Most of the commentary and coverage of the killings of at least 13 Vietnamese women and children by Bob Kerrey and his raiders focuses on whether or not he rounded them up and murdered them or whether they were killed in a battle in which Kerrey and his men were returning fire from enemy soldiers. Most of the pundits jumped to Kerrey’s defense and gave him the benefit of the doubt putting forth excuses such as the fog of war, unreliability of and conflicts between witnesses, passage of time, and the trickiness of memory. The focus of commentators was: did he or didn’t he: did he commit a cold blooded war crime or were the killings excused by the laws of war? I don’t want to say this question is irrelevant, because it is not. But whether Kerrey killed these peasants and their children by one method or another is not the only question that his belated “confession” raises.
Kerrey acknowledges that he and his men killed 13 mothers and children. He states that the memories of it are “killing” him, that it was a “tragedy,” that he could not “justify it militarily or morally” and that “he was so ashamed he wanted to die.” Many of the news reports sympathize with his anguish and torment and the difficulty he is has had in coping with these killings over the years. However, neither Kerrey nor these journalists address the pain and loss suffered by the families of those he killed–children raised without mothers, mothers who buried their children, fathers without wives and children and families torn asunder. No one including Kerrey addresses the anguish and pain of those families—its all about how Kerrey is suffering. If Kerrey is really remorseful regarding the killings—no matter which story is believed– then he ought to do something about it, not just give press interviews. He should find a way to both make amends to the surviving relatives both in word and deed. This would be the appropriate human, moral and ethical response. It is also what the Vietnamese have suggested: “We think the best way for Mr. Kerrey as well as other Americans who used to fight in Vietnam to find peace of mind is to have concrete and realistic actions to contribute to healing the wounds left by the war.”
Kerrey can start small. He should go back to the village of Thanh Phong, see for himself the damage he caused, go to the cemetery where those killed are buried , meet with their families if they are willing—and, as a first step— apologize. Real regret and real sorrow is expressed face to face not at press conferences. He should not return empty handed to the village, but should be prepared to assist those families and that village materially. Expressions of real sorrow should be backed up with specific and material actions. Kerrey is a millionaire many times over and while reparations will not bring back the dead or end grieving, they will demonstrate both his sincerity and willingness to help those he hurt.
But Kerrey’s apology and return to the village should only be a beginning of our country’s acknowledgement for what we did in Vietnam. Kerrey’s unit’s killings took place in February 1969. The village of Thanh Phong is in Kien Hoa Province in the Mekong Delta, the a focus of a U.S. “pacification” campaign during the first six months of 1969—Kerrey’s operation was part of this campaign. In those six months, in that one area, a U.S. official acknowledged that at least 5,000 noncombatant civilians were killed and this is only a small number of the hundreds of thousands of noncombatant civilians killed by the U.S. and its allies in the war. Hopefully, if Kerrey takes the suggested return trip to Thanh Phong he will set an example for other Americans and our government. It may herald the beginning of a larger process of genuine acknowledgment, apology and recompense for wrongs committed.
Michael Ratner is an international human rights attorney and the vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in NYC.