BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
Recent revelations in the media about former U.S. senator Robert Kerrey's role in the killing of civilians in Vietnam 32 years ago are once again shining a spotlight on Washington's 16-year-long war against the people of that country in the 1960s and '70s.
An article prepared by Gregory Vistica that appeared in the April 29 New York Times Magazine under the title "One Awful Night in Thanh Phong" broke the story about a massacre conducted by a Navy SEAL unit commanded by Kerrey in the peasant village, located in Vietnam's eastern Mekong Delta on the South China Sea. Around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, "Kerrey's Raiders," as the unit's soldiers were known, killed from 13 to 20 unarmed women and children.
Kerrey has made a name for himself as a Democratic politician who is "one of America's most prominent war heroes," according to the Washington Post. Since January he has been president of the New School University in New York. He served a term as governor of Nebraska and two terms from 1988-2000 as a U.S. senator. He also sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, and was under consideration by some for another possible run for the office in 2004.
Thirty-two years ago Kerrey was a 25-year-old lieutenant who quickly made a name for himself as a gung-ho soldier, known for boasting that he was ready to take Hanoi with "a knife in my teeth," according to Vistica. Kerrey, who had arrived in Vietnam a month earlier, was the leader of a Navy SEALs (Sea-Air-Land) unit, which, according to Vistica, was "trained to operate behind enemy lines, collect intelligence, and carry out assassinations."
Vistica began investigating this incident around 1998 after several members of Kerrey's SEALs team began speaking about the mission. Vistica undertook an examination of thousands of pages of classified and unclassified SEALs reports in the Navy's archives. The New York Times Magazine together with the CBS news program 60 Minutes II coordinated their reporting on the story. The 60 Minutes II program aired a segment on the massacre on May 1.
The revelations have sparked a polarized debate in newspaper columns, on radio talk shows, and by government officials, with some expressing condemnation of the killings and others speaking in defense of the actions of Kerrey's squad. The response underlines how the outcome and character of U.S. imperialism's war against the Vietnamese people remain bound up with Washington's continuing military aggression today. The story also illustrates how the Pentagon's officer corps and "special forces" units--U.S. Rangers and the Green Berets, among others--carry out war against working people around the world.
Washington's assault on Vietnam, which included an invasion force that reached about half a million soldiers, was aimed at driving back the Vietnamese people's fight for self-determination and unification of their homeland, and stemming the spread of anticapitalist revolutions in Asia. Through the course of the war the U.S. rulers unleashed more bombs against Indochina--Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos--than had been dropped in all previous wars combined. Millions of inhabitants of Vietnam were killed. Close to 60,000 U.S. troops also died in the conflict.
Massive use of firepower
Kerrey's military unit first entered Thanh Phong on Feb. 13, 1969, searched several hooches (huts,) and "interrogated 14 women and small children," according to a SEALs after-action report. They claimed they were looking for the "village secretary."
On the evening of February 25 they returned to the area. They killed the residents of one dwelling with knives, regarding them as "security, as outposts," according to Kerrey.
Then, said Kerrey, his men heard shots--at a distance of 100 yards--and responded with massive firepower. "We had reliable information that there was going to be an enemy force operating in that area and there was a high-level meeting going on," stated Kerrey. "We received fire and we returned fire. But when the firing stopped we found that we had killed only women, children, and older men." In a later interview with Vistica, Kerrey admitted it may have not been shots that he heard, but just "noise."
Kerrey told Vistica his commanding officer Hoffmann "wanted hooches destroyed and people killed." Referring to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., he said, justifying his action, "There are people on that wall" who died because "they didn't realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun."
Pham Tri Lanh, a Vietnamese woman who witnessed the massacre in Thanh Phong, gave CBS reporters a very different account of what happened. After hearing cries coming from one of the huts, Lanh, who was 30 years old at the time, snuck up on the scene of the killings. "I was hiding behind a banana tree, and I saw them cut the man's neck," she said. "The head was still attached at the back." Vistica wrote, "She says that she also saw the commandos kill what she remembers as a woman and three children with their knives."
In an interview with CBS News she added, "It was very crowded, so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one.
"Two women came out and kneeled down," she said. "They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind."
An Associated Press dispatch reports on a second eyewitness to this massacre, Bui Thi Luom, who gave journalists her account for the first time on April 28. Luom, who was then 12 years old, described how the soldiers opened fire despite her grandmother's pleas for mercy. She was the only survivor in her hut of 16 people--11 children and five women, she said.
According to the AP story, Luom said that "as gunfire erupted, she fled into the dugout shelter. Before leaving, she said, they threw an explosive into the shelter. 'I just heard an explosion. I'm not sure if it was a grenade or gunfire. It hit my knee,' she said, pulling up a pant leg to show a scar on her left knee. 'I don't know if they knew I had escaped. I think they tried to kill anybody left in the shelter.'"
The accounts provided by these two Vietnamese women were consistent with that of Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's SEALs unit. Klann reports that after the commando team arrived at a cluster of hooches, they proceeded to round up women and children for questioning. Vistica then writes, "Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting--raking the group with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds. They heard moans, Klann says, and began firing again, for another 30 seconds.
"There was one final cry, from a baby. 'The baby was the last one alive,' Klann says, fighting back tears. 'There were blood and guts spattering everywhere.'" According to one of the SEALs' after-action reports, the commando unit had expended 1,200 rounds of ammunition. Klann served in the SEALs for 20 years and was among a handful chosen for an elite counterintelligence unit established in 1980 after the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by students who exposed the facility as a base of CIA operations.
For this mission, the Navy awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star, the nation's fourth highest award for valor. The citation that accompanied the medal refers to the 21 Viet Cong killed in the operation. Viet Cong was a term used by Washington to describe the Vietnamese forces who were fighting against the U.S. military invasion. Less than a month later, Kerrey led his SEALs on another such mission, in which he lost part of his right leg when a grenade exploded at his feet. In 1970 he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.
With the story soon to break in the media, Kerrey began speaking out about the incident. In a speech April 18 at the Virginia Military Institute, Kerrey commented on the killings at Thanh Phong. "It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it. How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night."
Several days later Kerrey attended a conference at the U.S. West Point Military Academy where, according to the New York Times, he "discussed the incident at Thanh Phong with Gary Solis, who is a war crimes expert who teaches the rules of war at the academy."
The Times quotes Kerrey as saying, "It's the first time I had read the rules of war. I certainly wasn't trained in them."
The Army's Field Manual, which represents U.S. policy regarding the law of armed conflict and is applicable to all the services, explicitly states: A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces. It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation, even in the case of airborne or commando operations, although the circumstances of the operation may make necessary rigorous supervision of and restraint upon the movement of prisoners of war. The same day that the New York Times Magazine article appeared, Kerrey, together with five other members of his Navy SEALs team, released a statement which appeared in the April 29 Washington Post, denying that they knowingly killed civilians during the raid on the Vietnamese village.
In an interview with Associated Press, Kerrey charged, "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort."
In the interview with Dan Rathers on the 60 Minutes II program, Kerrey attempted to discount the account provided by Pham Tri Lanh. You have to "keep in mind that Lanh was a communist revolutionary during the war," he said, adding that "the eyewitness is at the least sympathetic to the Viet Cong or might have been Viet Cong herself."
Many Democratic and Republican party politicians rose to Kerrey's defense. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said his "heart goes out to Bob Kerrey at this moment. All of us involved in wars do things we're proud of and things we're not so proud of." Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said Kerrey's "anguish and pain" should not "diminish for one moment the full measure of what he has given to his country and of what he represents."
William Safire, in a column titled, "Syndrome Returns," said that "no hard evidence is offered to support this grave allegation [of] deliberate murder." The SEALs team "has long been burdened by guilt at the mistaken wartime killings, but they are not murderers. This story is another manifestation," Safire wrote, "of the self-flagellation that led to the Vietnam Syndrome--that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat"--an unfortunate outcome in all fronts, according to the conservative columnist.
More to the point was the comment by journalist Mickey Kaus, quoted in an article on the usnews.com web site. "There is already entirely too much respectful attention being paid to the moral and psychological agony of Bob Kerrey and to the 'healing' process," he states. "The question is what happened to the people who haven't had the luxury of agonizing for 32 years because they've been dead. Kerrey's agony is a distraction."
In an interview on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports," Kerrey justified the action of his commando unit as countless other such military operations were justified by the U.S. military brass during the course of the Vietnam War. "It was a free-fire zone," stated Kerrey. "There were enemy operating in the area. And even though there were civilian casualties, I have every reason to believe they were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong and at the very worst participating in lethal force against the Americans."
In areas declared to be "free fire zones" by the U.S. military forces, combat pilots and Navy warships could attack any targets at will, including people and villages.
Washington had declared certain areas of the country to be "strategic hamlets," where villagers were ordered to relocate. "Those who didn't move to the strategic hamlets were labeled as Vietcong or as enemy sympathizers," wrote Vistica in the Times Magazine article.
David Marion, a U.S. Army captain responsible for operations in this section of the Mekong Delta region, told Vistica that the forced relocations of the Vietnamese peasants was a difficult task. "They had been there for generations. They weren't going to leave, and basically they didn't care who was in charge," he said.
"In 1972, Kevin P. Buckley, then a Newsweek correspondent, investigated a similar search-and-destroy operation by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta and concluded that American troops killed at least 5,000 civilians," reported an April 27 Washington Post article.
"This point was reinforced today by another former Navy SEAL, Lt. Bill Belding, a friend of Kerrey's," the Post article stated. "Belding, in an interview, described an almost impossible situation in which combatants often killed civilians by mistake and rarely wrote up these casualties as anything other than enemy dead."
Operations such as that carried out by Kerrey's commando unit continued through the course of the Vietnam War. Several came to public attention much sooner. Nine months after the massacre in Thanh Phong, news broke in the media about a slaughter carried out by U.S. forces in March 1968 in the village of My Lai, where hundreds of civilians were massacred (see article). In February 1970, Vistica writes, "a five-man Marine patrol entered the hamlet of Son Thang, about 20 miles south of Danang, and killed 16 women and children."
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