Is Bob Kerrey Disrespecting the Bing or Pulling a McCain?

Christopher Hitchens thought he could start a national debate over his argument, laid out in two Harper’s pieces and a just-published book, that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. Instead, we’re getting a national debate about whether Bob Kerrey is a war criminal–or, more precisely, whether Kerrey, as commander of a squad of Navy SEALs, oversaw a My Lai-type massacre in the Mekong Delta in February 1969. The case that he did so is laid out in a gripping and seemingly meticulous New York Times Magazine piece by Gregory Vistica, a former defense correspondent for Newsweek–which, it will amaze all but those who have worked at Newsweek (as Chatterbox has) to learn, passed on the story. The case that he did not was laid out by Kerrey in pre-emptive news stories that appeared in the April 25 Wall Street Journal and Omaha World-Herald, and, less effectively, by conservative commentators on the Journal editorial page’s Web site and, both of which accuse the Times of “smearing Kerrey.”

Kerrey is, of course, the former Democratic Nebraska senator and governor who ran for president in 1992 and now runs The New School, a leftist academic institution (its founders included Thorstein Veblen) that will likely be very alarmed by Vistica’s allegations.

Kerrey’s response to the Times story has been to state that he is indeed guilty–though not of what Vistica’s article accuses him of. “To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that’s how it felt and that’s why I feel guilt and shame for it,” Kerrey told 60 Minutes II, which collaborated with Vistica on the story. But the mission Kerrey describes (and that another eyewitness, former Navy SEAL Mike Ambrose, partially corroborates) is one in which his unit mistook at least 13 unarmed women and children who stood 100 yards away for Viet Cong warriors and, after being fired upon, gunned them down, only to discover afterwards their horrible mistake. If that’s what really happened, Kerrey is overdramatizing the evil of his actions, which, though tragic, would appear to have been undertaken in self-defense. It could be argued that he is pulling a McCain–brandishing an overwrought and seemingly manipulative mea culpa in order to garner sympathy. (“Oh, no, Bob, you mustn’t blame yourself.”)

But the Times story points in a different direction. Vistica has two eyewitnesses–former Navy SEAL Gerhard Klann and a Vietnamese woman named Pham Tri Lanh–making the case that what Kerrey’s squad committed was no accidental killing, but deliberate slaughter. According to Klann, the women and children were rounded up and killed because the SEALs feared they might alert the Viet Cong of the SEALs’ presence, which apparently would have put the SEALs in serious danger. Elements of Ambrose’s story corroborate the Klann-Lanh version, and Vistica raises doubts that events could have occurred the way Kerrey describes them. For instance, he writes, “it is hard to imagine that gunfire from 100 yards–no matter how intense–could kill every single member of a group of 14 or 15 people.” Although Kerrey got a Bronze Star for the commando raid, his actions as described by Klann and Lanh might more appropriately have warranted a court-martial. (It would, for instance, have been in apparent violation of the Army’s Field Manual, which is applicable to all the services, though not necessarily in violation of the extremely loose rules of engagement under which Kerrey’s unit was operating. Click here for an “Explainer” on the rules of engagement.) If Kerrey is guilty of deliberately killing at least a dozen women and children, Kerrey’s statements about the affair constitute disrespecting the Bing–pleading guilty to a small offense in order to avoid responsibility for a much larger one. (The term derives from Episode 34 of The Sopranos.)

A larger lesson, if the Klann-Lanh story is shown definitively to be correct (Vistica’s piece allows for the possibility, slim though it might appear, that Kerrey is telling the truth), is that the U.S.’s reluctance since the Vietnam war to get involved in another protracted overseas conflict is well-founded. If combat can drive a basically good man like Kerrey to commit barbarism–indeed, arguably compel him to commit barbarism to save his own hide–then we ought to have a very good reason to go to war in the first place.

Click here for a follow-up.

Photograph of Bob Kerrey on Slate’s Table of Contents by Gary Hershorn/Reuters.