They Shoot Civilians, Don' They?

Posted: May 02, 2001 12:00 AM
By now, you know the drill. A story comes out that stains the reputation of a political figure. Pundits call for an investigation. Some say the offense disqualifies the politician from higher office. His good deeds count for nothing as observers suggest some specialized punishment for the offender's crime. Sic transit Bob Kerrey, former senator and decorated Vietnam vet. The only thing he has going for him is that he is not a Republican. The misdeeds for which Kerrey stands accused -- the slaughter of Vietnam civilians during a raid on a small village in 1969 -- are far more serious than tawdry sex scandals of late. Someone else's children died. Kerrey has admitted that his commando team killed at least 13 women and children, as the Sunday New York Times Magazine reported. Kerrey disputes a charge that his troops knowingly fired on civilians. He insists -- and six of the seven men on the raid back him up -- that he could not see that his men were firing on women and children. Yet Kerrey also said in an interview, "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we make contact with. Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission." The New York Daily News editorialized, "This is not the behavior one would expect from a recipient of the nation's highest military citation. Or from a man who sought -- and might yet seek -- the nation's highest office." How quickly they forget. Two presidents backed "free fire zone" policies that sent American soldiers into hostile villages to kill or risk being killed. "Those of us who served in Vietnam will read into this article: Why were there only women, children and old men? Because the rest of the Viet Cong were out on the field, and they could have ambushed these guys on the way in or the way out," observed Bob Mulholland, adviser to the California Democratic Party. He recalled how enemy troops fired on his camp from nearby villages -- "deliberately, so (that when the camp retaliated) there would be civilian casualties, which would then be bad in the newspapers." Or as Kerrey observed, "There are people on the (Vietnam Memorial) wall because they didn't realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun." Which is why punditry won't hang Kerrey. He served in Vietnam, many of us in the opinion business didn't. Far be it for those of us who were not there to harp on a man who risked his life in service to his country. While no one wants to condone the slaying of innocent civilians, we don't know what we would have done in the same kill-or-be-killed world. Mulholland wants an investigation: "No one should deny a normal inquiry given that we're asking the same things in Yugoslavia, as well as in Africa and other places." As for Kerrey, while his demeanor ping pongs from contrite to defiant, Mulholland thinks the story could "actually help him politically." Unless it was shown that Kerrey wantonly ordered his troops to fire on women and children, which Kerrey denies, voters are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. We don't want to pillory one man for saving his men and his skin. Not when the onus belonged not to the soldier, but the people -- on both sides of the war -- who wrote the rules.