Frame Game

Fog of War Stories

The prevailing view of the latest mystery to emerge from the Vietnam war—whether Bob Kerrey ordered his Navy SEAL team to slaughter 20 women, old men, and children in the village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb. 25, 1969—is that it underscores the terrible consequences of the us-against-them mentality that guided American conduct of the war. In our zeal to stamp out communism, the story goes, we forgot the moral complication of civilians caught in the middle. While preaching this lesson, however, the media are imposing their own crude framework. They’re trying to boil down multiple accounts of the Thanh Phong massacre to a one-on-one conflict between Kerrey’s version and another version given by fellow SEAL Gerhard Klann. It isn’t that simple.

Start with the question of what happened when Kerrey’s men, who were raiding the village to capture or kill a local Viet Cong leader, encountered a hut on the village outskirts. Everyone agrees that the SEAL team killed the hut’s occupants to prevent them from warning the village. The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II, who broke the story, play up the idea that Kerrey says the occupants were men, whereas Klann says they were an old man, an old woman, and children. But Kerrey’s description is irrelevant. He claims not to have seen the occupants. “We found men in a hooch [hut], and the people who were running out in front of me said, ‘We’ve got people, we’ve found men, and we’re going to take care of them,’ ” Kerrey told 60 Minutes II interviewer Dan Rather.

The real question is whether Kerrey is lying about not participating in those killings. Times Magazine reporter Gregory Vistica, who helped produce the 60 Minutes II story, writes that Klann clearly contradicts Kerrey: “Kerrey put his knee on the man’s chest, Klann says, as Klann drew his knife across his neck. … Klann was adamant that it was Kerrey who held the old man down.” But on camera, Klann seems less certain. “I think he [Kerrey] kneeled on his chest,” Klann says.

Without distinguishing the various incidents that night, Vistica says Klann’s account of the mission “is consistent with the accounts given in interviews with one Vietnamese woman who claims to have witnessed the whole tragedy and with two people who say they are relatives of the victims.” But the sole alleged eyewitness to whom Vistica refers, a villager named Pham Tri Lanh who was married to a Viet Cong fighter, can’t confirm Klann’s claim that Kerrey participated in the killings at the first hut. She says she was hiding behind a tree. Whether because of distance or darkness, her view of the scene was so poor that she thought—as she told interviewers last week—that the SEALs were wearing helmets.

On April 26, the Times told readers that a second member of the SEAL team, Mike Ambrose, backed up Klann’s story about the first hut: “Both say Mr. Kerrey helped kill one of the men.” On 60 Minutes II, Rather repeated this claim: “Michael Ambrose agrees with Klann that Kerrey helped Klann kill the old man at the first hooch.” But that isn’t what Vistica found. “Ambrose, in an interview in 1998, was certain” that Kerrey had helped hold down the old man, Vistica reported. “But this month, Ambrose had second thoughts. ’Maybe it was Bob,’ he now says.” On May 1, the day of the 60 Minutes II broadcast, Ambrose told the Omaha World-Herald that Kerrey hadn’t helped kill the old man. “It was not Bob Kerrey,” he said. “I will stand by that in front of my maker.”

If Kerrey didn’t see the killings, and if he had been told that the occupants were men, then he can’t be accused of knowingly ordering the deaths of children at the first hut. Kerrey’s defenders would like to think this exonerates him. But again, the facts turn out not to be so clean. By Kerrey’s explicit logic, he would have killed the occupants even if he had known they were children. “Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with” in order to keep the mission from being exposed, Kerrey told Vistica. Kerrey said he regarded whoever was in the hut as “security, as outposts.” When asked by Rather whether it was “within the rules of engagement” to kill the old couple and the children, if those were the occupants, Kerrey said it was, because they “were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong.”

From the first hut, Kerrey’s men advanced to the main village. Klann says the SEALs entered without being fired on, ordered the villagers they found (some 15 women and children) out of their bunkers, realized the Viet Cong leader they were seeking wasn’t there, and decided to shoot all the women and children dead at close range to prevent them from 1) alerting Viet Cong soldiers who might then kill or capture the SEALs and 2) discovering that the SEALs had murdered the people in the first hut. Kerrey says the SEALs didn’t start shooting toward the village until they were fired on from that direction. He says the SEALs didn’t know they had been shooting at women and children until they got close enough to see the bodies.

Vistica casts doubt on Kerrey’s version because “Kerrey says that they were shot at and returned fire from a distance of 100 yards or more,” and “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.” But there’s no evidence that Kerrey ever claimed to have shot all the villagers from 100 yards away. He said only that the shooting began at that distance. “We just put down a field of fire and moved in on those hooches and stayed firing all the way through,” he told Rather. “We fired automatic weapons into this area, and we advanced on the area to finish the job.”

Did Kerrey’s men get a good look at the people they were shooting at? Klann says they did; Kerrey says they didn’t. Rather implies that Ambrose’s story backs up Klann’s because Ambrose says the villagers “were shot at close range—20 to 50 feet, he says—much closer than Kerrey contends.” What Rather doesn’t mention is that a week before the 60 Minutes II broadcast, Ambrose told the WashingtonPost that the visibility that night was “literally zero.” According to the April 25 World-Herald, “In the flash of rounds, no one could see who was in the area, Ambrose said.”

Did Kerrey order his men to shoot any villagers at close range? According to Vistica, “Klann says that Kerrey gave the order” to do so. But in the 60 Minutes II interview, Klann doesn’t assert this as an observed fact. Instead, Rather leads him to that conclusion by Socratic interrogation. Here’s the exchange:

Rather: Was an order given for [the point-blank mass shooting], or was it more or less spontaneous?
Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.
Rather: What was the order?
Klann: To kill ‘em.
Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation was it to say that?
Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.
Rather: Do you remember him saying that?
Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge.

Does anyone corroborate this inferred account of Kerrey’s role? Rather and Vistica imply that Lanh does. Rather says Klann’s “recollection also matches hers, and contradicts Bob Kerrey, about what happened at the second set of hooches.” Vistica writes that Lanh “says she crept close enough to witness what happened next. Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting.” By weaving Lanh’s narrative together with Klann’s, Vistica gives the impression that both of them said Kerrey ordered the shooting. But there’s no evidence that Lanh made any claim about Kerrey giving orders. All she claimed to have seen was the shooting.

60 Minutes II makes Lanh its lead witness against Kerrey. In an extensive on-camera description of the mass shooting, she says, “It was very crowded, so it wasn’t possible for them to cut everybody’s throats one by one. … Two women came out and kneeled down. … They shot these two old women and they fell forward, and they rolled over. And then they ordered everybody out from the bunker, and they lined them up, and they shot all of them from behind.” Rather concludes: “The story Mrs. Lanh lived to tell is very different from Bob Kerrey’s. … [H]er story is remarkably similar to what another eyewitness [Klann] later told us.”

Rather doesn’t mention that according to an issue of Time released two days before the broadcast, “When a Time reporter visited Thanh Phong last week, Lanh told a different story, saying she had not actually seen any execution.” Instead, Rather vaguely concedes, “Journalists who went to the village more recently reported that Mrs. Lanh now says she heard rather than saw some of the killings.” Some? As of April 28, the only two killings Lanh still claimed to have seen were those of the old man and woman at the first hut. As for what she heard of the second incident, her comments over the weekend suggest that she was a considerable distance away.

In his haste to equate Lanh’s account with Klann’s, Rather ignores a crucial difference. Klann says the SEALs rounded up all the villagers and only then, after ascertaining that the Viet Cong leader wasn’t among them, decided to kill them all. “We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything,” Klann tells Rather. “We got together and we [realized], ‘Hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?’ … We lined up, and we opened fire.” But Lanh says the SEALs shot two women before ordering everyone else out of the bunker. This story ends with a Klannlike account of mass execution but begins with a Kerreylike account of lethal invasion. 

A second surviving villager, Bui Thi Luom, has come forward with a hybrid story. She says the SEALs first ordered the villagers out of their bunkers, then a woman knelt and asked for mercy, then the SEALs discussed their options and decided to shoot everyone. Luom’s story could reconcile Lanh’s with Klann’s. The trouble is, various accounts of what happened that night circulated in the village afterward, making it more difficult to distinguish lore from direct observation. For example, Luom says other villagers told her that the SEALs had disemboweled a girl after the doomed group was herded together.

Luom’s version suggests that the SEALs arrived close together: “I counted them—seven men with guns.” But according to Vistica, Ambrose “remembers bursting into one of the hooches to find only women. When he left the hooch, he says he remembers that ‘we took a round somewhere near the back by Knepper and Peterson. Somebody yelled incoming. Once we received fire, we immediately fired.’ ” This version suggests that the SEALs approached the village the same way Kerrey says they approached the first hut, with Ambrose and Klann toward the front, and Kerrey further back. In that case, it’s possible that Klann—or for that matter, Ambrose—did things Kerrey doesn’t know about. “You would operate independently in this kind of situation,” Kerrey told Vistica in 1998. “It would not surprise me if things were going on away from my line of sight that were different than what I was doing.” Last month, Kerrey said of Klann’s story, “It’s possible that a slight version of that happened. … It’s possible that some additional firing occurred after the main firing.” 

If Klann’s corroboration is shoddier than it appears, so is Kerrey’s. Last weekend, Kerrey brought the remaining five SEALs from the Thanh Phong mission (other than himself and Klann) to New York for dinner and a meeting to hash out their recollection of what happened. The six men signed a statement which, according to the World-Herald, was released exclusively to the Post on Saturday ” to make sure that the statement was widely known in Washington and among East Coast commentators before the Sunday morning talk shows.” In this PR mission, the SEALs succeeded. “Seal mates back Kerrey,” announced the Chicago Sun-Times. “Statement by five former SEALs backs Kerrey’s version of attack,” said the Houston Chronicle. Kerrey’s doubters backed off.

The Post agreed: “With yesterday’s statement, Kerrey adds the weight of the other five members of the team to his account, which is that the unit was shot at and then opened fire from at least 100 yards away.” But the statement said no such thing. It was silent about the sequence, extent, and nature of whatever fire was exchanged: “At the village we received fire and we returned fire.” It ducked the dispute over what happened at the first hut: “At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected.” And while rejecting Klann’s story as an all-or-nothing proposition—”One of the men in our squad remembers that we rounded up women and children and shot them at point-blank range in order to cover our extraction. That simply is not true”—the statement failed to address the allegations separately. Were women and children ordered out into the open? From what distance were they shot? If covering the SEALs’ extraction wasn’t the motive, what was? Presumably the five men made the statement as clear as they could agree to. The limits of that clarity are certainly curious.

Even more suggestive are the statement’s broad definitions of the enemy and of self-defense. “Thanh Phong was behind enemy lines in what is known as a free-fire zone,” it says. “In the Vietnam War gender and age distinctions were not always reliable indicators of who was a threat to your life. … We took fire and we returned fire. Our actions were in response to a dangerous situation that we know for certain could have resulted in our deaths.”

Kerrey is more explicit. “Under the unwritten rules of Vietnam, we would have been justified” in shooting the villagers even “had we not been fired upon,” he told Vistica. Speaking to military cadets two weeks ago, Kerrey said, “[T]he people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers.” Even the kids? Some American soldiers, Kerrey told Vistica, died inVietnam “because they didn’t realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun.” Why didn’t Kerrey tell headquarters afterward that the SEALs had killed children? “We would not have separated out and mentioned them as women and children,” Kerrey told Rather. “We considered everybody in that area to be V-C.”

So here’s Kerrey’s position: He’s haunted by the massacre of women and children in Thanh Phong, and he didn’t slaughter them deliberately or without provocation, but he had good reason to do so. And if that answer doesn’t satisfy your curiosity or your conscience, welcome to Vietnam.