by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
May 6, 2001
KERREY & KERRY: TWO FACES OF VIETNAM
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry are two very different men despite their identical-sounding names, distinguished war records, honored Senate careers, famous ex-girlfriends and longstanding friendship. But when each of them faced a choice in Vietnam 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 proved himself a shameless coward by murdering a large group of unarmed men, women and children as his unit rampaged through a tiny Mekong Delta village in search of a local leader of the Viet Cong. That was Bob Kerrey, who has 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 rèsumé on his original United States Senate 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 rèsumé 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 Constitution Park when dozens of veterans like him threw fistfuls of medals over a chain link fence back at the U.S. Congress; he kept his own, but he was there with them to help stop the war. We went to hear him speak at the Dept. of State and with the fresh ring of idealism and the deep accents of Boston and Yale rousing our memories of the late President John F. Kennedy, then only seven years dead, 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 as much as he disgraced himself, losing a leg and winning the Medal of Honor in the service of his country. He was lionized by the press for the next 30 years, to the extent that he was a favorite of many for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 until the truth of his terrible cowardice that night of the massacre was revealed.
It was Sen. John Forbes Kerry of Massachusetts who stood up to defend him. "He obviously feels anguish and pain about those events," he told the U.S. Senate. "But I don't believe they should diminish for one moment the full measure of what he has given to his country and of what he represents." A few days later, he added that he feels a full-scale investigation of the Thanh 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 the VVAW. He had just finished conducting the "Winter Soldier" hearings, which heard some 150 highly-decorated Vietnam veterans tell of wartime atrocities they committed 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 genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages, in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Kahn, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of Vietnam... ," he told the Senate committee he would later be elected to serve on.
Sen. Kerry knows that in the pressure cooker of war when the lid blows men do things they cannot explain or defend. But what he did not say, just as his rèsumé here doesn't mention his fistful of medals, was that he was faced with the same sort of circumstances in the same Mekong River Delta, and he made an altogether different choice.
I came to know about that choice through a colleague of mine at the Village Voice, now the distinguished novelist Lucian K. Truscott IV, a West Point 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 with Peggy Kerry, John's sister, who also became a friend, way back in the spring of 1971.
Lucian knew John pretty well, and they talked together about the war. He told me the story many years later, when he happened to pass through Hollywood 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 decision to write the teleplay for a miniseries based on Lucian's then best-selling book, Dress Gray. The conversation took place the next day, at the coffee shop in the Riviera Motel on Sunset Blvd., where he was staying.
Lucian's account of the story was just in broad sketches, but even so it was gripping. John Kerry was commander of a gunboat on the Mekong River, probably in 1967 or '68. It was a time of tremendous stress for soldiers 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 gunboats out on the river were dying fast. They were up against people who had thought about ways to kill a gunboat for a long, long time and had gotten pretty good at it.
Kerry's boat came under heavy fire from the shore, but it was nearly impossible to see who was doing the shooting among the large group of unarmed civilians that lined the river's banks. It seemed like a clear-cut case of killed or be killed; and John Kerry's superiors saw it that way via radio.
In Thanh Phong, the Mekong River Delta town where Bob Kerrey and his Navy 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 decision time. He had to choose whether to kill the unarmed civilians to keep them quiet or risk being chased through the jungles and swamps by Vietcong armed with intel they would gather from the same villagers whose lives were spared. Navy Seal training is not ambiguous about that, just silent; the decision rests with the commander in the field. Bob Kerrey and his men opened fire and killed at least 13 unarmed women and children, some of them aged, 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, maybe not even by killing the dozens of unarmed civilians whose bodies were shielding them from view. His superior officer, who had to be of the rank of Captain or above, repeated the order.
That was when John Kerry had to make his decision. He didn't open fire; he decided to refuse to obey a direct order; he also managed to safely steer his gunboat home. I don't know what casualties he took, or whether he was wounded or not. They had a hearing, and he argued and won his case against a court martial with the little well-worn book called the Rules of Engagement he pulled from his pocket. It says you don't open fire on unarmed civilians.
There were no parades when John Kerry came home. He didn't return with a grievous physical wound and a Medal of Honor, limping andbrave of heart; he came back with a wounded spirit, ashamed to thedepths of his soul for what 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 bearded 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 circumstances. 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 Committee to Draft U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry for the Democratic nomination in 1988. It was won instead by Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis. Sen. Kerry was on the short list of potential Democratic nominees for vice president in 2000 and is still considered a possible contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.