Sen. Bob Kerrey tells a personal Vietnam horror story

April 25, 2001 4:15 PM   Subscribe

Sen. Bob Kerrey tells a personal Vietnam horror story
And the NYT has posted an advance copy of its Sunday Magazine story to avoid being scooped, which is a first, I believe.
[via <>] Kerrey, as a lieutenant in Vietnam helped kill a village of Vietnamese women and children in 1969. How many more skeletons in the closets of the current leaders of America? And will this spur the actual beginning of American critical reflection on Vietnam, or will it blow over in a few weeks like when MacNamara's autobiographical confession came out a few years ago?
posted by rschram (32 comments total)
Here's some more.
posted by owillis at 4:19 PM on April 25, 2001

I am perhaps a little too young to have a relationship to Vietnam, though I can't say I'm totally ignorant of its cultural impact (who could?) My perspective is this: while its plain common sense that the US violated all sorts of human rights, foriegn sovereignties, and its own 'values' by fighting the Viet Cong, there is a very thin yet still present official veneer that the conflict was justified. I think even Clinton once said or implied (probably in 1992) that the war was a good thing. Of course, more recently, McCain seemed to crystallize feelings about Vietnam in some digestable form (It was an "American tragedy" -- a beautiful sentiment in its meaninglessness.) He was a symbol of victimhood of the war. A bizarre reversal: America as victin of its own aggression. Could this be a crack in the veneer?
posted by rschram at 4:22 PM on April 25, 2001

Probably not.
posted by thirteen at 4:25 PM on April 25, 2001

Kerrey candid. Wonder if he were in an election if he would have mentioned this. Not unusual stuff as some folks acan attest to from other wars our country has fought. And then the story of the many men who fled the callup and have lived ever since in Canada, also in the Times.
posted by Postroad at 4:31 PM on April 25, 2001

I think he's mentioning it now to keep it from being drug out during the next election. Clearing out the closets in advance is a good idea. I'm not alone in thinking that he's going to run for president. No one will care about this in 3 or 4 years.
posted by Rockames at 4:48 PM on April 25, 2001

"He was having difficulty killing one of the people that he was trying to kill."

yeah. i hate it when that happens. That article is excellent, but i don't think that it is something that is uncommon...a friend of mine dropped out of SEAL training because he wasn't sure if he could kill someone just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think the military rules of engagement are only valuabe in retrospect, and are not followed very well in practice.
posted by th3ph17 at 5:43 PM on April 25, 2001

He's being candid because it was about to come out & he wants to spin it.
posted by Pokeyman at 6:15 PM on April 25, 2001

Here's the Times article on one page.
posted by nicwolff at 6:35 PM on April 25, 2001

Rockames: >>I'm not alone in thinking that he's going to run for president. No one will care about this in 3 or 4 years.

I'd sooner vote for Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold.

NYTimes: >>Kerrey said flatly, "We were instructed not to take prisoners."

"Just following orders" is no excuse for cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians.
posted by johnb at 6:36 PM on April 25, 2001

“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”

“All people are insane,” he said. “They will do any thing at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”
posted by tiaka at 7:07 PM on April 25, 2001

Rockames, Kerrey quit politics. He's now running the New School. Draw what conclusions you will. But there's no question this kills any thoughts of him coming back and running for President. (Note that his name was not considered in the ring; perhaps just outside the ring.) The timing of this story isn't Kerrey's, at all: the author finally interviewed the other SEAL, and wanted to publish that account.

This illuminates why he's had such an ambivalent relationship with his military past, as well as with public service (he's quit before).

The author implies that this incident led directly to the actions Kerrey took leading to the loss of his leg.

It's getting harder and harder to claim that My Lai was an isolated incident. This was the way we chose to prosecute this dirty little war. God. And it's increasingly clear that there was a longstanding pattern.
posted by dhartung at 9:46 PM on April 25, 2001

dhartung: while I'm not a Kerrey supporter (Re-elect Gore!), I think he has a valid shot still. The American people have a very short memory and will repeat their mistakes
posted by owillis at 10:21 PM on April 25, 2001

kerrey came to speak at my school, Swarthmore College, three weeks ago. Let me tell you, he has certainly not quit politics and he could definitely run for President. His whole talk was really about the meaningfulness of being a politician and talking about his stances on certain issues like immigration (extend citizenship to everyone on u.s. soil) and education (increase percent of schools' budgets that come from states, but fundamentally, rich people's children in rich communities should continue to get the best education).

He mentioned the vietnam war only once, with the fact that he thinks that they should only give purple hearts, and not congressional medals of honor (he received one of the latter). the whole war was a human rights travesty. he never mentioned this.
posted by benjamin at 11:11 PM on April 25, 2001

Um...isn't this sort of thing the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague is for? Or is that only for poxy countries that don't matter, like Serbia or Rwanda? Heaven forbid that members of the USA military should be prosecuted for what they did in Vietnam. And as we speak, a group of people in Britain are trying to get Saddam Hussein indicted for events that took place 10 years ago. This is not justice, it's persecution of the weak.
posted by salmacis at 12:48 AM on April 26, 2001

Did anybody else finally realize that John Kerry (D-Mass) != Bob Kerrey (D-Neb)?
posted by whuppy at 6:42 AM on April 26, 2001

Now I just wish 60 Minutes would do an expose on Colin Powell's role in covering up the My Lai massacre. But I won't hold my breath, after all, he's a "national hero."
posted by mapalm at 7:22 AM on April 26, 2001

The New School is full of raging 60's leftovers who were outraged that Vietnam War hero was appointed their President ... now that allegations have surfaced that he a war criminal I'd have to believe that his days there are numbered...
posted by MattD at 7:26 AM on April 26, 2001

The New Yorker also recently ran a profile of Bob Kerrey (damn website only has current week articles, so no link, sorry). National politicians who want to fade from view do not run around granting interviews to the national media. Kerrey is unquestionably testing the waters for 2004.

Personally, I don't believe this sinks him at all. We were willing to elect a coke-snorting substance abuser who may or may not have actually done his time in the ANG. We were willing to elect his predecessor -- a guy who squirmed out of the draft using legalese.

Funny that whuppy mentions John Kerry, who also has a bit of a Vietnam cred problem -- some of the men in his unit have a bone to pick with his description of an incident that made him a war hero, too.

They didn't call Vietnam a "quagmire" for nothing you know. I'm not the least surprised to hear this story, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there were dozens more just like it. I'm more surprised that Bob Kerrey managed to avoid it this long.
posted by briank at 8:01 AM on April 26, 2001

Thanks, whuppy. When John Kerry suddenly lost a leg, I suspected something was up.
posted by sudama at 8:57 AM on April 26, 2001

"Just following orders" is no excuse for cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians."

It is very easy for us 20 and 30 something's to talk about how "evil" and "wrong" this act is. May I remind people though, that Kerrey was in the middle of a WAR. People around him were being killed. This is what war is all about. Any of us would do the same thing if we were in the fog of war.

Sure, some innocent people may have been killed. However, when the possibility (no matter how remote) exists that these "innocent" people may be helping the enemy win the war, they are no longer innocent.

Why is this any different from George Bush Sr. ordering bombs to be dropped on Iraq, killing civilians? Plenty of "innocent" factory workers were killed when we bombed Germany in WWII. Was dropping the atomic bomb on Japan the work of a war criminal? Just because Kerrey could see the eyes of his victims it doesn't make what he did any worse.

War sucks. People die. People kill. Sometimes civilians die. It sucks. Too bad it has to happen, but it does.

Until you've walked a mile in his combat boots...
posted by bondcliff at 9:44 AM on April 26, 2001

I don't think you can write off Kerrey's actions that easily -- he led a SEAL team that killed elderly people and children and has told several conflicting versions of the story about what happened.

The Times description of the murder of the old man and three children under 12 is harrowing stuff -- if it had been committed by soldiers from another country against Americans, we'd be calling for a war crimes trial.

If what Kerrey did can be excused by "the fog of war," why did he keep it a secret until the press was about to run a story on it? Don't forget that he's the same guy who called Clinton "an unusually good liar" during the Lewinsky scandal and has run for office numerous times as a war hero.
posted by rcade at 10:37 AM on April 26, 2001

I thought, most everybody thought Clinton was "an unusually good liar".
posted by thirteen at 10:52 AM on April 26, 2001

Even the people who liked him I mean.
posted by thirteen at 11:03 AM on April 26, 2001

>>It is very easy for us 20 and 30 something's to talk about how "evil" and "wrong" this act is. May I remind people though, that Kerrey was in the middle of a WAR. People around him were being killed. This is what war is all about. Any of us would do the same thing if we were in the fog of war.

Nonsense. According to both the eyewitness and the most credible member of "Kerry's Raiders", fifteen unarmed women and children were deliberately rounded up and slaughtered at close range (6 ft) -- the "justification" being to minimize probability of detection. I just don't buy into the idea that such an act of mass murder can be morally okay so long as you call it "war". That's moral relativism at its most grotesque. Was Auschwitz okay becauase it occurred within the context of war? Didn't the Columbine shooters regard themselves as fighting a war? Call me an absolutist, but I believe some things are just wrong, whatever the context.

>>War sucks.

Sure, war is stupid. That doesn't mean that, as soon as you call it "war", anything goes. There remains the moral difference between honor and cowardice. You can chose to live by the values you claim to be fighting for, or not. And the choice matters.

According to the NY Times:

"The Army's Field Manual is explicit. Though it is an Army instruction, it represents United States policy regarding the law of armed conflict and is applicable to all the services. According to the manual: "A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces. It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation, even in the case of airborne or commando operations, although the circumstances of the operation may make necessary rigorous supervision of and restraint upon the movement of prisoners of war."

>>People die. People kill. Sometimes civilians die. It sucks. Too bad it has to happen, but it does.

Yeah, and I bet it sucks to be imprisoned for war crimes too. It's just too bad most American war criminals will never be brought to justice.
posted by johnb at 11:26 AM on April 26, 2001

War: It's okay as long as nobody gets hurt!
posted by aaron at 4:51 PM on April 26, 2001

Update: the Pentagon may review Kerrey's medal.

See, he's finished. The liberals (like johnb) will detest him even more than they did when he was a hero. The military will detest him for being the isolated example (in their view) that makes them look bad. There's the issue of his honesty on the issue (remember the quaint days of '88 when honesty came down to whether your speeches were your own?). In fact, the only people who seem to be comfortable with this are the Vietnamese.

I've respected Kerrey for a number of years, and while I share johnb's revulsion, I'm having a hard time applying it in this case. As with Calley and My Lai, the real problem seems to have been higher-up, with the insanely flexible rules of engagement. Still, that's essentially a rationalization.
posted by dhartung at 6:11 PM on April 26, 2001

War: It's OK no matter who gets hurt.
posted by rcade at 8:07 PM on April 26, 2001

The liberals (like johnb) will detest him even more than they did when he was a hero.

I gotta say I expected better from you, Dan. The idea that liberals are unpatriotic is straight out of the right-wing whackjob playbook.
posted by rcade at 8:10 PM on April 26, 2001

From the constitution of the international military tribunal, that tried Nazi war-crimes (article 6)
WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;

Is there any question that Senator Kerrey, is, according to Nuremberg standards, a war criminal? How is his conduct different than that of the Nazi's who executed whole villages as countermeasures against local resistance movements? If a Serbian general admitted to as much would he or would he not, be imprisoned for war crimes?
And, I fear, Mr. Kerrey is one of the few to come out and confess to such conduct. Unfortunately reparations will probably not be demanded.
posted by talos at 5:46 AM on April 27, 2001

Apparently, not everyone had the same revelation.
posted by whuppy at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2001

There is plenty of question about whether this was a war crime or not.

If the Seals returned fire, at night, on a village thought to contain Viet Cong in a free-fire zone, obeying lawful orders, that isn't even close to a war crime.

If the other version is correct--herding the civilians up and killing them at close range--then of course it was.

But since John McCain killed a lot more civilians than Kerrey, maybe we start by blowing his leg off to even up the score.

Henry Kissinger killed a million non-combatant Cambodians. While it is considered rude to call him a murderer in the U.S, shouldn't he at least have to do community service or something, like a rich drunk driver who kills your mom?

BTW, was anyone else here even alive when this shit happened?
posted by steve_high at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2001

I agree with you, poor choice of wording -- since I am one of those strong-on-defense liberals. Thanks for calling me on it. There's probably a better word, say "peacenik", that I could have used.
posted by dhartung at 11:12 AM on April 27, 2001

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