VIETNAM IS THE WAR THAT JUST WON'T GO AWAY. The latest flare-up of that decades-old conflict is the admission by Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska and Medal of Honor recipient, that the Navy SEAL team he led in Vietnam killed women and children during a nighttime foray 32 years ago.
Kerrey's admission was prompted by a lengthy New York Times Magazine story by Gregory Vistica that went further. It made the explosive claim that then-Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerrey had ordered the civilians to be rounded up and then shot point blank to facilitate the SEALs' escape. 60 Minutes II followed up with a program based on Vistica's investigation, including interviews with both Kerrey and Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's team and the source of the allegation that the civilians were killed at Kerrey's direction. If this is true, what happened that night in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong was more than a terrible tragedy of war. It was a war crime.
As might be expected, many commentators who served in Vietnam, especially those who took part in ground combat, have tended to accept Kerrey's version of events -- that his men, deep in Viet Cong-controlled territory on a mission to "snatch" a VC official, took fire and responded in kind, not realizing they were firing into a group of unarmed civilians. These commentators emphasize the chaos and confusion of combat, especially at night, when fear is magnified beyond what those who have not experienced it can comprehend.
But there have been exceptions. B.G. "Jug" Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and author of the incomparable Stolen Valor, argues that Kerrey's account of the action is riddled with discrepancies. And a Marine veteran of the war whose opinion I greatly respect e-mailed a number of correspondents with his impression of the 60 MinutesII program: "Gerhard Klann: a Vietnam warrior attempting to clear his conscience. Senator Bob Kerrey: a Clintonesque politician covering his ass."
These objections notwithstanding, the available evidence seems to contradict Klann's claim that the civilians were killed on purpose. Every other member of the SEAL team denies this. Meanwhile, the main Vietnamese witness, the wife of a Viet Cong soldier, has backed away from her assertion that she actually observed the events of February 25, 1969, in Thanh Phong. And we should not forget that Vietnam is a totalitarian state in which alleged American atrocities are a staple of Communist propaganda.
Another piece of evidence that lends credibility to Kerrey's account and may answer some of the questions raised by the skeptical combat veterans was underscored by James Webb in his Wall Street Journal op-ed of May 1. Vistica quotes archived records of U.S. Army radio transmissions, according to which, on February 28, an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC.
This seems to corroborate the claim of Kerrey and the other members of his SEAL team that they came under attack before returning fire, that the Viet Cong were using the civilians as a shield as they attempted to escape, and that the civilian deaths were a tragic but unintended result of the fire fight.
But whatever happened that night in Thanh Phong, the recent revelations have revived the old left-wing anti-war claim that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. Comparisons between Thanh Phong and My Lai have abounded. Ellis Henican, for example, in Newsday, quotes the late Ron Ridenhour, the soldier who publicized the My Lai massacre (though he was not present): "My Lai was a whole lot more than one crazy lieutenant. And there were plenty of My Lais."
This is nonsense. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were far from widespread. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Even allowing for the fact that many crimes go unreported (in war or peace), and for the particular difficulties encountered by Americans fighting in Vietnam, such acts were never commonplace. No less a critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam than Daniel Ellsberg rejected the argument that My Lai was in any way a normal event. "My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior," Ellsberg wrote, "and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They know it was wrong. . . . The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves."
My Lai was an extreme case. Nevertheless, anyone who has been in combat understands how thin is the line between permissible act and atrocity. The first and potentially most powerful emotion in combat is fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation. Soldiers overcome fear by means of what the Greeks called thumos -- spiritedness or righteous anger. Unchecked, thumos can engender rage and frenzy. It is the role of leadership, which provides strategic context for killing and enforces discipline, to prevent this outcome. Such leadership was absent at My Lai.
But My Lai also must be placed within a larger context. As the testimony of James Webb and many others illustrates, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong frequently committed atrocities, not as a result of thumos run amok, but as a matter of policy. While left-wing anti-war critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam were quick to invoke Auschwitz and the Nazis in discussing alleged American atrocities, they were silent about Hue City, where a month and a half before My Lai, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong systematically murdered 3,000 people. They were also willing to excuse Pol Pot's mass murder of upwards of a million Cambodians.
My Lai, while inexcusable, was at least understandable as a consequence of the psychological stress of combat. Hue and Pol Pot, on the other hand, were instances of a defining phenomenon of the twentieth century: mass murder generated by the attempt of social engineers to remake human nature according to an abstract ideology, whether Communist or National Socialist. Those who have been quick to judge Kerrey and others caught up in the chaos and confusion of the Vietnam War need to keep this in mind.
Mackubin T. Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam 1968-69.
May 14, 2001; Volume 6, Number 33