KERREY & KERRY: TWO FACES OF VIETNAM
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Massachussetts U.S. Sen. Joh= n F. Kerry are two very different men despite their identical-sounding name= s, distinguished war records, honored Senate careers, famous ex-girlfriends=
and longstanding friendship. But when each of them faced a choice in Vietn= am about whether or not to kill unarmed civilians, they made very different= decisions.
One is a Medal of Honor winner who one night on a distant battlefield p= roved himself a shameless coward by murdering a large group of unarmed men,= women and children as his unit rampaged through a tiny Mekong Delta villag= e in search of a local leader of the Viet Cong. That was Bob Kerrey, who ha= s also served as Governor of Nebraska.
The other is the winner of a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple = Hearts. Ironically, I have his 1985 resume on his original United States Se= nate letterhead here beside me and it doesn't mention any of them; it just = says he was "a highly-decorated officer." (His current U.S. Senate Website = resume does list the decorations.)
It also doesn't say he was a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the= War (VVAW), but it just so happens I was with him that day in1971 in Const= itution Park when dozens of veterans like him threwfistfuls of medals over = a chain link fence back at the U.S. Congress; hekept his, but he was there = with them to help stop the war. We went tohear him speak at the Dept. of St= ate and with the fresh ring ofidealism and the deep accents of Boston and Y= ale rousing ourmemories of the late President John F. Kennedy, then only se= ven yearsdead, we saw and heard a man we knew would be president one day if= this nation stayed true to itself.
The other man, Bob Kerrey, went on to distinguish himself almost asmuch= as he disgraced himself, losing a leg and winning the Medal ofHonor in the= service of his country. He was lionized by the press for thenext 30 years,= to the extent that he was a favorite of many for theDemocratic presidentia= l nomination in 2004 until the truth of his terriblecowardice that night of= the massacre was revealed.
It was Sen. John Forbes Kerry of Massachussetts who stood up todefend h= im. "He obviously feels anguish and pain about those events,"he told the U.= S. Senate. "But I don't believe they should diminish for onemoment the full= measure of what he has given to his country and of whathe represents." A f= ew days later, he added that he feels a full-scaleinvestigation of the Than= h Phong investigation is "the wrong way to go."
To his credit, that was what he was also saying when he told the Senate = Committee on Foreign Relations on April 23, 1971 as head of theVVAW. He had= just finished conducting the "Winter Soldier" hearings, which heard some 1= 50 highly-decorated Vietnam veterans tell of wartime atrocitiesthey committ= ed and witnessed.
"They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears= , cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitalsand = turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shotat civili= ans. razed villages, in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Kahn, shotcattle and= dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravagedthe countryside o= f Vietnam... ," he told the Senate committee he would later be elected to s= erve on.
Sen. Kerry knows that in the pressure cooker of war when the lid blows m= en do things they cannot explain or defend. But what he did not say,just as= his resume here doesn't mention his fistful of medals, was that hewas face= d with the same sort of circumstances in the same Mekong River Delta, and h= e made an altogether different choice.
I came to know about that choice through a colleague of mine at the Vil= lage Voice, now the distinguished novelist Lucian K. Truscott IV, aWest Poi= nt graduate and grandson of the general who commanded European forces under= Eisenhower during World War II. When I got to know Lucian, he was going wi= th Peggy Kerry, John's sister, who also became a friend, way back in the sp= ring of 1971.
Lucian knew John pretty well, and they talked together about the war. H= e told me the story many years later, when he happened to pass through Holl= ywood in 1986 and invited me to a party at the Chateau Marmont with Walter = Hill and some other Hollywood people who were celebrating Gore Vidal's deci= sion to write the teleplay for a miniseries based on Lucian's then best-sel= ling book, Dress Gray. The conversation took place the next day, at the cof= fee shop in the Riviera Motel on Sunset Blvd., where he was staying.
Luc= ian's account of the story was just in broad sketches, but even so it was g= ripping. John Kerry was commander of a gunboat on the MekongRiver, probably= in 1967 or '68. It was a time of tremendous stress forsoldiers there; the = Tet Offensive had knocked the sap out of the husky young men from the farms= and cities of America; for the first time ever, we were on the defensive, = hurt, and back home the tide of public opinion was turning. The woods were = full of silent black-clad wasps that stung and killed, and the men in the g= unboats out on the river were dying fast. They were up against people who h= ad thought about ways to kill a gunboat for a long, long time and had gotte= n pretty good at it.
Kerry's boat came under heavy fire from the shore, but it was nearlyimp= ossible to see who was doing the shooting among the large group ofunarmed c= ivilians that lined the river's banks. It seemed like a clear-cutcase of ki= lled or be killed; and John Kerry's superiors saw it that wayvia radio.
In Thanh Phong, the Mekong River Delta town where Bob Kerrey and his Na= vy Seal unit took the lives of the unarmed civilians, one of the civilians = had made the mistake of crying out for her life; for Bob Kerrey, that was d= ecision time. He had to choose whether to kill the unarmed civilians to kee= p them quiet or risk being chased through the jungles and swamps by Vietcon= g armed with intel they would gather from the same villagers whose lives we= re spared. Navy Seal training is not ambiguous about that, just silent; th= e decision rests with the commander in the field. Bob Kerrey and his men op= ened fire and killed at least 13 unarmed women and children, some of them a= ged, one just three years old.
John Kerry crouched with the radio on his gunboat beneath the sizzling = wasps and heard his superior officer unequivocally order him to open fire. = He told the officer it was not possible to get the guys firing at them, may= be not even by killing the dozens of unarmed civilans whose bodies were shi= elding them from view. His superior officer, who had to be of the rank of C= aptain or above, repeated the order.
That was when John Kerry had to make his decision. He didn't openfire; = he decided to refuse to obey a direct order; he also managed tosafely steer= his gunboat home. I don't know what casualties he took, orwhether he was w= ounded or not. They had a hearing, and he arguedand won his case against a = court martial with the little well-worn bookcalled the Rules of Engagement = he pulled from his pocket. It says youdon't open fire on unarmed civilians.=
There were no parades when John Kerry came home. He didn't returnwith a= grievous physical wound and a Medal of Honor, limping andbrave of heart; h= e came back with a wounded spirit, ashamed to thedepths of his soul for wha= t America was doing in Vietnam and determined to stop it.
On that dramatic May Day of the Mobilization to Stop the War, 30 years = ago now, leading the ragged and the lame, the wounded and the blind, the be= arded homeless and helpless veterans who hated the war machine that signed = them up, his courage and his eloquence rose like a bright fiery beacon over= Washington, D.C. It was the day America lost the war, I believe -- and won= back its soul.
It is so much like this man to stand up in another firestorm to defend = a former fellow senator and friend. I believe it is really painful for him = to know that the decision Bob Kerrey made was the wrong one, despite the ci= rcumstances. And I hope that America makes the right Kerry president, as we= knew so long ago it one day would.
After his conversation with Lucian Truscott IV, Joe Shea founded the Com= mittee to Draft U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry for the Democratic nomination in 19= 88. It was won instead by Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis. Sen. Kerry was on th= e short list of potential Democratic nominees for vice president in 2000 an= d is still considered a possible contender for the Democratic presidential = nomination.