Coward's Morality

Posted: May 01, 2001 12:00 AM
One wonders whether the journalists pepper-spraying former Sen. Bob Kerrey about his conduct on a moonless night in Vietnam 32 years ago have ever faced anything more harrowing than air turbulence between New York and Washington. The image of these soft, pampered journalists hurling accusations of war crimes at a man who served his country and lost a leg in the process is obscene. And it is peculiar that the conflicted Kerrey has gotten all the heat this past week, when facts about Sen. John Kerry's behavior have come to light, too. It seems that Kerry, once head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, perpetuated a little fraud. At a now legendary demonstration, Kerry, along with other veterans, threw the medals they'd earned onto the Pentagon steps to dramatize their contempt for the war, for their own service there and for the nation that sent them. Kerry has changed his tune since, saying that he is proud of his Vietnam service. But here's the kicker: It turns out that Kerry threw someone else's medals that day. He kept his. Hypocrite. But this story did not engage the imagination of the press corps because it doesn't fit into one of its tidy categories. Together with Hollywood and other centers of liberal thought, the press has created a bogeyman called American Soldier in Vietnam. He is a drug-abusing, stupid white guy who commits war crimes every day of the week and comes home to become a derelict on a motorcycle. And it is all false. Americans who served in Vietnam were no more likely than Americans in any other war to commit war crimes, and the overwhelming majority returned home and became solid citizens. Let's not kid ourselves, crimes happen in every conflict. The suspension of normal rules encourages it. Even the valiant Americans who fought Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito engaged in murder, rape and pillage on rare occasions. Americans have even been known to commit crimes in peacetime. In 1995, three U.S. servicemen abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa. Vietnam did present more challenges to conscientious soldiers than World War II, though, because of the nature of the enemy. It was routine for Vietcong to dress as peasants and blend into them for camouflage. Americans never knew when a "civilian" they came across might pull a gun and kill them. They'd seen it happen to friends. And if Americans therefore killed more civilians than they otherwise would have, that guilt lies with the Vietcong. Bob Kerrey was a 25-year-old Navy Seal taking the six men in his command on a dangerous night mission. He and all of the other veterans of that episode but one recall being fired upon and returning fire. Only when the shooting and confusion was past did they discover that they had killed women and children. How many similar stories, one wonders, have come to the attention of the American press corps regarding other wars? And how many have received this kind of attention? None. Neither has the American press ever adequately told the stories of atrocities committed by the communists in Vietnam against their countrymen and against Americans. The treatment of our POWs, for example, constituted an ongoing crime over many years committed not in the fog of combat, but in the quiet of camps and prisons. Yet that story has gotten precious little attention because to tell it might seem to justify the American side, and we can't have that. There is so much nonsense still written and said about Vietnam. There is still the assumption, even on Bob Kerrey's part, that the lesson of the war is that we should never have fought it -- because it morally compromised us. That's rot. We fought to give Southeast Asians a chance at freedom. We then changed our minds and left them to their fate. Two million Cambodian civilians were tortured and starved to death after we lost heart. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese took to boats to escape communism and drowned. Equal numbers were shot or imprisoned. Today, Vietnam is one of the poorest and most miserable nations on earth. That isn't our doing, but it was turning tail that morally compromised us, not fighting in the first place.