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War Hero

May 1, 2001

Did former Senator Bob Kerrey murder harmless women and children in Vietnam one night in 1969?

No, says Kerrey: he and his men were just returning fire from the tiny village of Thanh Phong. It was dark, and only after firing 1200 rounds of ammunition did they discover that they had inadvertently killed more than a dozen noncombatants.

Yes, says Gerhard Klann, a member of the six-man SEALs team Kerrey led that night. He says the village was already subdued when Kerrey ordered the civilians — an admittedly blurry category in that war — lined up and shot, for fear that they might help the enemy later.

Other members of the team vaguely support Kerrey’s story but don’t want to speak to the media about the incident. They may be telling the truth, or they may feel that to accuse Kerrey would be to admit their own guilt in participating in the slaughter.

Klann’s account is vivid, and he can’t be suspected of self-exculpation: he says he cut an old man’s throat with Kerrey helping hold the victim down. This is what lawyers call “an admission against interest”: the fact that the witness is willing to make himself look bad gives his testimony special weight. But who knows? The details are too few, too indistinct, and too confusing to allow certainty either way.

One thing is clear, though. If you want war, this is the sort of thing you are going to get. Combat veterans always come home with memories they don’t care to share, often guilty memories. Kerrey says he is still haunted by the memory of that dreadful night. But is his conscience bearing any fruit?

[Breaker quote: 
Unanswered questions]Let’s suppose you found yourself in combat in Vietnam at the age of 25. In a moment of rage and terror, not knowing where danger lay and finding the natives incomprehensible and exasperating, you and your platoon cut loose and did something awful. Something you’d never imagined doing back when you were mowing the lawn in the suburbs. Something you hope nobody on earth ever finds out about.

A few months later you go home, minus part of your leg, dreaming every night about the scene you’re glad your family has no inkling of. They think you’re a war hero. So does everyone. You modestly demur, but without explaining why: let them think you’re just being self-effacing.

You publicly protest against the war, and your words mean more to the folks than the words of some draft-dodging hippie college kid, because you’re a war hero. In a few years you run for office, letting your promoters portray you as a war hero — even though the phrase war hero sounds, to your inner ear, like a contradiction in terms.

Those who know you, know nothing of your inner life, how you hate war, or the real reason why. You wince when they praise your courage. They think you’ve already met, and passed, the test of your lifetime.

Maybe, without revealing your terrible secret, you can use your conscience productively in politics. You can help make sure other boys don’t have to go through what you’ve endured — what you’re still enduring.

You wind up in the U.S. Senate. You have to join in debates and votes on whether to send American military forces into combat, whether to impose harsh sanctions on other countries, whether to let the president order the bombing of cities without a declaration of war. Knowing what you know about how the innocent get hurt — and knowing that your president, a fellow Democrat, is using his power cynically to distract attention from his pending impeachment — what do you do?

Do you use your reputation as a war hero to prevent needless bloodshed? Do you speak out against sanctions that mean disease and starvation for thousands of children? Do you denounce a criminal president for inflicting death abroad to save his own political hide?

Or do you keep a low profile to save your own political hide? Do you quietly sit out the debates on war and sanctions? Do you join your party in protecting your president and voting to acquit him when you know he is guilty as charged — no, much guiltier than charged?

Just asking.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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