Chattermailbox: Joe Klein Weighs in on Bob Kerrey

Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors and, more recently, a second novel called The Running Mate (whose protagonist has been said to resemble Bob Kerrey), e-mailed the following response to Chatterbox’s items examining whether Bob Kerrey is “disrespecting the Bing” (click here to read the first and here to read the second):

You’re absolutely right about “disrespecting the Bing” (I’ve been using itconstantly), but you’re wrong about Kerrey. I spent several years listening to Vietnam veterans talk about combat (for Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam, published in 1984), and, in most cases, especially nighttime combat, they didn’t know what the hell had gone on … also, they were able to block the awfulness of combat with amazing intensity. One guy agreed to be hypnotized to try to remember a specific battle–even under hypnosis, he’d only let himself remember walking down into the ambush … and then walking out through the enemy line afterwards (at which point he broke into the most violent sobbing I think I’ve ever heard).I gained a great deal of respect for the mind’s ability to heal itself by suppressing horror. And I think it’s clear that something horrible happened that night in the Mekong Delta.

The point is, you had to be there–literally. The guys I wrote about were amazed by how outlandish and terrifying the experience of combat was, how unprepared they were for the things they saw: joking with a buddy one moment, seeing his head blown off the next, seeing blood and body parts (sometimes their own body parts) decorating the foliage. Add in nighttime, and sleep deprivation from three hour watches, and the discomfort of jungle heat, leeches, mosquitos, and rain. Add in snipers and ambushes. Add in trip wires and booby traps. Add in the enemy’s use of women and children as combatants. It took weeks–years, actually–of conversation for my five Marines to reach the point of putting the horror into words. And even then, there was a lot they simply couldn’t summon (or that they remembered differently).

You’re right on the larger issue, the immorality of war–but war happens. And I think it is callous and inhumane in the extreme for those of us who weren’t there–who left the fighting to the poor and unsophisticated, who didn’t even have the courage to put our bodies on the line against the war (as honorable draft resisters like David Harrisdid)–to pick apart the stories of those who made the sacrifice. There is no way to figure out the “truth” of what happened to Kerrey and his team that night. And there is certainly no call to cast judgment now. I don’t have any problem with [Gregory] Vistica investigating or writing the piece, but the post-game hypothesizing analysis seems a bit much. Sometimes the most appropriate journalistic response is a mournful, respectful silence. This is one of those times.

I’d still rather have Kerrey as president than either of the guys who ran last time.

Here is what Chatterbox wrote back:

“My problem with the suppressed-memory argument is that Kerrey has been engaged in rather detailed discussions about this incident with Vistica, author of the New York Times Magazine piece that got us all talking about this, since 1998. I don’t see how his memories could still be suppressed. In re the “fog of war” argument, the actions as described by Kerrey’s two accusers seem a little too precise to fit that model. There doesn’t seem much room for factual ambiguity (though that could change after we hear what the other SEALs have to say. …”

Chatterbox omits the rest of his note to Klein because it has been overtaken by events. The other SEALs met with Kerrey Friday night and issued a statement supporting Kerrey’s version of the facts and disputing that of Gerhard Klann, the SEAL who characterized the incident as a deliberate slaughter of unarmed women and children. Although this falls short of actual independent corroboration (they hashed the statement out together), it’s enough to shift the presumption of truth back to Kerrey. On the other hand, reporters have now interviewed others from the village of Thanh Phong who claim the women and children were deliberately rounded up and killed. On yet another hand, there is now some question about whether Pham Thi Lanh, whom Vistica cited as an eyewitness to the massacre Klann described, actually did see the guns go off. When Time magazine interviewed her last week,

she first repeated her story, then changed it, saying she hadn’t actually seen the killings, but had only heard the screams and later seen the bodies. “I heard screams, ‘Help! They’re killing us!’ ” Lanh, now 62, recalls. “So I crept quietly outside, and I saw them there, lying dead with their heads nearly cut off.”

The “fog of war” argument, Chatterbox has to admit, is looking better than it did before.

Photograph of Bob Kerrey on Slate’s Table of Contents by Peter Morgan/Reuters.