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Kerrey's war
Making sense of what happened - or didn't - in a small Vietnamese village 32 years ago


In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.

- Tim O'Brien, " How To Tell a True War Story " (1990)

WHAT WE NOW know for certain about Bob Kerrey is disturbing enough. Last week the former Nebraska senator revealed that in February 1969, as a young Navy SEAL lieutenant, he led six other men toward a Vietnamese village called Thanh Phong. It was nighttime, and he and his men were terrified. A shot rang out - or seemed to ring out - and Kerrey's Raiders, as they were called, opened fire, blasting the village's thatched huts with some 1200 rounds in just a few minutes. Afterward they crept into the village to see what they had wrought - and discovered, to their horror, that they had killed about 14 unarmed women and children.

But there was more, much more. Kerrey chose to speak out not because he wanted to clear his conscience after all these years, but because the New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II were about to report something unimaginably more awful. One of the men whom Kerrey led into Thanh Phong that night had claimed the deaths were not the result of a tragic mistake at all. Rather, he said, the women and children were deliberately executed, on Kerrey's orders, so that his men could escape safely.

Most likely we'll never know the full truth of what happened on that night. There are, though, some important points to be made in the aftermath of last week's media-driven round of speculation, rationalization, and obfuscation.

First, the most serious charges against Kerrey are extraordinarily thin, based on little more than the uncorroborated testimony of Kerrey's former comrade, which in turn has been vigorously contradicted by the rest of his comrades.

Second, rather than take a hard look at the facts, much of the punditocracy has been content to engage in guilt-ridden liberal hand-wringing, giving Kerrey a pass on even the worst-case scenario because, well, you know, war is hell - thus doing a disservice both to Kerrey and to the quest for truth. As Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly wrote in Wednesday's Washington Post: " Every aspect of this rush to avoid judgment is wrong. "

Third, Kerrey proved himself to be a master media manipulator, getting his side into play before his accusers could say a word. By the time the 60 Minutes II segment finally aired this past Tuesday, it seemed anticlimactic - although it certainly made for riveting television.

The past week has, of course, permanently altered our perception of Kerrey, one of our most decorated living war heroes. Even if you take him at his word, his Bronze Star was awarded based on the grotesquely false notion that he and his men killed 21 enemy Viet Cong troops that night. Kerrey says he never cared about the award, but he also never set the record straight until his hand was forced. Several years ago Kerrey memorably called Bill Clinton " an unusually good liar. " If Clinton ever perpetuated an untruth as profound as Kerrey's, I'm not aware of it.

Kerrey seems genuinely anguished by what happened in Thanh Phong, and to have been living with that anguish for the past 32 years. And certainly no one has questioned the heroism he showed several weeks after the raid, when, in a harrowing firefight, he continued trying to protect his men even after his right leg had been blown off. For that, he received the Medal of Honor.

But this is far larger than Kerrey's personal story. The revelations touched off an outpouring of media analysis and commentary, focusing as much on our still-unresolved national psychosis regarding the Vietnam War as on what Kerrey and his men did or didn't do. GHOSTS OF VIETNAM, read the cover line on this week's Time magazine, superimposed on a pensive color photo of Kerrey, with a young, uniformed, black-and-white Kerrey looking over his left shoulder. Not to push a cliché one step beyond, but obviously those ghosts still haunt us.

• Truth and consequences. Ira Stoll, whose Web site critiques the Times from a conservative point of view, was way too harsh when he wrote, " The New York Times has now been reduced to printing the articles that don't meet Newsweek's standards. " But Stoll had a point. Gregory Vistica's Times Magazine story is thoroughly reported, dauntingly researched, and, at least so far as I am able to determine, fairly presented. (Vistica also co-produced the 60 Minutes II report.) But the evidence that Kerrey deliberately executed civilians is thin.

Vistica presents two witnesses who claim they saw Kerrey commit a war crime. The first is Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's Raiders, who told Vistica that Kerrey personally helped him kill an elderly man (by Klann's account, the man's wife and three grandchildren were also killed) on the outskirts of the village, and then, later that night, ordered the execution of the villagers, who were machine-gunned to death from a distance of six to 10 feet. " The baby was the last one alive, " Klann told Vistica in what must have been a wrenching interview. " There were blood and guts splattering everywhere. " The second witness, a Vietnamese woman named Pham Tri Lanh, said that she personally witnessed each of the killings - not just the execution, but the dispatching of the elderly couple and their grandchildren earlier that night as well. (Kerrey insists that the victims of the earlier killings were five men, and that he did not personally participate in those killings.)

There are some problems with these accounts. By Vistica's own telling, Klann comes off as unstable (granted, that would hardly be surprising if he took part in the terrible acts he describes), at one point threatening to disavow his whole account if Vistica reported a minor drunk-driving incident. Then, too, Kerrey and the other five members of his unit issued a strong statement last weekend backing up Kerrey's version, saying, " At the village we received fire and we returned fire. One of the men in our squad [Klann] remembers that we rounded up women and children and shot them at point-blank range in order to cover our extraction. That is simply not true. "

Now, truth cannot be determined by vote, so a six-to-one margin in favor of Kerrey's version and against Klann's is hardly dispositive. And the men have every incentive to back their former SEAL commander - after all, if he took part in a deliberate atrocity, then so did they. But it's hardly fair to level such a serious charge based on nothing more than one man's say-so and some ambiguous military records. Yet that's what it comes down to.

Over the weekend, Pham Tri Lanh's testimony came apart when she was interviewed by Time. At first, according to the magazine, she repeated her story that she had personally witnessed the horror of that night - but " then she changed it, saying she hadn't actually seen the killings, but had only heard the screams and later seen the bodies. " And after having told Vistica and 60 Minutes II producer Tom Anderson that her husband had been a member of the Viet Cong, she denied it to Time. As Time put it, it's now unclear whether she is " an honest witness, a propagandist or just an old woman with a hazy memory. "

In an interview with National Public Radio, Vistica said, " No matter whose version is right, whether Senator Kerrey's version is right, whether Gerhard Klann's version is right, either way you look at it, they ended up killing a lot of people, and that has caused all the team a great amount of anguish. "

Either way you look at it? Vistica suggests that it doesn't matter all that much whether Kerrey's Raiders accidentally killed women and children in a panic or deliberately executed them at point-blank range. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world. We'll never know whether Kerrey's or Klann's account is closer to the truth. But despite some inconsistencies in Kerrey's story, Vistica didn't dig up nearly enough evidence to cast Kerrey's version into serious doubt. As the Boston Globe's Tom Oliphant wrote on Tuesday, " I could get out my violin and play schmaltz about war and Vietnam. But this is a murder story that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require. "

• The fog of punditry. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on Sunday, Senators John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Chuck Hagel - Vietnam veterans all - offered a startling statistic: " only six percent of Americans younger than 65 have ever served in uniform. " And you can bet that, among the elite media, the percentage is far lower than that. After all, one of the defining characteristics of the Vietnam War was that it was fought mainly by blue-collar kids, whose privileged, college-attending peers were pretty much exempt.

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