Bob Kerrey and Vietnam Memory

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It's another case of the Vietnam Memory Syndrome, that peculiarly American selective forgetfulness that permits national moral self-elevation.

Joe Lockard

Friday, May 11 2001, 6:25 PM

Two weeks have passed and already the story of Bob Kerrey and Thanh Phonh is near-ancient, well on its way down into the forgotten news dump. Within a couple months the story will qualify as a trivia item. It's another case of the Vietnam Memory Syndrome, that peculiarly American selective forgetfulness that permits national moral self-elevation.

Instead of asking for answers and action, almost the entire body of U.S. political and journalistic comment complimented Kerrey as a "truth-teller", commiserated over his "private anguish", and invoked the supposed impossibility of understanding or judging combat situations thirty years ago.

Such sympathy was profoundly misdirected, comforting aggressors rather than victims. Over twenty people died in the Thanh Phonh attack. Bui Thi Luom, a Thanh Phonh villager, described for the Los Angeles Times how her grandmother pleaded fruitlessly with the U.S. soldiers to spare their lives and how children were shot from three feet away. Pham Thi Lanh, another village woman, told of how she had watched soldiers slit the throats of two adults and shoot children. Gerhard Klann, a member of the Navy Seal combat team, corroborates these statements.

That should be sufficient eyewitness testimony to obtain a murder conviction in any recognizable court of justice, but the political distortions of Vietnam Memory Syndrome govern. Amnesia, not justice, is the rule.

This is a very selective amnesia. In the same week that Bob Kerrey and his comrades-in-arms were receiving social exculpation for allegedly murdering unarmed civilians in 1969, the country watched the justice of the guilty verdict against Thomas Blanton on the murders of four young girls in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Church bombing.

The Blanton verdict was decades too long in coming, a delay that was the product of official racism and evidence withholding within the FBI. Yet public demands for justice pushed the prosecutorial process forward even after it stalled for years. Over the past half-dozen years a variety of murders of civil rights workers from the 1960s have had belated re-openings.

There has never been an equivalent demand for justice for war crimes committed in Vietnam, incidents far bloodier than the Birmingham bombing. That would require a four-square willingness to confront the fact that heroes were not heroes, that American GIs tortured, raped, mutilated and murdered for year after unchecked year in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey is an intelligent and reflective man, far different than Thomas Blanton's obsessed racism and impoverished mind. It is perhaps too disturbingly provocative, however, for many Americans to reflect that the violent deeds of Blanton and Kerrey's warrior class cannot be substantially distinguished.

As soon as the last Marine helicopter lifted off from Saigon in 1975, an unofficial statute of limitations descended over U.S. actions in Southeast Asia. Predictable rhetorics of denial and/or justification concerning U.S. atrocities had been in place for years already, together with predictable political positions. The right shrugged over 'unavoidable civilian deaths' and 'combat accidents', while the left demanded prosecution against the top of the command chain and emphasized a broad social guilt that permitted responsible individuals to remain unpunished. When Lt. William Calley walked free in 1972 after being convicted of mass murder, both right and left applauded.

There is no need to look as far as Serbia or Bosnia for war criminals. Yet Bob Kerrey and his team, who invaded a village and slaughtered twenty-one civilian women, children and elderly, need have no fear of a sudden unplanned trip to the Hague. Nor does any other Vietnam veteran. The Serbian war criminals who performed similar acts recklessly neglected to obtain their U.S. passports first in order to avoid unpleasant legal complications.

The double standard that the U.S. employs in its foreign policy morality plays is rarely so obvious as when it refuses to countenance international jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel while advocating war crimes trials for others. Or when U.S. politicians line up en masse to condemn the U.N. Human Rights Commission election for democratically jettisoning U.S. as a member. Righteousness loves double standards.

After a flurry of media attention, Bob Kerrey has returned now to his job as president of the New School University. Although that university has been associated with progressive social thought from its founding until today, there is little publicly discernable upset within its community over the revelations. To the contrary, its Board of Trustees released a brief statement offering full support to Kerrey with the hackneyed words "War is hell."

Those words do not constitute either a legal defense or sufficient reason for a reputable university should refuse to ask reasonable questions of its academic leadership. Kerrey stated "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it." At New School University, war crime confessions apparently are not a tenure problem. When a university nominally dedicated to social research refuses to examine public issues of criminal responsibility, it is indicative of the depth of social denial.

In an excellent Boston Globe essay, Daniel Goldhagen and Samantha Power wrote "The notion that investigating allegations of such criminality is not good for this country is perverse" and concluded "How can anyone in good conscience countenance a cover-up of how and why they were killed?" Once we open that firmly shut door into the past, of course, we shall find that there are many ostensibly decent men who have committed atrocious crimes in uniform. If such well-evidenced crimes as those committed at Thanh Phonh remain buried beneath the denials of political amnesia, then there is little chance that other similar crimes will see the light of justice. America's version of historical closure remains entirely one-sided: the voices of genocide's survivors remain unheard in the United States.

The political blockade against criminal investigation of U.S. war crimes in Southeast Asia is near-complete, but it would be more honorable to fail than never try. Civil actions concerning these crimes have been almost non-existent but have distinct promise. In a rare advance in this direction, seven Vietnamese survivors of the My Lai massacre six months ago filed a class action lawsuit in Salt Lake City against the U.S. army officers involved.

It is far more characteristic of U.S. political justice that Robert Elliott, the federal judge who in 1972 overturned Lt. Calley's conviction (a decision itself later overturned), is the same Judge Elliott who in 1998 sentenced five School of the Americas protestors to 12-18 months in prison for altering Fort Benning's entrance sign into an anti-SOA message.

Peace activists have done eons more jail time in the United States than its uniformed mass murderers. Bob Kerrey shouldn't sweat.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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