In Bob Kerrey’s case you say that it is “hard” to draw a bright line between crimes and the ordinary terribleness of war (The Kerrey affair, May 5th).This is so only because Kerrey is an American. Were he a 25 year old German soldier during WWII that had killed 20 unarmed Jewish civilians, most of whom were women and children, no one, including your magazine, would have difficulty drawing that bright line and would know on which side Kerrey’s conduct fell.
If Kerrey is truly sorry, he ought to return to the village, express his sorrow directly to the victims’ families and aid them. Short of that he is elevating his anguish above that of the victims.
International Human Rights Attorney
Vice-President, Center for Constitutional Rights
Text of Editorial
The Kerrey affair
“IT IS well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” The words of Robert E. Lee stand as the best comment not only on Bob Kerrey, the former presidential candidate accused of having committed a war crime 30 years ago, but of a more recent policy: that of handing over suspected war criminals to tribunals. As America anguishes over the revelations, the idea of drawing a solid line between what is permissible and unacceptable in war looks ever harder to do. Meanwhile, Lee’s words also contain a warning: that dreadful as one bloody night in Vietnam now appears, it at least forces combatants and the public to confront the moral horrors of war in ways that may become impossible with the warfare of long-distance aerial bombardment.
The basic facts of the Kerrey affair are shocking enough to divide America, even without the presence of a man who has been seen as a war hero. On the night of February 25th 1969, Mr Kerrey led a team of navy SEALS to Thanh Phong, a village on the Mekong delta, where they believed Vietcong guerrillas were meeting. At a hut on the outskirts, they found five people and executed them to prevent them jeopardising the mission. Mr Kerrey claims the victims were men. Gerhard Klann, the most experienced member of the team, says the five were three children and their grandparents—and that Mr Kerrey knelt on the grandfather while Mr Klann sliced his head almost clean off.
The team then began moving towards the village. At this point, according to Mr Kerrey and five other members of the team, they were fired upon. They retaliated from 100 yards with heavy weaponry (a report filed afterwards says 1,200 rounds were expended). But when the team came to the huts, they found that all the victims—14 or 15 people—were women and children. None was armed.
The killings are not disputed. But Mr Klann says they happened differently. Mr Kerrey’s team, he says, searched the huts, gathered the villagers together, and executed them. Mr Klann claims the SEALS fired at close range for 30 seconds, waited, then fired again to silence the wounded and the babies. The navy report simply lists 21 Vietcong killed in action.
Given our current state of knowledge, it is not possible to know which story is true. The case against Mr Kerrey is stronger than his supporters have allowed. The bodies were found in a heap, which is consistent with Mr Klann’s accusations. Two Vietnamese who say they were eye-witnesses have corroborated his claims.
Still, enough doubt remains for Mr Kerrey to get the benefit at the moment. The only unquestioned bit of evidence comes from a villager who filed a complaint about the killings the next day. His version chimes better with Mr Kerrey’s than with Mr Klann’s. A navy report says two Chinese carbines were found the next day in the area, giving weight to Mr Kerrey’s story. Above all, part of Mr Klann’s account cries out for explanation. He claims the women and children were killed to prevent them disclosing the team’s presence to nearby Vietcong. But the SEALS fired a deafening barrage, including armour-piercing rockets and grenades, that would have certainly alerted anybody in the area to their presence.
It is tempting to end the discussion there. One day, more facts may make it possible to decide which account is true. But at any event, the two versions must remain separate. Either a war crime was committed or it wasn’t.
Yet the dreadful truth of the incident is that the closer you look, the more the bright line between war crime and tragic mistake begins to darken. Say that Mr Kerrey is right. On his own account, he ordered his team to fire in pitch darkness into a village which, he might reasonably be expected to know, was full of women and children. The deaths were not so much a mistaken by-product of self-defence as an inevitable part of it. It is hard to see how this differs from the reckless endangerment of civilian life seen in, say, the Russian bombardment of Grozny.
What if Mr Klann’s account is true? The deliberate slaughter of civilians would, by the rules of war, be a crime. And so, arguably, was the firebombing of Tokyo or the destruction of Hiroshima or Dresden—which all involved targeting many more civilians and, in Tokyo, no discernible military targets. Indeed, the man who organised that operation, Curtis LeMay, said that, had America lost the war, he would have been executed as a war criminal.
In those cases, the allied governments justified their actions by saying that they defended soldiers’ lives by shortening the war. But Mr Kerrey could invoke that defence too (though he doesn’t). In Vietnam, women and children killed American soldiers and helped Vietcong troops stage ambushes. It is unclear whether even the events described by Mr Klann would have been against the rules of engagement at the time. The local (South) Vietnamese official, with the backing of the American military, had labelled Thanh Phong a “free-fire zone”, which meant, in the words of the official log kept by the American military adviser, that if any villager did not back the government of South Vietnam, “we will consider you to be Vietcong. You are the enemy. You will die.” It would seem that the rules of engagement themselves allowed, even mandated, war crimes.
To say the line is blurred between crimes and the ordinary terribleness of war is not to excuse the former. But the idea that we can draw a bright line between them is central to western attempts to define and arrest war criminals in Kosovo and elsewhere. The Kerrey case shows how hard that effort is.
It also shows how much war has changed. Vietnam produced a generation of American leaders who were forced to confront the moral horrors of war. Men like Mr Kerrey and John McCain may be the last politicians whose views about war are informed by experience on the ground. America is now fighting wars from 30,000 feet, where moral choices are no longer confronted face to face. No American lost his life in Kosovo, but thousands of Serbs and Kosovars perished in collateral damage. Such deaths do not involve the agony that Mr Kerrey and Mr Klann have confronted. Long-distance bombing is reversing Lee’s dictum. It would be ill if war were to be sanitised. We might then grow too fond of it.