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Thoughts on Massacre and Mr. Kerrey

By Fredric Smoler

First Thought: if you came of age in the late nineteen sixties, the assertions about Mr. Kerrey's participation in a massacre in Vietnam trigger very powerful moral reflexes - and it is the nature of a reflex to come into play faster than thought. Reflex condemnations of Kerrey - and reflex exonerations of him - may turn out to be right or wrong; what they cannot be are cautious and reflective. Now if you came of age on the 'sixties Left, you probably came to imagine the American war effort in Vietnam as the My Lai massacre writ large. A quarter century on, the allegations about Kerrey have in some quarters been taken to confirm this moral and political intuition; scratch an American hero, find a demi-Himmler. But there's a problem: if you were a registered Democrat in the late nineteen nineties, the presence, anywhere near your side of a controversy, of virulent Rightist hacks (one of them noteworthy even among septic and obsessive Clinton-baiters as venomously self-righteous), was likely to move you to the opposite side of that same controversy. Then again, while there was a sharp anti-Kerrey tone on much of the bloviating Right, those boys had plenty of bedfellows on what remains of the journalistic Left, and the story was broken (and sententiously moralized over, and editorialized about) by the Times, the very epicenter of Responsible Journalism, Received Ideas Central. Can all these people be wrong? Well, they certainly have been in the past. One hack warned against 'this rush to avoid judgment,' but surely the danger is not too great. After all, the columnists have displayed enough haste to compensate for any sloth by the rest of us.

Second Thought: when a man with a history of alcoholism is on one side of a question, erratically backed by two citizens of a wretched tyranny whose fading legitimacy is sustained only by (a) tales of Patriotic Gore and (b) its talents for repression and lying, and six men of apparently good character are on the other side of this question, why does the latter side of the question not get the initial benefit of the doubt? Or the presumption of innocence? Now it is obviously true that the six men, if guilty of the crimes with which they are charged by Gerhard Klann, have an incentive to collude in a lie. But why the widespread assumption, on both Right and Left, that they are probably lying?

The American government, to be sure, lied a lot about our war in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese Communists lied on principle, but why assume that these men themselves are liars? On the Left, the presumption of guilt, the instinct to believe the less numerous and more dubious witnesses, probably comes into play if you 'know' what sort of things regularly happened in Vietnam. So the worst case alleged in re Kerrey does not confirm what you 'know' about Vietnam so much as the things you think you know are taken to confirm the worst case about Kerrey. And this is unnervingly circular.

Then again, perhaps there is good supporting evidence for the tale told by the one about the six. People who assert or imply in print that Kerrey is most probably a liar and a murderer tend to repeat several arguments. They suggest that thirteen (or more) inhabitants of a VC village like Than Phong would never have clustered together above ground, and hence been easily killed by an American squad which reportedly began firing at a range of one hundred yards. We are told that such people were trained to dive for cover at the first sign of trouble, and in any case could not all have been killed at such a distance, or have fallen where Kerrey and his men say their bodies were found. There would have been wounded. Nope, that many dead civilians, their corpses so disposed, were obviously murdered in cold blood at closer range, corroborating the story of Gerhard Klann. My reaction to this argument is tempered by my knowledge that I have never been present on an occasion in which automatic weapons were fired in anger, and that I am not a ballistics expert. Maybe all the journalists who are making the above arguments are themselves either heavy combat vets or world-class weapons experts - given the confidence with which they smear Kerrey and his men as probable murderers and liars, they really ought to be. But anyone who reads military history, or memoirs of war, or who talks to soldiers, knows that in combat things much more freakish than the incident above - a cluster of thirteen or so people killed at a given distance, none wounded - seem to happen often enough that an awful lot of people see and remember them. Freakish events are necessarily improbable, but they do happen, again and again and again. And since other accounts of the carnage in Than Phong make the result less freakish, why assume the six to be liars and mass murderers?

Well, perhaps because we are told that Kerrey's admitted shame over his version of this event makes no sense: why should Kerrey feel guilt and shame at having returned fire on a pitch-black night, and unwittingly killed civilians? If Kerrey is ashamed, he has done something to be ashamed of, if he feels guilt, it is because he is guilty, and in this case that must mean guilty of mass murder. But this argument seems absurd on its face. I have never myself unwittingly ordered the killing of thirteen unarmed women and children. But had I done so, I think it might haunt me a bit. After all, I know a man who remains disturbed, fifty-five years on, by the knowledge that he almost unwittingly killed two German teenagers at the close of the Second World War, and another who remains haunted by the knowledge that he ordered his men to fire on Koreans dressed as civilians, in a period when North Korean infantry regularly dressed as civilians when infiltrating US Marine positions, and several others who still brood on the things they did, or almost did, in war. So why claim that a man who says that he is ashamed to have unwittingly ordered the death of women and children is very likely lying? Or assert that had he done only what he admits to having done, and truly feels what he claims to feel, he must be a flaccid and self-pitying creature? Well, perhaps columnists are tougher people than commandos tend to be. And oh yes, that Bronze Star he failed to return, and knows he did not deserve. Anyone who'd do that, we are told, is a pretty bad man, whatever the truth of the rest of it. Let us assume that all who have written this have themselves returned Bronze Stars they did not deserve - and retained Congressional Medals of Honor which they did deserve. For surely they should be something like, to pronounce so confidently on the honor of Mr. Kerrey. This is not to say that people who have not been in combat cannot pronounce on the morals of men who have, for that would be a coarse and ugly mistake. It is to say that members of a profession generally despised by the rest of the country might be more cautious about pronouncing on the honor of a man who at this point should still be assumed to be one of the most honorable among us. After all, we do not yet know if Kerrey was a murderer on one night, but we do know that on another night a month later he earned the highest honor this country can bestow.

What do we owe him for that second night, and for the medal it won for him? I'm not sure, but I do suspect it includes more initial deference to his word than the press have so far displayed. How unfashionable that sounds, how mawkish - are we not told that in Vietnam the Army began giving away medals in crackerjacks boxes, that by the time of the farce on Grenada they awarded more medals than there were troops involved? Yes, we are told that, but this particular medal was awarded to a man because he refused morphine after traumatic amputation of much of his lower leg, so that he might safeguard with an unclouded mind the lives of the men he commanded. Honor is an imprecise, old-fashioned and for many of us an exasperating word, especially in the context of Vietnam, so for now use four others: do we want to be part of a culture where extraordinary fidelity, courage, stoicism and duty mean as little as they do to Kerrey's preening detractors? When they sneer at Kerrey before the facts are in, they implicitly devalue qualities we all ought to honor. Sorry, there it is, back again, and I think I'm stuck with it, because for all its chaotic ambiguities honor is central to what seems wrong about the initial treatment of Kerrey. Because we conspire to destroy honor, not only Kerrey's but the sentiment so denominated and the conduct which provokes the name, by so conspicuously failing to acknowledge honor when it exists. Even if honor be only a word - and in this case we know with savage certainty that it cannot set to a leg, and that detraction will not suffer it - still and all, we come to associate the word with particular people for worse or better reasons. Though Kerrey himself ceased to regard the Vietnam war as honorable, and doubted the motives of the men who decorated him, surely the honor Kerrey earned on that second night remains real and compelling. How truly shameful to sneer at Kerrey as a probable liar, before the facts compel such a judgment.

I do not mean to imply that a man is unlikely to murder and lie if he has at another time shown astonishing physical and moral courage. But it may be prudent, and proper, to assume as much, until it has been proven otherwise. If legitimate honor matters for the creation and maintenance of a good society, we should be chary about pissing all over the stuff at the first half-chance we get. In The Red and the Black, the novel Kerrey's current Rightist calumniators mocked when Al Gore announced it to be his favorite book, the ludicrous Mayor of Verrieres speaks to a decorated surgeon 'with a degree of contempt nicely suited to a veteran of the Italian Campaign who wore the Legion of Honor'. This does not mean that by 1829 Stendhal retained a wholly na•ve and credulous view of the Napoleonic legend, but it does mean that he suspected that the epoch opening up before Julien Sorel was going to be a pretty odious one. Oh, for a Stendhal to anatomize the people who rushed into print on Kerrey.

Third thought: after smearing Kerrey, the New York Times editorialized that his case shows what happens when our leaders commit us to war without a 'rationale.' Somebody must have loved that phrase, because if I remember correctly it appeared both near the beginning and around the close of the Times editorial. A war without a rationale? The rationale was to prevent a Communist victory in Vietnam. We failed, but the rationale for our involvement was and remains clear. So why does the Times assert, absurdly, the contrary? Here's a theory: carefully examined a quarter of a century on, the rationale for US involvement in Vietnam looks better than it did at the time, and for those of us who opposed that involvement, this is awkward. The apparently parallel cases are disturbing: South Korea, in its day a brutal, corrupt tyranny, rather a nastier one than was South Vietnam, is today a prosperous democracy, but only because American military power aborted its conquest. Taiwan, in its day a brutal and corrupt tyranny, is also today a prosperous democracy, and for the same reason, though China is not suffering the ghastly poverty and monstrous repression of North Korea, being merely a cynical and brutal kleptocracy. In the anti-war movement, we were mostly wrong about the direction of history. History, which was to absolve the Vietnamese Communist Party, instead condemns it. The Times got this wrong too. One can still make a very strong case against the initial American involvement in Vietnam, but if one is honest and even mildly observant, it's somewhat harder than it used to be to do so. Which brings us back to Kerrey. Maybe the Times feels a need for every bit of evidence it can get, all showing what a thoroughly wicked war it was - and if the evidence isn't materializing, what the hell, invent some. Why not? After all, it seemed to work when the Times invented most of Whitewater, and all of Wen Ho Lee's espionage.

A lot of the Left attack on Kerrey seems to be the work of unreconstructed Vietnam-era sentiment: how reassuring, to be 'reminded' that the American war in Vietnam was so utterly damnable an enterprise. When the phrase was minted, it was the Right which had learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. Well, second time, farce. It is grimly farcical to pretend that our old tiers mondiste and marxisant views of international politics need no painful rethinking. But rethinking is wearisome, which is probably why the accusations against Kerrey are almost always yoked to invocations of My Lai, even though the crimes Kerrey is accused of having committed have nothing to do with the crimes committed at My Lai. At My Lai American soldiers under no threat murdered, tortured and raped hundreds of people over a period of hours. My Lai was gross and simple evil. The issues raised by the accusations against Kerrey are very different, and less simple. For example, in a modern guerrilla war, how much can a conventional army plausibly retain of the absolute Enlightenment distinction between civilian and combatant, if the laws of war are not to be a dead letter, or a one-sided suicide pact? How much in a total war? Something must remain of the distinction, with luck much will remain, but how much, exactly? For the laws of war should be tolerably exact, if we intend to shoot or imprison our own soldiers when they breach those laws. But simplicity is what is required, if we anti-war types are to indulge in an orgy of moral self-congratulation a quarter century after the end of the American war in Vietnam. So let's keep it simple, starting with a recurring slippage from Kerrey into My Lai.

Why are so many Rightists eager to smear Kerrey? One speculation: the current Right has no great investment in the old dueling narratives about Vietnam.

To a remarkable degree, the modern Right has abandoned its Cold War postures. Shunning the mid-century internationalist idioms, it speaks much less of collective security, but boasts of its flinty assessments of 'national interest'. Republicans once again snarl about 'Democrat wars', and at his most unctuous, Bush promised a more 'humble' foreign policy. The Right's lesson of Vietnam is that defending Third World foreigners from an ugly fate is not worth a pennyworth of political capital - not in Haiti, not in Somalia, not in Bosnia, nor Kosovo, nor Sierra Leone, nor Macedonia, Sinai or Rwanda. Most of our Right, along with much of our Left, is now neo-isolationist. But the imperatives of the culture wars still require respectful gestures toward the martial civic virtues, so how subtly annoying it must be when almost all of the Right's public men - Bush Jr., Cheney, Gingrich et. al.- can be effortlessly identified as Chicken Hawks, while the senators with the Congressional Medal of Honor to their credit (and the one with the Navy Cross) were very visibly Democrats. The Reagan Right and the post-Reagan Right are very conspicuously not non sibi, sed patriae types, although the ability to on occasion pose as such remains politically valuable - and the ability to paint the opposition as anything but such remains politically valuable as well. In the main, the Right has abandoned its Vietnam-era causes; it may wave the flag, but it does not wave the bloody flag. It instead steadily seeks to erode a political culture which once demanded conscious and willing sacrifice. This Right promises no taxes in blood, and as few as possible in money. We owe our country nothing, it owes us nothing, we owe one another nothing. Kerrey, who thought that when the chips were down he owed his men, and his country, his leg, and his agony, and then went on to oppose a war he had come to see as evil, is not a hero for this sort of Right. And with no crime yet proven against him, with the balance of the evidence still on his side, he does not seem to be a hero for our sort of Left, either. Shame on us.

From August, 2000