Media Beat: APPARITIONS OF INNOCENCE IN VIETNAM
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Media commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what hap= pened 32 years ago in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalis= ts seem eager to exonerate the former senator. Others appear inclined to tu= rn him into a lightning rod for national guilt.
Syndicated columnists have been a bit unpredictable. "This is a murder s= tory that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require," lib= eral Thomas Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive: "The vi= llage was a 'free-fire' zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarde= d as enemies who could be fired on at will. Did that policy amount to a bla= nk check for American troops to commit atrocities?
In some media quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times edit= orial declared: "It is a story that -- with its conflicting evidence, unden= iable carnage and tragic aftermath -- sums up the American experience in Vi= etnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any ration= ale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides."
The = punditry duo on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" condemned the Times a= s terribly unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was "an act of moral arrogance r= arely seen," Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: "Mark stole my thu= nder beating up the New York Times." Similar noises, on "Fox News Su= nday," came from the host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," Juan Williams, who= claimed that reporters were giving Kerrey shabby treatment.
Striving to = encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of media-as-trai= tors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so irresistible as= commanders in chief. "It's disgraceful," Kerrey complained during an Assoc= iated Press interview in late April. "The Vietnamese government likes to ro= utinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now c= ollaborating in that effort."
New York Times columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar= themes these days. While not bothering to note his own specialized war-mak= ing services as a top speechwriter in the Nixon administration, he rushed t= o the defense of Kerrey -- and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried= a "humiliating accusation of national arrogance," Safire urged us to "reca= ll a noble motive."
But when motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have b= een "noble"?
Commonly, in the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war's victim= s -- including a few million dead people in their home countries of Vietnam= , Laos and Cambodia -- are rendered as little more than props for the angui= sh of Americans. How much we have suffered as a result of killing those peo= ple! Their importance grows only to the extent that they underscore our own= .
A year ago, Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concl= uded: "Was the war worth the effort and sacrifice, or was it a mistake? Eve= ryone touched by it must answer that question for himself. When I came home= in 1969 and for many years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. T= oday, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefi= ts of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictat= orships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain."
Onl= y our own national narcissism, mendacity and denial can preserve the binary= myth that the war was either "worth the effort" or "a mistake." The war wa= s wrong not because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was, fundamen= tally, mass murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces invaded Vi= etnam -- welcomed by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington install= ed and propped up.
Kerrey did his deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Bri= an Willson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security = officer, he saw bombing operations up close and witnessed effects on the gr= ound, in villages. "The only difference between Kerrey and myself is that I= was never in a position to personally kill while in Vietnam," Willson says= . "But I was part of a killing machine, even being complicit in the bombi= ng campaigns, and I saw dozens and dozens of the bodies of women and childr= en."
Willson went on to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied th= e Pentagon Papers and other official documents clearly showing that -- from= the outset -- U.S. leaders knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese wa= nted the U.S. out of their country. "It was true that we could not determin= e friend from foe," Willson remembers. "Most, at least secretly, were foe."= Vietnamese people "were defending their integrity and sovereignty from us = invaders." The entire war was "immoral and illegal."
One day in 1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace a= ctivists for civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A train= -- carrying munitions on the way to Central America -- ran him over. At th= e time, Willson was trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined for = use in warfare largely aimed at civilians.
Since the early 1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq have kill= ed at least several hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar mil= itary aid package from the United States, under the guise of a "war on drug= s," is boosting the death toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy business as= usual. Rest assured, we have no blood on our hands.
"They have destroyed and are destroying ... and do not know it and do no= t want to know it," James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added: "But i= t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocen= t. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." = His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.