Some people are wondering why the New York Times and CBS' 60 minutes II would spend two and a half years investigating war crimes allegedly committed by former Senator Bob Kerrey 32 years ago in Vietnam. But this is journalism at its best: it is forcing people to rethink some important history, not just what happened on a moonless night in the village of Thanh Phong, but throughout that horrible war.
The American people need to know the truth about the Vietnam War – it was not, as former President Ronald Reagan described it, "a noble cause." In truth it was a vile cause, a dirty, rotten war waged by the most powerful nation and military on earth against a poor country struggling for its independence. In such a war, where the foreign invaders are hated by the vast majority of the population, we would expect these invaders to commit certain kinds of atrocities.
The Kerrey story illustrates this very clearly, regardless of whose account one chooses to believe. Among the undisputed facts: Kerrey's squad was on a mission to assassinate a man he describes as a "pro-Communist political leader." Along the way they encountered five unarmed people who offered no resistance. They killed all of them.
It is also acknowledged that Thanh Phong was within a "free fire zone," which meant that anyone living there – including the children slaughtered by Kerrey's squad – were "the enemy" and could be killed.
This was truly a war against the people of Vietnam, as its history indicates. Vietnam was a French colony until World War II, when the French Vichy (pro-Nazi) government shared power with the invading Japanese. After the war the Vietnamese declared independence, but the French wanted to keep their empire and Washington backed them with billions of dollars and weapons.
The French could not win, but managed to get control of Vietnam south of the 17th parallel, in a negotiated agreement at the 1954 Geneva Conference. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement until elections could be held (in 1956) to unify the country. But the elections never happened because, as Eisenhower would write in his memoirs, Washington knew that "possibly 80 percent of the people would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh."
In order to keep the Vietnamese people from freely electing their own government, Washington backed a series of dictatorships, and created an army for a "country" – South Vietnam – that was itself a creation of the United States. But that army didn't do much better than the French, so we had to invade with our own troops to do the job. That's how Kerry and his Navy Seals ended up on that mission in 1969.
Fast forward to 2001. There are two main points of dispute in the story of Thanh Phong. Kerry claims that their first five victims were men, although he does not seem very certain in the TV interview. Squad member Gerhard Klann recalls that they killed an old man (whom he says he killed by slitting his throat while Kerry held him down), a woman and three young children. Klann's story is backed by a Vietnamese eyewitness, as well as the five graves (two grandparents with three little ones) shown on TV.
In the most chilling part of the story, Klann (and the Vietnamese witness) say the squad rounded up about 14 women and children and shot them all to death. Kerry claims they fired into the darkness from a distance of about 100 yards after thinking they had been fired upon (he's not sure). Here, too, Kerry's story is weak: one would not expect to find most of the village dead in a cluster, from a volley of shots into fired into the dark of night. Kerry's account also suffers from other inconsistencies and changes in his story, as documented in the New York Times' Magazine article.
But the more important story is that the whole war was a crime. And our political leaders are the ones who should bear the blame – not the soldiers whom they lied to, telling them they were defending democracy and freedom and their own country when they sent them to war halfway across the world.
But even today, our leaders have yet to face up to the facts: their only lesson has been that they shouldn't send ground troops. Hence Washington's current support for the military and death squads of Colombia, as well as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Central America in the 1970s and 80s. These are the real costs of not facing up to the truth about the Vietnam War.