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Ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey’s admission about a 1969 Vietnam atrocity might have generated a media feeding frenzy, but it’s not news to me.
Nine years ago at Newsweek, I got a call from a man who claimed he was a “former SEAL” and whispered last week’s headline news. But after some picking and shoveling, editor Maynard Parker and I walked away. Years later, another Newsweek reporter, Gregory Vistica, came up with the same story, and it, too, was spiked.
We never ran with my story because:
- The allegation couldn’t be backed up. Participants had conflicting recall, common among warriors even immediately after a fight and especially decades later. No big surprise. Most eyewitnesses to a traumatic experience — battle-related or civilian — remember it differently.
- The whisperer couldn’t explain why, since military law was on his side, he didn’t stop the massacre. You know, “Lt. Kerrey, cease/desist or I’ll shoot you.” Or why he didn’t immediately report the “war crime” per Navy regs. Or why he then sat on it for so many years.
Another reason was based on my almost five years in Vietnam, where, during that shameful war, there were thousands of such atrocities. My parachute battalion’s first big “kill” in 1965 was a night ambush at An Khe that destroyed a tribal family who hadn’t gotten the word about the curfew. The draftee unit I skippered in 1969 — as I’ve recently discovered while doing interviews for a new book — had at least a dozen such horrors. Most were reported at the time as “enemy killed.” Thirty-two years later, the participants say: It was the easy way out; we couldn’t handle the shame; the command was constantly pushing the body-count figure.
Everywhere our young men fought in Vietnam, where there were civilians, there was carnage. Especially in the Mekong Delta — where Kerrey’s commandos were hunting and being hunted by an armed enemy who was everywhere.
Most of us have heard of William Calley’s My Lai massacre, where hundreds of noncombatants were cut down in a bloodbath led by a madman. But ask anyone who fought in the Delta, where 35 percent of Vietnam’s population lived, if civilians got caught in the middle of the cross fire — and the answer has to be yes.
Few innocents were killed on purpose. But it was a war with no front, and few of the enemy in the Delta wore uniforms or fought by the rules of war. Also, many women, children and old men were “freedom fighters” not unlike Americans during our War of Independence.
My division in the Delta, the 9th, reported killing more than 20,000 Viet Cong in 1968 and 1969, yet less than 2,000 weapons were found on the “enemy” dead. How much of the “body count” consisted of civilians?
John Paul Vann told me in April 1969 when he was in charge of pacification in the Delta that “at least 30 percent were noncombatants” and that he’d spoken to President Nixon about having the 9th immediately pulled out of the Delta. A month later, the division got its marching orders.
Gen. Julian Ewell, who commanded the 9th, never ordered his soldiers to kill civilians. Nor did I. Nor, in my judgment, did Bob Kerrey. Nor did most of the scared young men — lying out in the mud night after night thinking every sound was an enemy who’d soon take their lives — purposely kill civilians.
The Vietnam War was a 25-year running sore in which more than 5 million Southeast Asians died, nearly half a million Americans bled and millions of others still bear the pain and the shame and the scars.
This week, Vistica finally presents his sensational story of events long ago in print, followed by Dan Rather on television. But neither was on that op; neither has been a combat grunt. Vistica never served; Rather did have a go at becoming a Marine but never completed boot camp. As far as I’m concerned, neither is qualified to pass judgment on soldiers or sailors.
Matter of fact, neither of these frequent military bashers is fit to shine Kerrey’s one jungle boot — the other having been left behind in Vietnam with his foot in it while he bravely answered his country’s call.