Bob Kerrey and Vietnam

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 9 2001 9:00 PM

Bob Kerrey and Vietnam


Timothy Noah writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column. Jacob Weisberg writes Slate's "Ballot Box" column. Scott Shuger writes "Today's Papers" and served five peacetime years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Michael Brus writes "The Week/The Spin." This week they continue to discuss the factual and ethical disputes surrounding former Sen. Bob Kerrey's raid on a civilian town during the Vietnam War. To read Noah's columns on this topic, click {{here#2606:Show=4/29/2001&idMessage=7595}}, {{here#2606:Show=4/28/2001&idMessage=7591}}, and {{here#2606:Show=4/26/2001&idMessage=7584}}.  


Dear Jacob, Tim, and Scott,

I reject the Manichean choice that Scott presents—namely, that you either prosecute Bob Kerrey for war crimes or you confess to being a moral relativist and forfeit any right to judge acts committed in the name of warfare. Respect for the political context and factual ambiguities of Thanh Phong need not lead to the conclusion that anything goes.

Let's stipulate some differences between Thanh Phong, on the one hand, and Nazi Germany, My Lai, and the former Yugoslavia on the other. First, most war crimes trials—such as those at Nuremberg and the ones planned for The Hague—are prosecutions of politicians and generals, not combat soldiers. Second, in all three examples the trials took place/will take place within several years of the crime. (My Lai investigators began interviewing witnesses about 14 months after the massacre.) Finally, all three prosecutions used/will use evidence such as shell casings, photographs, and human remains. What evidence do we have from Thanh Phong? Other than the falsified Bronze Star citation (probably one of hundreds, if not thousands, of falsified Vietnam medal citations), we have conflicting 33-year-old memories.

Obviously you three have more confidence in these memories than I do. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who treats Vietnam vets, has written that

traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs, either as full sensory replay of traumatic events in dreams or flashbacks, with all things seen, heard, smelled, and felt intact, or as disconnected fragments. These fragments may be inexplicable rage, terror, uncontrollable crying, or disconnected body states and sensations, such as the sensation of suffocating in a Viet Cong tunnel or being tumbled over and over by a rushing river—but with no memory of either tunnel or river.

Yet Tim seems convinced that Kerrey knows exactly what happened that night 33 years ago. Moreover, if the emotions Kerrey displays aren't the "appropriate" ones, Tim concludes, then he must be manipulating the public. ("If all Kerrey really did was accidentally to kill some unarmed people, then the self-dramatizing language he's been employing seems wildly inappropriate.")

Scott thinks that Kerrey's expressions of shame are "self-indulgent" and "narcissistic" excuse-making—as if we or he know what he needs to make excuses for. Because we don't require music critics to be composers, Scott reasons, we shouldn't require journalists, historians, and prosecutors to take into account the trauma experienced by combat soldiers. I'd be more inclined to agree with this genteel analogy if I saw streets and hospitals littered with ex-composers drinking themselves to death or dropping to the ground when a car backfires. In other words, I think there is a qualitative difference between traumatic experience and non-traumatic experience. There is also a political context to Thanh Phong killings: They were committed not just in a war, but one in which enemy soldiers masqueraded as civilians, and in a war zone in which the United States had warned civilians that they were targets. (Calling Kerrey's Raiders a "SEAL assassination team," as Scott does, simply wishes this political background away.) As a moral matter, it is important to take personal experiences and political context into account. As a legal matter, of course, they usually are. Hence the distinctions that prosecutors and juries routinely make between first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and not guilty by reason of insanity or self-defense.

But there's a larger worldview lurking behind the zeal to "resolve" Thanh Phong, whatever the evidence. Let's call it the "positivist" fallacy, a belief that earnest investigators can always unearth the truth. With all due respect, Scott, I think you demonstrate this fallacy when you argue that "noncombatant reporter Gregory Vistica now knows more about what happened that night in Thanh Phong than any of [the participants]."

Now, I admire Vistica's reporting. His is a gripping, balanced, and illuminating story, one that deserved to be told. And if Vistica or another journalist had found a smoking gun—forensic, documentary, or photographic evidence that Kerrey and his men had systematically executed civilians without any provocation—then I would support legal proceedings. (To be fair, however, the prosecutors would have to solicit from the public possible war-crimes evidence implicating other Vietnam, Korean, and World War II vets; Kerrey shouldn't be singled out just because he's famous.) But to say that Vistica "knows more" about Thanh Phong than the participants do just because he has "talked to more witnesses" and "read more relevant documents" is a curious view of epistemology. It is like saying that a biochemist knows more about drug addiction than a junkie because the biochemist understands the addiction mechanism of the brain. In an extremely literal way he does. But in a very real way he knows bullshit. Analytical detachment is only a part of true understanding.

Certainly analytical detachment is insufficient to understand human character. It is interesting, Scott, that you mention Hitler's World War I medal. This, I think, is exactly what John McCain was getting at when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "unless you too have been to war, please be careful not to form your judgment of [Kerrey] on your understanding of what constitutes a war hero." McCain doesn't just mean that war "criminals" are not all bad, but that war "heroes" are not all good. Even civilian "heroes" are not all good: In the early 1970s Ted Bundy showed deep empathy and saved many lives while interning as a social worker in Seattle hospitals.

I think analytical detachment is also insufficient to understand political character. Scott, you write that our leaders during the '60s and '70s "were far more concerned with how their political fortunes might suffer than with what their decisions meant to the people of Vietnam." I don't deny that political calculus (i.e., pandering to the majority of Americans who supported the war until the early to mid-'70s) played a large role in their decisions. But were their motives entirely cynical? They may have underestimated the human costs of winning the war, and they may have erred in assuming that Ho Chi Min was a Soviet-style totalitarian (as opposed to a nationalist authoritarian who spouted Communist rhetoric), but I think they sincerely believed that Western-style economic and political freedom was worth fighting for.

The fact remains that at age 25 Kerry had to make life-or-death choices in a fraction of a second that nearly all our current political leaders deliberately avoided having to make. That doesn't necessarily make Kerrey morally superior to Bush fils, Gore, Clinton, et al., but in my mind it makes Gerhard Klann's haunting memory much less damning.


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