Kerrey Already Punished By Torment of Memory
5/10/2001 12:00:00 AM - Kathleen Parker
Thirty-two years ago, in February 1969, I was a senior in high school. My brother had just returned from Vietnam. I had long hair. I think I was still using crutches while my mangled leg healed from a car wreck, but I'm not sure.
That's about it - the sum total of my recollection of that year. I'm sure that there were some noteworthy events, but my memory is cloudy these many years later. It was a long time ago.
I was thinking these things as I imagined former Sen. Bob Kerrey trying to recall exactly what happened that night in a Mekong Delta village 32 years ago. Obviously, a night that involves killing people stands out more vividly than a school-year blur, when days and nights more or less resemble the ones before and the ones after.
Even so, how could he possibly be expected to provide an accurate accounting of something so horrible he tried all these years to forget?
It should come as no surprise that different people remember that night differently. A friend and I once witnessed a throat-clutching boating accident in which a water skier was hit by another boat and slashed to pieces by the boat's motor.
We both saw it in the same instant; we both screamed in unison. We both gave depositions within weeks of the accident and, even such a short time later, gave differing accounts. What we saw was so shocking that even moments later we weren't certain of what we'd seen or how events unfolded.
Today, Kerrey's account of events that resulted in more than a dozen civilian deaths, mostly women and children, differs from the account given by one member of his seven-man Navy Seal team. Kerrey and the other five members recall returning hostile fire, while the dissenting team member, Gerhard Klann, doesn't remember being fired on.
Klann's account is that the women and children were killed because logistics prevented their being taken prisoner and they couldn't be trusted not to betray the Americans to the Viet Cong leaders. Two Vietnamese women who survived the attack more or less corroborate Klann's story, though there are discrepancies in their stories as well.
And then we get to the details. Was it a moonless night as Kerrey says? Records show that the moon was a 60 percent disk that night. Was it cloudy? Were the men shooting from 100 yards in the dark, as Kerrey claims? Or were they standing six to 10 feet away, as one of the survivors says?
Meanwhile, we are reminded that guerrilla war is not like a "real" war. It's a snitch-and-sneak war. The Viet Cong dressed in the same black pajamas farmers wore, making them indistinguishable from the good guys. The Viet Cong also routinely used women and children as human shields or bait.
Friends who served in Vietnam have told me uniformly that you couldn't trust your John Wayne-bred instincts when it came to women and children who, as often as not, might be spies or carrying grenades.
In a moment of intense heat and abject terror, who among us knows what he or she would do? In the dark, in enemy territory, by a sliver or a full-faced moon, the drumbeat of your own heart can sound like gunfire; a soft breeze against a banana leaf can sound like an army's breath. No, I've never been in that kind of war zone, but most of us have experienced breath-bating fear. Magnify that by 10,000 miles in a 25-year-old's heart and ask what he should have done?
The senseless atrocity of war is clear to the fearless mind on a sun-baked day in the comfort zone of home and work. It is easy to know today that there's never any justification for killing an innocent, yet innocents always die in war.
Whatever happened that night 32 years ago - and we may never know - I can imagine this much: If your instincts are intact, you will kill before being killed. If women and children are perceived as that threat, then the horrible choice to take their lives gets made.
Whether things happened as Kerrey recalls them or as others did, I forfeit my seat on the jury. The torment of memory, however hazy, may be sufficient punishment for men whose immense courage permits us the luxury of safe scrutiny three decades later.