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June 2001 • Vol 1, No. 2 •

Bob Kerrey:
The War Criminal the US Government Wants Us to Love

By Ann Robertson

The US government’s cries of foul play for having recently been kicked off the United Nations Human Rights Commission have a particularly hollow ring in light of the recent scandal that has come to light around former US Senator Bob Kerrey concerning his “heroic” deeds in Vietnam. Abundant evidence has recently surfaced that Kerrey is a war criminal, that he is currently lying about his role, that the US government knew he was a war criminal and awarded him a Bronze Star anyway. There has been a bipartisan effort on the part of his former colleagues in the Senate to cover up the atrocity and the US media has leaped to their assistance.

Kerrey never spoke publicly of the massacre until this past month. About two years ago, when he was in the process of running against Al Gore for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, he was approached by representatives from Newsweek magazine with evidence that he massacred women and children in Vietnam. Shortly thereafter Kerrey withdrew from the race and Newsweek chose not to publish the article on the basis that only presidential candidates should be held to a higher standard of accountability. In other words, US Senators all the way down to police officers are allowed to massacre unarmed civilians, as far as the editors of Newsweek are concerned, without fear of embarrassing revelations.

But more recently Kerrey was informed that The New York Times Magazine was poised to print an account of the events. Suddenly, Kerrey executed an about-face. Prudently deciding it would be therapeutic to go public, he allowed himself to be interviewed repeatedly by various newspapers as well as the television program, 60 Minutes.

Throughout these interviews, Kerrey has attempted to project an anguished demeanor: “I cannot be what I once was. Carefree, no nightmares, no pain, no remorse, no regrets, feeling in church like God was smiling warmly down upon me as if I was the most special thing on earth.”

Kerrey’s Mission

According to his version of events, on February 25, 1969, he led his Seals Team, a special Navy force trained to operate behind enemy lines, on a mission to “eliminate” a Vietcong leader in the small Vietnamese village of Thanh Phon. The village was composed of thatched peasant huts and when Kerrey and his squad arrived at the first one, they encountered five men, on his account. Kerrey claims he neither issued the order to kill nor participated in the killing, but his men, supposedly acting independently of their commander, killed them all with their knives.

Kerrey’s story continues: “Upon leaving the first hut the squad suddenly found itself under fire and the men fired back indiscriminately into the darkness of the night. When the firing stopped, the squad discovered 14 or more bodies—all women and children—huddled together, dead. According to The New York Times Magazine, “Kerrey remembers finding the bodies in a group, though he doesn’t know why they were clustered together.”

Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey’s squad, presents a compellingly consistent case against Kerrey’s self-serving, and, as we shall see, contradictory account. Klann was also interviewed by The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes, but while Kerrey was dry-eyed and unemotional during the latter interview, Klann was visibly shaken by his recollection of the fateful events.

Contradictory Accounts

According to Klann, when the squad came upon the first hut, they encountered not men, but an old man, an old women, and three young children. Kerrey gave the order to kill them all and his men proceeded to carry out the order using their knives. But Klann himself ran into difficulty killing the old man, who was struggling furiously for his life, so Kerrey came to his aid, pinning the old man down while Klann finished his assignment.

Then, after leaving this first hut, the squad encountered no gunfire, as Klann describes the events. Rather, the squad simply methodically gathered together all the remaining inhabitants of the village, about 15 women and children, and on Kerrey’s orders, gunned them down at close range. No guns were found in the village.

Klann’s version of events received a stunning confirmation with the testimony of a Vietnamese eyewitness. Pham Tri Lanh, now an elderly woman, reports having been present in hiding on the night of the terrible events. With no knowledge of Klann’s story, she describes what happened in exactly the same terms: the first hut contained an elderly man, an elderly woman and three young children, and Kerrey’s squad killed them with knives. Subsequently, the squad did not receive fire, but simply rounded up the remaining residents of the village—all women and children—and shot them at close range.

The New York Times Magazine article was also quick to point out that Klann’s and Lanh’s versions were consistent with the physical evidence at the scene—the bodies of the women and children were found huddled together—while Kerrey’s was not: “If Kerrey’s story is accurate, then someone would have to have roused the women and children, gathered them into a group in the middle of a village, retreated to safety and then fired a few shots at Kerrey’s squad. Another possibility is that upon hearing rifle fire the villagers did not dive into their bunkers—as they were trained to do—but for some reason ran into open ground and gathered together in a group.” In other words, it might have been a mass suicide.

While Klann’s account has remained firm and consistent throughout a series of interviews, Kerrey’s version, riddled with inconsistencies, has wavered, and in a crucial respect, collapsed.

For example, during the first of two interviews with 60 Minutes, Kerrey highlighted the “depth” of his existential anguish: “For a long time I felt guilty. Guilty is to me a more trivial and destructive feeling. Remorse is what I feel today. The difference is very, very important.”

Guilt vs. Remorse

But unfortunately the difference for Kerrey wasn’t important enough to remember during the second interview, taped not long afterwards, where he repeatedly described feelings of guilt without mentioning remorse. Oh well, back to the trivial and destructive life path which is so typical of bourgeois politicians.

Along the same lines, Kerrey admits having been awarded the Bronze Star for the atrocity, although he never mentioned this fact to the other members of his squad, and has conceded that the award was inappropriate. Nevertheless, he found it perfectly appropriate to accept the medal and in fact wear it on occasions—perhaps when he was running for president—when greed might have outweighed guilt, which totally obliterated remorse.

As for the actual events on the fateful night in question, Kerrey’s version has vacillated so much that an objective observer would get seasick. For example, Kerrey admitted that some version of Klann’s story might in fact have happened, although he did not elaborate on which specific events he was including in this vague admission. And while feigning anguish and maintaining that there was no “moral or military justification for their deaths,” trampling on even a semblance of consistency, Kerrey insisted: “Under the unwritten rules of Vietnam, we would have been justified had we not been fired upon. We were basically writing the rules as we went.... I don’t have any doubt that the people we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Vietcong.”

“You Don’t Kill Unarmed Civilians”

There is little agreement with Kerrey on the legal justification of the massacre. Walter Rockler, an expert on war crimes, was quoted by The New York Times Magazine as explaining, “The basic rule is that in enemy territory you don’t kill civilians, particularly unarmed civilians.”

At another point during one of the 60 Minutes interviews, Kerrey threw consistency out the window altogether when he triumphantly proclaimed to Dan Rather, “You see dramatic differences [between his and Klann’s conflicting versions] and I don’t see dramatic differences!” Even Hegel, the 19th century philosopher, would cringe at this pathetic attempt to unite contradictory accounts. Dan Rather did not bother to point out that most of humanity does indeed maintain a rather huge difference between rounding up defenseless women and children and intentionally gunning them down on the one hand, and, returning fire in the dark and accidentally killing women and children in the process on the other.

After firmly insisting in one 60 Minutes interview that his squad received fire, Kerrey has since admitted that he couldn’t be absolutely certain that shots were in fact fired. Seizing on the lapse-of-memory defense, one of the standard weapons in the bourgeois politicians arsenal of deceit, Kerrey suggested, “It’s entirely possible that I’m blocking out a lot of it.” And as if that formulation might have moved us closer to the truth, Kerrey was quick to shift the blame onto an anonymous guilty entity: “Memory is always a liar.” Here we don’t have to blame a person but an abstract human faculty and suddenly everyone’s account becomes equally disparaged.
In one of his more recent interviews, sensing that he might have succeeded in overpowering the American public with a barrage of inconsistencies and thinking that he might be able to emerge from the scandal with an untarnished image, Kerrey struck a noble pose and murmured demurely, “I don’t know—it may be that I did nothing wrong.”

Kerrey’s “Normal” War Crimes

But just to be on the safe side lest the American public conclude Kerrey is a war criminal and accomplished liar, a bipartisan herd of US Senators trotted onto the stage to assure us that we have no right to judge Kerrey.

“Bob Kerrey made a mistake in Vietnam,” Republican Senator John McCain assured us, “But unless you have been to war, please be careful not to form your judgment of him on your understanding of what constitutes a war hero.” And Democrat John Kerry, another Vietnam war veteran, chimed in: “People who weren’t there ought to think twice before they start second-guessing this 30 years later.”

Turning Kerrey’s forced public admission into a heroic gesture, Senators Hagel, Cleland, and Kerry drew the astounding conclusion that the admission “demonstrates the courage we have all known in him for years.”

Then, in a major editorial, The New York Times, striving to be as inconsistent as Kerrey himself, declared, on the one hand, that “there are conflicts in testimony that can never be resolved,” while on the other, admitted that “questions of credibility for Mr. Kerrey” have been raised. Embracing Kerrey’s “memory is always a liar” philosophy of life by closing its eyes to the fact that US government foreign policy has always promoted US corporate interests, the editorial concluded with the assertion that the US war in Vietnam was “a war without a rationale.”

In order to do Kerrey justice, we should keep in mind that his moral and legal transgressions pale in comparison to those of the US government. From dropping atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to bombing civilians in Iraq, to imposing economic embargoes on any country that dares to defy it, the US government has consistently sacrificed civilian lives in order to promote US corporate interests. In the process of pursuing imperialist policies in Vietnam, the US government showered napalm indiscriminately on men, women and children and dropped more bombs on this one small country than were dropped during the entire course of World War II. Consequently, it did not hesitate to award Kerrey the Bronze Star for murdering women and children, even with an accurate account of events at its disposal. Similarly, after Lt. William Calley was convicted of massacring 22 unarmed civilians at My Lai and sentenced to life at hard labor shortly after the Kerrey episode, the US government quietly allowed him to serve only three years of house arrest before releasing him. Had there not been a public uproar, Calley would have received a Bronze Star as well.

Kerrey’s night of terror was simply another day in the life of the U.S. war machine.





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