Rush to Forgiveness

On Thursday, Chatterbox considered whether Bob Kerrey was

      a) “pulling a McCain,” i.e., overapologizing for an easily forgiven moral offense in order to garner sympathy (“Oh, Bob, you mustn’t blame yourself”);


      b) “disrespecting the Bing,” i.e., dodging responsibility for a larger wrong by apologizing for a smaller one.

On Friday, McCain himself entered the debate over Kerrey’s participation in what was possibly a My Lai-style massacre of unarmed Mekong Delta women and children in 1969, as described in Gregory Vistica’s troubling New York Times Magazine piece. (Kerrey maintains the slaughter was accidental; two other witnesses say it was deliberate; and a fourth witness seems to corroborate portions of both competing versions.) In an op-ed in the April 27 Wall Street Journal, McCain wrote:

I dropped many bombs in Vietnam, and I wish I could say that they only destroyed military targets. But surely noncombatants were among the casualties. … My friend Bob Kerrey made a mistake in Vietnam. He was sent into a free-fire zone to kill for his country, and he helped kill the wrong people. Those who now judge him must follow the dictates of their conscience. But unless you too have been to war, please be careful not to form your judgment of him on your understanding of what constitutes a war hero. … If the fact that he recovered his humanity, that he felt remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country, does not strike some as adequate compensation for his mistake, it is enough for his salvation, and a harder task than most can imagine. That’s a war hero, folks, a sinner redeemed by his sacrifice for a cause greater than his self-interest. That’s Bob Kerrey, my friend and hero.

The trouble with McCain’s war-is-hell argument (aside from the fact that the first sentence quoted here is “pulling a McCain”) is that it’s a blank check. It admonishes us to forgive Kerrey without offering much evidence or opinion about what we’d be forgiving Kerrey for. Indeed, one gets the impression McCain would rather not know. McCain, a notably decent man, seems to be putting decency before curiosity. But is it really indecent to be curious about what Kerrey did in Thanh Phong? Indeed, isn’t it more indecent not to be curious? Even for those of us who have never been to war?

This rush to justify Kerrey’s actions obscures the distinction between the two kinds of ambiguity Vistica’s story sets before us. One kind of ambiguity is moral: Was evil done? It’s possible to entertain the idea that it wasn’t, even if the most damning version of this story–that Kerrey oversaw the deliberate slaughter of unarmed women and children–is true. But surely neither McCain nor anyone else can make a reliable judgment about the moral lessons to draw without first finding out what actually happened. Before resolving the moral ambiguity (or, possibly, resolving not to resolve it), we need to take a stab at resolving the factual ambiguity. As things stand now, Chatterbox agrees with Vistica that Kerrey’s version of events seems less plausible than that of his accusers. But surely we’ll be hearing from the other SEALs on that mission now that the story has hit the front pages. Shouldn’t we identify what the moral issues are in this case before we attempt to resolve them?

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