Lies, Damned Lies and Our Collective Version of the Truth
6 May 2001
There has been much discussion in the mainstream press and over the Internet of former Senator Bob Kerrey's disclosure that he led the killing of Vietnamese civilians during the war. Kerrey led six Navy SEALs into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong on the night of February 25, 1969. Kerrey admits his unit killed women, children, and seniors that night. This admission comes approximately 32 years after the event took place. Kerrey gave his version of the incident in advance of the publication and airing of the story by the New York Times and 60 Minutes II. Kerrey claims the killings were a "tragic accident." The media quoted sources, contradicted by other sources, claiming that the killing of civilians was deliberate.
Kerrey was honored with a Bronze Star in connection with the raid that resulted in the civilian casualties, to use the nomenclature of war. The citation Kerrey received stated that "21 Viet Cong" were killed. The citation was a lie. Kerrey came forward, after accepting and keeping for over 30 years a Bronze Star for what he knew to be a lie, and only did so when facing exposure. Kerrey's stature as a former senator from Nebraska and a "war hero" magnified the attention the story has received and led to its publication.
What is to be done with this knowledge? The debate goes on, but not too loudly.
Should the primary concern of our nation, and the world, be to investigate and find the truth? Are the victims and their families owed the truth? Would it be a cover-up not to investigate how and why they were killed? Is Kerrey a "victim" of a war planned and controlled by leaders that lied to its citizens while sending scared and confused young men to fight and die? Is the truth more than a summation of "facts"?
In my head I know the answer to all these questions is yes. In my heart I know I am not in a position to judge Mr. Kerrey and the Navy SEALs he commanded. The man left his leg in a shoe in southeast Asia in a war his country sent him over 8,000 miles to fight in. We taught him to kill. He knows pain and anguish that we will never know.
I was born on the anniversary of day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would "live in infamy," December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day. Born in 1954, I grew up with the Vietnam War. My father made sure we attended Memorial Day services. We were taught to fold the flag correctly and respect our men and women in uniform. Our home had pictures of my father in his Navy uniform and of my uncle in his Air Force uniform. I was raised Roman Catholic. I learned at home, at school, at church and amongst my peers that the war in Vietnam was, like all wars that America fought, a moral cause. Communists were godless. I didn't think this to be true. I knew it to be true. You could trust our leaders, you could trust the military, and you could trust Bob Hope.
I escaped the ideological bubble I had lived in for twelve years when I left parochial school for public school. I no longer had to wear charcoal gray pants, a white shirt, and a tie to school. Neither did the other boys. The kids in my class not only looked different, they were different. Newton, Massachusetts, a small city just 10 miles west of Boston, is socially diverse by most suburban community standards. The city has a large Jewish population and, at that time, had an intellectual community and a counterculture politicized by the war. Young people and adults openly questioned the status quo. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were openly discussed and debated. Critical thought, though never completely independent, was encouraged. My mother, who worked seven days a week to support my brother and me, was able to send me to a public school system alongside the children of Isaac Asimov. There was no need for educational vouchers in Newton. I was taught at a young age in public school to question authority.
It was upsetting to see the body counts on the nightly news, listed as if they were sports scores. Nothing struck me more than the self-immolation of Buddhist monks abroad and of a Quaker at home. Seeing news film of young men with the lower half of their bodies blown off came close. Such sacrifice stayed in my head as I tried to sleep. An innocent young girl--how could she be anything else--leaped screaming from Napalm burns from the pages of newspapers. A college student wept as she knelt over the body of student shot by the Ohio National Guard. The heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, refused induction into the Army. Students protested the war across the country. A history teacher offered to instruct those of us born in 1954 on how to get out of induction. Despite all the education available to me I registered for the draft. My random sequence number was low and my friends jokingly sang "Over There" to me. I was fortunate. They ended the draft. I stayed home. Despite all of that second-hand information I was and am clueless about the horror that is war.
Many good people are asking why should we drag this up now. They want to leave Kerrey to his "own nightmares." They want us to "move on." They are wrong. We have a president who chalks up any personal responsibility for his actions to "youthful indiscretion" while covering up the truth. We have a past president that felt compelled to lie about "private" actions rather than own up to the truth. Corporate leaders lie continuously in the normal course of business. Our legal system is often a competition about which side can lie the best. The United States lies about its history and covers up like a family covers up alcoholism and incest. First we lie to ourselves then we lie to everyone else. "Tell the truth and shame the devil," my fifth grade teacher, Sister Ursula, told us. She was right. We can't erase Vietnam from our memories. We shouldn't deliberately lie to ourselves and to others.
Senators John McCain, Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel, and John Kerry have rallied behind Kerrey. As Kerrey's former Senate colleagues and as Vietnam veterans they have walked in Kerrey's shoes and are in a far better position to judge his actions than am I. However, I disagree with their statements that this is a "private memory." All of these men know better. My Senator, John Kerry, raised the examples of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki as reasons to pass on further examination. The opposite is true. Kerrey made a tremendous sacrifice, but that sacrifice compels us to tell the truth, not cover it up. This was not Kerrey's War. It was our war and our responsibility.
James Carroll wrote this week in the Boston Globe that:
The Kerrey disclosure should be an occasion for the United States to more fully face the truth of what it did in Vietnam, waging a war that was consistently, not exceptionally, a war against civilians. In his 1995 memoir, Robert S. McNamara cited a 1967 memo in which he put the figure of US-killed or seriously injured civilians at 1,000 per week--a shocking admission, but the number, on average, was certainly far higher than that. The unreckoned moral issue has less to do with the actions of on-the-ground fighters like Kerrey--I believe most American soldiers worked hard to avoid deliberate killing of noncombatants--than it does with the indiscriminate killing of Indochinese carried out by American pilots from the air. The air war in Vietnam, spilling into Laos and Cambodia, was mass murder pure and simple.
I concur. Senator Bob Kerrey told Esquire magazine in January 1996 that President Clinton was "an unusually good liar." That statement is more applicable to all of us as a collective whole.
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