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Jewish World Review May 3, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761

Michael Kelly

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The Rush to Avoid Judging Kerrey -- BOB Kerrey was a war hero, and he left half a leg in that war. He is in many ways admirable and likable. He is a member-for-life of two powerful establishments, the U.S. military and the U.S. Senate, and he is a darling-for-life of a third, the U.S. media.

All of this has informed at least the establishment reaction to the news that Lt. j.g. Bob Kerrey and the six Navy SEALs he led into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, killed -- murdered, it has been alleged -- at least 13 unarmed women and children.

We are told: If you weren't there -- scared young men, horrors of combat, fog of war -- you can't judge. Anyway, we can never know what happened that awful night. And anyway again, do we really need to rip open once more the wounds of Vietnam? And, anyway some more, Kerrey is a victim of the war, and he has been heroic to face the truth.

Every aspect of this rush to avoid judgment is wrong. On Kerrey as suffering victim: The primary concern of a moral nation here must be unearthing the truth, and this concern stems from a knowledge that the truth is owed to the victims -- who are the dead -- and their families, not Kerrey and the others who killed them. On Kerrey's truth-telling heroism: He came forward -- after accepting and keeping for 30 some years a Bronze Star for what he knew to be a lie and a coverup -- only when facing exposure. And it is entirely possible he is still lying and covering up.

Turning to the major issues: Yes, it was a lousy, dirty war fought by scared and confused young men. But it has always been thus, and that has not stopped civilized nations from judging, and punishing, their soldiers according to strict rules of conduct in war -- for instance: no killing unarmed civilians. The United States not long ago bombed Serbia into bloody submission for violating this rule.

Second, we probably can discern the truth in this matter. In the first incident of death, in an outpost of Thanh Phong, former squad member Gerhard Klann has alleged, on the record and with detail, that Kerrey helped Klann hold down an unarmed elderly man while Klann cut his throat and that other members of the squad led by Kerrey meanwhile killed an unarmed woman and three unarmed children. In the second incident, in the village itself, Klann has said that Kerrey, concerned that survivors of the failed raid would threaten his squad's escape, ordered his men to round up and kill 13 or more villagers -- all of them unarmed civilians, women and children. Klann said that the squad did this, raking the civilians with fire from a short distance. Klann's version, reported by Gregory L. Vistica in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, was supported in its essentials by a witness, the then-30-year-old wife of a Viet Cong soldier. This woman has reportedly since backed away from her statement. Reuters and the Associated Press report that other villagers still living in Thanh Phong recall Kerrey's team ordering civilians out of a shelter and shooting them.

Kerrey's version of events is vague and has evolved. Nevertheless, Kerrey is adamant in denying he ever ordered a roundup and slaughter. He maintains that his squad took fire, returned fire more or less blindly from a distance of at least 100 yards and found only afterward that they had killed unarmed civilians. The essentials of Kerrey's version have been supported in a signed statement by all the members of his squad except Klann.

Obviously, investigators can hope to get to the truth. They can put the squad members under oath and question them. They can likewise depose surviving villagers. They can exhume and examine the dead. They can, in short, do what is generally done in credible allegations of murder.

And this allegation -- while it may in the end be proved false -- does meet the threshold of credibility for official investigation. Consider a few questions that arise from Kerrey's version. Why did not the unarmed civilians, at the first shooting, hit the ground and roll into dugout shelters, as they knew to do? Why, as Kerrey admits, were the corpses all found huddled in a group in the middle of the village, in a manner suggestive of execution and very hard to explain under Kerrey's version? Why did they all die? Why did none survive with only wounds?

Either Kerrey and his squad committed mass murder or they did not. Either they are guilty of war crimes or they have been terribly maligned and their names must be cleared. The truth needs to out.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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