Is it time for a Vietnam truth commission?

Suppressed atrocities haunt victims, perpetrators and politics alike. That's why unshrouding the secret history of former Sen. Bob Kerrey and the Vietnam War is imperative.

Published May 2, 2001 2:47PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, I gave a university lecture about journalism and human rights. I began by talking about investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's famous November 1969 expose of the My Lai massacre -- when American troops killed 300 civilians in a remote Vietnamese hamlet. After my talk, a young graduate student introduced himself and explained that he had attended a military college, where students were required to study My Lai in depth. He asked whether I thought such an atrocity represented a common occurrence in Vietnam or an aberration.

I was startled because that student's question seemed so distant and remote, as open and objective as if he were inquiring about Antietam or Bull Run. I thought of that student again this week: how it may be impossible for him, or anyone born after the last American helicopters left Saigon in 1975, to fully grasp the unexpectedly raw emotions unleashed -- visible on op-ed pages and talk shows -- by the revelation that recently retired Sen. Bob Kerrey, as a young Navy SEAL lieutenant, participated in a massacre of 13 unarmed Vietnamese women and children in February of 1969.

When the film "Saving Private Ryan" opened, veterans' hospitals reported an upsurge in elderly World War II soldiers seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder for the first time in their lives. Something like that has happened with the story of the encounter between then-Lt. Kerrey's eight-man commando squad and the people of Thanh Phong.

After decades in which many politicians have done their best to gloss over the lingering damage done by the war in Vietnam, the Kerrey story demonstrated that the books are far from closed, either in the private realm of emotion or the public balance sheet of moral accountability.

The story of Thanh Phong and the squad who called themselves Kerrey's Raiders proves something that the ancient Greeks would have understood: that an atrocity unacknowledged and papered over festers like a body unburied, erasing time and space between the original event and revelation of the terrible secret. In the scales of the Vietnam War Thanh Phong is a tiny and obscure incident, yet this Sunday's New York Times Magazine story, like a post-traumatic flashback, instantly opened up yawning divisions over the war, sending a surge of once-familiar language through the national adrenaline system of the media: hooches and body counts and strategic hamlets and VC.

That's certainly true for Kerrey's Raiders, who after 32 years are for the first time actively revisiting the events of that night, beginning to sort out facts with what appears to be the full gamut of human expression from profound "shame" (Kerrey's word) to defensiveness to anger. It appears to be true in Thanh Phong, where one surviving villager named Pham Tri Lanh told a CBS camera crew the story that 32 years earlier village elders tried to communicate to U.S. Army investigators -- who promptly covered up what military records called the "alleged atrocities."

That abrupt upwelling of emotion goes beyond the immediate participants and survivors. Looking at the press the last few days you'd think the war had never ended -- the terms of debate thrust back decades. In the New York Times, William Safire -- President Nixon's speechwriter at the time of Thanh Phong -- excoriates postwar American self-flagellation and defends the war as nobly motivated; Time magazine worries over the consequences for American soldiers if they are sent into battle without proper justification, a framework unchanged since 1975.

On the surface, the question the Thanh Phong story presents is simple: Whose version do you believe? By the account of Bob Kerrey -- today president of New York's New School University -- his SEAL commando squad entered Thanh Phong in search of a Viet Cong official they planned to abduct or assassinate, came under fire (or at least thought they did), shot back and afterward discovered they had killed 13 women and children.

By the account of fellow commando Gerhard Klann, Kerrey's Raiders never came under fire at all. In Klann's version, the SEALS rounded up the women and children while they searched the village, then shot them at point-blank range to make sure they could leave the village unscathed. It is Klann's account that is bolstered by village survivor Pham Tri Lanh.

There's a good argument to be made that Klann's account is the more credible. It's a story he apparently confided to at least one SEAL commander later in his career, and he confirmed it to the Times magazine only reluctantly. A CBS videographer who had never heard Klann's version of events gleaned Pham Tri Lanh's corroborative interview. Kerrey's version, on the other hand, leaves unexplained the most salient question of the raid: how a random nighttime firefight could have left a cluster of 13 civilian corpses lying together. The heated denial from all the remaining members of Kerrey's Raiders other than Klann came in a collective statement after publication of the Times story, which offered far more certitude than Kerrey himself had provided that there had been an extensive firefight.

Yet the debate over Klann's vs. Kerrey's version of events is of secondary relevance. For one thing, the one central and uncontested fact remains, regardless of whether Kerry or Klann is more credible: those 13 dead women and children in the center of a Vietnamese village. Kerrey himself understands this, and does not give himself a moral pass: "Basically you're talking about a man who killed innocent civilians," he told the Times magazine. But most Americans, obsessed with Vietnam as our own "national tragedy," have always had a hard time acknowledging the depth of Vietnamese suffering during the war.

Commentary on the Thanh Phong story has already sidelined those dead Vietnamese. The collective statement by Kerrey's squad barely even acknowledges Thanh Phong's civilian dead: "We regret the results of this night," is as close as it gets, a kind of chilly bureaucratese suggesting that some members of the team are still working hard to keep those events in the back drawer of memory.

At the same time, the story of Thanh Phong raises another question: How many more Kerrey's Raiders are out there, Vietnam veterans bearing the particular burden of a terrible secret? This is an uncomfortable question for a country obsessed with "closure." The war forced combatants into awful choices that are now practically the stuff of clichi: The inability, sometimes, to distinguish between civilians and Viet Cong; the frequent knowledge that the orders of superiors would lead to disaster; the decision about whether to intervene to prevent or halt singular acts of brutality (as one helicopter pilot finally did at My Lai). With combatants of the Vietnam era approaching late middle age, the fallout from those choices is sure to resurface as men and women who have numbed themselves with work suddenly find time to reflect.

One of the most powerful and original books on the war, "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat and the Unmaking of Character" by psychotherapist Jonathan Shay, relates the story of one sergeant haunted by atrocities in which he participated in the war. He is sickened by his medals, and dreams -- though emotionally shattered -- of someday returning to Vietnam to make restitution in some fashion with his labor. That sergeant's voice echoed last week in Kerrey's comments when he was asked about the Bronze Star awarded for Thanh Phong. "I've never worn that damn medal," Kerrey said in an interview. "I never campaigned and said, 'Vote for me; I'm a hero.' If they want to take it away, I don't care."

The story of Thanh Phong haunts because this small, nearly forgotten incident so neatly captures not the aberrations of Vietnam but the war's central logic. If Kerrey's Raiders targeted civilians that night, they did so in the shadow of carpet bombing and the strategic hamlet program that routinely devastated Vietnam's civilian population. If Bob Kerrey has lived for 32 years with what he decribes as "shame" at his actions and at his unearned Bronze Star, it is because of the daily corruption of the body count, the routine papering over of civilian dead, endorsed from the White House on down.

Whatever happened at Thanh Phong, there is plenty of blame to go around. And while the Pentagon's own post-Vietnam syndrome involves blaming the press for losing the war, the fact is that until very late -- indeed, through the very period in which Kerrey's Raiders landed in that village -- the press was fully complicit in covering up American attacks on Vietnamese civilians.

Indeed, it took Seymour Hersh's My Lai exposi, months after Thanh Phong, before correspondents began to admit that the systematic and indiscriminate killing of large numbers of civilians by American troops was old news.

Until My Lai, most American reporters in Vietnam simply had not deemed human-rights atrocities newsworthy. Frank McCullough of Time magazine, for instance, covered the war for four years without ever reporting on atrocities. But after My Lai broke, he recalled seeing Viet Cong prisoners pushed from airplanes by American troops, shot with their hands tied behind their backs and devoured by Dobermans unleashed by interrogators. Many other reporters told similar stories: It was as if the floodgates had opened, as if the press suddenly had official sanction to report a previously suppressed government secret.

The Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan -- to whom Daniel Ellsberg entrusted the Pentagon Papers -- eventually described the thinking of American reporters in those years. It bears listening to now, because Kerrey's high-profile confession may have an impact similar to My Lai in released bottled-up atrocity stories.

Sheehan recalled that in 1966, three years prior to the events in Thanh Phong and My Lai, he personally witnessed American troops wipe out five fishing villages, killing as many as 600 Vietnamese civilians. The raids "seemed unnecessarily brutal," but "it did not occur to me that I had discovered a possible war crime." He went on: "I had never read the laws governing the conduct of war, though I had watched the war for three years in Vietnam and written about it for five ... The Army field manual says it is illegal to attack hospitals. We routinely bombed and shelled them ... looking back, one realizes the war crimes issue was always present."

"The war crimes issue" is also what makes the Thanh Phong story so troubling -- and yet so relevant -- today. We live in an era drenched with investigation of atrocity, past and present: Holocaust assets, Chilean death squads, Bosnian ethnic cleansing; there are war crimes tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda, a South African Truth and Reconciliation commission and similar bodies in El Salvador and Guatemala. In Northern Ireland, an independent commission is raking over British Army behavior on Bloody Sunday of 1970.

Some of these efforts are tribunals aimed at bringing the worst perpetrators to justice; others, at just setting the record straight. What all those nations realize is that suppressed atrocity haunts not just its victims and shadows not just its perpetrators, but distorts the political life of entire societies.

When it comes to the Vietnam War, this is a realization that has yet to strike senators like Massachusetts' John Kerry, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and Georgia's Max Cleland -- all Vietnam vets with varying views of the war -- who have taken pains to assure their former colleague that there will be no investigation of Thanh Phong. Time to move on. (Sen. John McCain, while speaking supportively of Kerrey, has taken a more cautious approach, simply saying that whether or not to investigate is the Pentagon's decision.)

I am not saying Congress or the Pentagon should initiate an inquiry into this single incident, or hold some kind of war crimes trial for Kerrey -- who after he was maimed on a subsequent mission came to oppose the war, and was an honorable voice in the Senate against nuclear proliferation and military adventurism. But memory, especially the memory of a traumatic event, does not move on. Gerhard Klann and Bob Kerrey have different accounts of events in Thanh Phong, but both describe the same motive for coming forward with them: to "cleanse my conscience," in Klann's words.

That same graduate student who asked about My Lai asked me another question: Weren't there atrocities committed on both sides in Vietnam? You hear that kind of moral-equivalence argument a lot now, as a way of putting the Vietnam War on a safe, comprehensible shelf. I answered testily that only one side backed up its atrocities with B-52s. But the story of Thanh Phong suggests a different way of thinking about the war -- not about moral equivalence in battle, but about how lingering traumatic memory unites American war survivors and their Vietnamese counterparts. While I don't think that Kerrey's version of events adequately explains the events of Feb. 24, 1969, there's no reason to doubt the sincerity of his effort -- once prodded by a reporter -- to scrape away the decades of silence and denial.

"This is in the early stages. I'm just trying to get a private memory public," he said at a press conference.

The story of Thanh Phong is part of the hidden history of the Vietnam War -- a history written not in diplomatic cables or Pentagon memoranda, but upon the memories and bodies of the war's survivors. If the story of Kerrey's Raiders and Thanh Phong resonates, it is because that hidden history is still carried, unacknowledged and unratified, by thousands on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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