”

He says they fired as they advanced on a group of huts. But a statement signed by Kerrey and the five Seals who support his version says, “We took fire and returned fire. Knowing our presence had been compromised and that our lives were endangered, we withdrew while continuing to fire.” Were they advancing or retreating? And if they were withdrawing, how could they have found the bodies?

In any case, as Vistica points out, “it is hard to imagine that gunfire from 100 yards — no matter how intense — could kill every single member of a group of 14 or 15 people. Some would be expected to survive, particularly when the squad was shooting in the dark and in apparent panic.”

More troublesome is that Kerrey hasn't always exactly rejected Klann's account. “It's possible that a slight version of that happened,” he told Vistica. “I mean, it would not surprise me if things were going on away from my line of sight that were different than what I was doing.”

Kerrey also says, “Let other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war … I can make a case that it was.” But what is he talking about? If he and his men accidentally hit noncombatants during a nighttime firefight, no one would accuse them of a moral lapse, much less a war crime. Unless Klann's version has some truth to it, there is nothing for Kerrey to explain or justify.

As a lifelong civilian who came of age after the Vietnam draft ended, I have no right in the eyes of Webb and others to give any opinion on the subject. But what they preach is moral nihilism. Putting soldiers beyond any judgment by those who weren't there amounts to giving anyone in uniform a license to commit murder. In that case, we owe Lt. William Calley, court-martialed for his role in the massacre of 350 Vietnamese civilians, a big apology.

Yes, war creates terrible dilemmas. Yes, Kerrey and his men may have been acting on orders from bloodthirsty superiors. Yes, memories can be faulty after three decades.

But none of those facts relieves us of the duty to examine what really happened and reach some conclusions about the morality of what was done. With all the concern about Kerrey, it's easy to forget that the families of those slaughtered Vietnamese have also had to live all these years with the agonizing memory of that night.

Once everything that can be known has been examined, Americans may very well decide that Kerrey and his men behaved honorably at Thanh Phong. But before we do that, shouldn't we know the truth?

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