Massacre shows reality of the U.S. war on Vietnam
May 11, 2001 | Page 5
FORMER SEN. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) has been exposed as a war criminal. According to reports in the New York Times Magazine and on CBS's 60 Minutes II, Kerrey led an assassination squad on a mission to the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong on a February night in 1969. There, soldiers murdered close to two dozen unarmed men, women and children--on orders from Kerrey, according to one soldier.
The U.S. establishment--from the mainstream media to Washington politicians--leapt to Kerrey's defense. And it's no wonder. As BILL ROBERTS and ALAN MAASS explain, the revelations about Kerrey show the truth about the U.S. war on Vietnam--that it was one long war crime, from beginning to end.
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SOME COMMENTATORS thought that Bob Kerrey's decision to leave the U.S. Senate last year might be prelude to a run for the White House. Now, he must be considered a candidate for a war crimes trial. The account of Kerrey's mission to the village of Thanh Phong in 1969 is a chilling testament to the horrors that the U.S. committed in Vietnam.
Kerrey had arrived in Vietnam the month before as the leader of a squad of Navy Seals commandos--the Pentagon's most elite soldiers, sent into dangerous areas to kidnap or assassinate leaders of the Vietnamese national liberation army. The February 25 mission to Thanh Phong was the second trip to the area for "Kerrey's Raiders."
On their first visit in early February, the soldiers had found only women and children asleep in their huts--an indication that there were no enemy soldiers in the area. But the squad was sent back to Thanh Phong two weeks later.
As the soldiers crept toward the village, they came across a hut--with an elderly man and woman and their three grandchildren inside. "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with," Kerrey told journalist Gregory Vistica, who wrote the New York Times Magazine story. The soldiers killed the five using knives--with Kerrey helping to hold down the old man, according to Gerhard Klann, another soldier in the squad.
The squad then moved on toward the village--now fearful that the screams of their victims had alerted enemy soldiers. Kerrey says that the squad was fired at as it approached several huts. From a distance of about 100 yards, Kerrey says, the commandos opened fire, using 1,200 rounds of ammunition in a matter of minutes.
According to Kerrey, when the shooting stopped and the soldiers entered the huts, they found their victims huddled in a single group--more than a dozen unarmed women and children, all dead. Kerrey and the squad then left the area, filing a report that claimed they had killed 21 Vietcong soldiers.
But Gerhard Klann tells a different story. Klann said the U.S. commandos were never fired at. He said the squad rounded up the women and children from the village's huts and questioned them.
After learning nothing, Klann said, Kerrey again gave the order to kill. The squad started shooting, raking the group with automatic-weapons fire at close range for 30 seconds. After they stopped, Klann said, the soldiers heard moans--and began firing again, for another 30 seconds.
Kerrey and his defenders have attacked Klann's version--and tried to smear him as an alcoholic. But Klann's account explains what Kerrey's can't--why the women and children were in a group when they died. As Vistica pointed out, "It is hard to imagine that gunfire from 100 yards--no matter how intense--could kill every single member of a group of 14 or 15 people. Some would be expected to survive, particularly when the squad was shooting in the dark and in apparent panic."
What's more, Klann's version of what happened corresponds exactly with the story of a Vietnamese woman who says she witnessed the massacre. Pham Tri Lanh recounted exactly the same details as Klann--on videotape to a CBS reporter who had never met Klann.
It shouldn't be hard to believe Klann's version. After all, Kerrey's Raiders were part of the U.S. government's notorious Phoenix Program--a terror campaign aimed at killing anyone sympathetic to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
The Phoenix Program produced My Lai--the slaughter of 504 men, women and children, carried out by a similar commando squad. According to the CIA's own figures, more than 20,000 Vietnamese "activists" were killed under the Phoenix Program.
In response to the unfolding revelations, Kerrey has lashed out at the media. "The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were," Kerrey complained to the Associated Press. "The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." At other points, he's played for sympathy, claiming that his "error in judgment" in Thanh Phong has haunted him.
But more telling is the fact that Kerrey kept quiet about the deaths of civilians in Thanh Phong until Vistica was on the verge of exposing him. And he never returned the Bronze Star awarded to him for the murder of close to two dozen women and children that night.
Yet he now has the gall to hide behind the myth of the rejected Vietnam vet. "We thought we were going over there to fight for the American people," Kerrey whined to Vistica. "We come back, we find out that the American people didn't want us to do it. And ever since...we've been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don't like it." This from a multimillionaire, former governor of Nebraska, two-term U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate!
After being wounded and transferred out of Vietnam a month after the massacre, Kerrey did attend some antiwar demonstrations. But unlike other vets who returned their medals as badges of dishonor, Kerrey kept his Bronze Star and Medal of Honor.
And while other veterans maintained their lifelong opposition to U.S. militarism, Kerrey recently joined the crowd of Vietnam War opponents who've changed their minds. "Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain," Kerrey wrote in the Washington Post last year. The family members left behind after Kerrey's Thanh Phong massacre might see things differently.
Protected by media lapdogs
GREGORY VISTICA had all the evidence he needed to expose Bob Kerrey's massacre in Thanh Phong back in 1998. But his employer, Newsweek magazine, decided to kibosh the story. According to the magazine's tortured reasoning, since Kerrey had given up on his plan to run against Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was off limits.
"It was apparently okay," left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn wrote, "for a U.S. senator to be an alleged war criminal."
When the New York Times and CBS finally reported the story, Washington's punditocracy reacted with fury. Mark Shields, the allegedly liberal commentator for PBS's NewsHour, said the Times' coverage was "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen." Times columnist William Safire complained about Vistica's "humiliating accusations"--and urged readers to remember the U.S. government's "noble" motives in Vietnam.
Of course, Safire didn't mention his own contribution to the U.S. slaughter--writing Richard Nixon's bloodthirsty, pro-war speeches.
Indictment of the U.S. war
THE HYPOCRISY couldn't be more obvious. One month, Washington's establishment voices are demanding that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be tried for war crimes. The next, the same voices warn about the "ambiguity" of war and the difficulty of determining what happened--in defense of Bob Kerrey.
There's a good reason for this double standard. Bob Kerrey is part of the Washington elite. And if he's guilty of ordering a massacre in Vietnam, he was carrying out a policy supported and promoted for years by the whole of the U.S. ruling class.
The U.S. war on Vietnam killed as many as 3 million people, left millions more homeless and plunged all of Southeast Asia into a nightmare of poverty and violence. The indictment of Kerrey is an indictment of this entire cruel war.
No wonder so many establishment figures have flocked to defend him. They realize that when the facts about Vietnam are exposed, it becomes harder to champion future wars.
Bob Kerrey should be held accountable for the atrocity he committed at Thanh Phong. And so should the rest of his class--for the war they waged to promote U.S. power, no matter what the cost.