Bob Kerrey's Burden

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By Mary McGrory

Washington Post
Thursday, May 3, 2001; Page A03

Bob Kerrey a baby-killer? Laughing, literate Bob Kerrey, who in the Senate was best friends with sage Pat Moynihan? Who quoted Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, who kept a scrapbook of clippings about life's absurdities? Always quizzical, he ran for the presidency in 1992, in a way that suggested he thought politics was a joke -- he spent a lot of time in his van watching old movies.

There was nothing to suggest that the Medal of Honor winner was hauling around a burden of "guilt and shame" from Vietnam that only Nathaniel Hawthorne or Graham Greene could do justice to. There was only an expression of pain in his eyes to suggest a damaged soul.

Yes, it's that Bob Kerrey who has reignited the rage and passion of the Vietnam years with his story of a black night in the Mekong Delta 32 years ago. He has upset both hawks and doves, those who thought they could have won the war if the left had let them, and those who remain outraged to this day that we fought a war for no reason we could cite, using methods that sickened and shamed us all.

The left finds in the Kerrey story an appalling instance of what was wrong with Vietnam. New York Times columnist William Safire sees another lamentable outburst of the "self-flagellation" that Henry Kissinger, the histrionic secretary of state, ascribed to those who wanted to end the war before it was safe for Richard Nixon to do so.

Kerrey's mission in Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969, when he was a green and gung-ho Navy Seal, was to "take out" a Viet Cong leader thought to be holding meetings in the village. The Seals never found him.

According to Kerrey's account, his seven-member team took fire and returned it. That was no big deal, but when he found out that he and his men had killed 14 unarmed women and children, he was horrified. He kept his secret for 32 years and revealed it only when the New York Times Sunday Magazine scheduled publication.

Five members of his unit backed up his story. But a sixth, Gerhard Klann, says Kerrey had the women and children rounded up and gave an order to shoot them at close range. Last Thursday, Kerrey, looking haunted and haggard, faced a Manhattan press conference and the jackals had at him for a painful hour. Tuesday night, Dan Rather reviewed the situation on "60 Minutes II," which was even more excruciating.

Kerrey's erstwhile Vietnam caucus comrades rallied to him, claiming that people who hadn't been there should not judge him -- an understandable but not completely tenable position. They appeared together on ABC Sunday morning. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had been a skipper on the Mekong River, said that the Phoenix program, under whose auspices the operation was carried out, was an assassination program.

This was hotly denied at the time at the highest level, but William Colby, while director of the CIA, finally conceded at a congressional hearing that some 21,000 Vietnamese, presumably of the VC infrastructure, had been killed.

Republican voices are calling for an investigation of Bob Kerrey. More who loved the war, although not well enough to go or send their sons to it, will probably be clamoring for "the truth." By all means, put Kerrey in the dock. But let's not forget the perpetrators. Let's call Robert McNamara, the ultimate secretary of defense, who wrote a book 25 years after his long service as one of its principal cheerleaders, saying he knew as early as 1963 it could not be won. And we should hear from Henry Kissinger, who bamboozled the press -- he still does -- into thinking he was ending the war when he kept it going for four years. It isn't as if we need them to tell us what went on. We knew at the time.

On April 23, 1971, John Kerry, then a Navy lieutenant and the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about what our soldiers were doing in Vietnam.

"I would like to say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. . . . They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned foodstocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

Bob Kerrey, who lost a leg and his peace of mind in Vietnam, should not be asked to answer for all this.

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