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Kerrey regrets war’s unruliness but not war itself


As the lead officer of a seven-man Navy SEAL squad in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, Lt. Bob Kerrey obeyed orders to “eliminate the local political leadership of the South Vietnamese communists” said to be in the village of Thanh Phong. Thirty-two years later, Kerrey, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988, calls that mission of elimination “a tragedy.” Between 13 and 20 unarmed civilians -- mostly women and children -- were killed.

“I have been haunted by it for 32 years,” Kerrey says.

As a low-level 25-year-old field worker carrying out the military policies of the Johnson-Westmoreland-McNamara-Rostow-Bundy-Nixon-Kissinger cabal, Kerrey takes responsibility for the slaughter, saying that the civilians were mistakenly killed as the squad returned fire. One squad member has claimed that the civilians were rounded up and killed, which Kerrey and the rest of the squad deny. The dead of Thanh Phong were part of the overall toll of 2.6 million Vietnamese killed from 1959 to 1974.

It is astonishing that three decades later -- ample time presumably for reflection and reevaluation -- Kerrey continues to endorse war making. “When contemplating war,” he said in a speech to tomorrow’s officers at the Virginia Military Institute April 18, “we must abandon euphemism and answer the question does the cause justify sending young men out to kill other human beings?”

It’s only the occasional messiness of military violence Kerrey opposes. Efficient killing yes, sloppy killing no. Operation Just Cause, not Operation Bad Cause. Obey the rules of war, while regretting when war is unruly.

As a senator, Kerrey was not known as a critic of America’s well-funded war machine. As a combat veteran, he has kept far away from the thinking of former warriors such as Howard Zinn, Phillip Berrigan, Garry Davis, Heinrich Boll, Jacques de Bollardière, Tolstoy and Francis of Assisi. All returned home to become pacifists.

Zinn, describing himself as “an eager bombardier” in World War II, became a voice for nonviolence: “I had moved away from my own rather orthodox view that there are just wars and unjust wars, to a universal rejection of war as a solution to any human problem.”

Berrigan, also a World War II veteran, is currently imprisoned for anti-war actions. He writes: “There will be no healing for veterans, myself included, until we disavow war completely, until we disarm the bomb and the killing machine and ourselves. Why are we alive except to unmask the Big Lie of war? Where are veterans from all the empire’s wars in the struggle for disarmament, for justice and peace? They should ask themselves, ‘Can I remedy my violence, can I heal myself until I try to heal the body of humankind from the curse of war?’ ”

As the haunted Bob Kerrey expresses remorse about his deeds at the Thanh Phong, for which he received the Bronze Star, the former warrior is receiving supportive words from fellow Vietnam veterans now in the Senate. In the April 29 Washington Post, Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry sound the bugle: War is “a serious proposition and should never be undertaken lightly or without the highest regard for those who bear the ultimate burden.”

Such militaristic cant means that the people killed in Vietnam, on whatever side, were duped then and are dishonored now. It also means that members of the peace movement, from the War Resisters League to Pax Christi, need to double their efforts, not only to condemn military violence in the some 35 wars or conflicts now raging globally but to educate the young that other ways exist -- moral, effective and nonviolent ways -- to solve conflicts than by fists, guns, armies and bombs. If the Bob Kerreys of the 1960s had had the chance for that kind of education, perhaps they would have answered the call to resist, not comply.

Colman McCarthy, editor of Solutions to Violence, a high school and college textbook, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001