The struggle over memory and truth about the Vietnam War continues. It reemerged in May when President Obama announced the opening of Fulbright University in Vietnam, and that Bob Kerrey would chair the board of trustees. Fulbright is the first private university in Vietnam, with ties to the Kennedy Center at Harvard and the US State Department. What does this recent appointment and the controversy surrounding it teach us about the War in Vietnam?
Kerrey is a former Democratic senator who was president of The New School University in New York City (2001-2010). He was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, wounded in action and awarded the Bronze Star and the Medal of Honor. What Obama did not mention is that in February 1969 Kerrey’s unit murdered innocent women and children in the village of Thanh Phong and was “awarded [the] Bronze Star after his squad falsely reported that it had killed 21 Viet Cong guerrillas…. [He] was silent about the slaughter” for 32 years.
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Kerrey wasn’t just a soldier momentarily caught up in an unpredictable circumstance that unwittingly led to civilian deaths. Rather, as Douglas Valentine, author of the definitive work on the Phoenix Program in Vietnam claims, he was on a CIA mission and participated in an “illegal, premeditated mass murder.” Valentine’s revelations and the contemporary exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City that details what happened in Thanh Phong, brought this massacre to public attention.
According to an investigative report in The New York Times, one thing is certain: Around midnight on February 25, 1969, Kerrey’s unit killed at least 13 innocent civilians. Whatever the actual number, no guerrillas were killed in action and the official report was a lie. Kerrey finally admitted he was responsible for killing innocent civilians. He was forced to come clean because he knew that the Times and CBS News were about to expose his role and culpability in the massacre; it was a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, other international laws and the Army Field Manual that covers all US military actions.
The exhibit on the massacre in the War Remnants Museum includes some photos and a large drainpipe where three young children who were being cared for by their grandparents hid during the SEAL attack. The text states that a “group of Seal Rangers” led by Kerrey slit the throats of those grandparents and pulled the children from their hiding place, killing all three. The SEALs then “shot 15 civilians, including three pregnant women, and disemboweled a girl. The only survivor was a 12-year-old girl….” Attacks such as these, writes Valentine, were part of the Phoenix Program and run by the CIA. Kerrey and his team were part of a larger campaign to murder and terrorize Vietnamese civilians. The object of this program was to target not only individual members of the National Liberation Front’s political infrastructure, but also their families, friends and neighbors. These war crimes were a central part of the CIA’s actions during the war.
The CIA’s Phoenix Program led to tens of thousands of deaths, injuries and disappearances. Valentine puts the number killed at more than 25,000; the essence of the program “was [to target] civilians, not soldiers.” Under Phoenix, there was no “due process,” as “civilians whose names appeared on CIA blacklists were kidnapped, tortured, detained without trial or murdered on the word of an informer.” A former army intelligence agent involved with Phoenix testified that he “never knew an individual to be detained as [a National Liberation Front] suspect who ever lived through an interrogation in a year and a half, and that included quite a number of individuals.”
The CIA built interrogation centers in all of South Vietnam’s provinces — staffed by the South Vietnamese regime’s brutal Special Police who were advised by CIA officers. Thousands of National Liberation Front members and civilians were tortured there, actions that are strictly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, which say: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.” Although US officials and mass media pundits continue to assert that such torture is a violation of “our values,” actual values are expressed by what the US does, not what it says. Torture is as American as apple pie and has been widely practiced in US wars.
In his article on the attacks, Valentine writes that to “protect himself and his CIA patrons from being tried as a war criminal,” Kerrey became a “pathological liar.” By 1999 Kerrey totally defended the Vietnam conflict as a just war. In a 1999 column in The Washington Post, Kerrey wrote: “When I came home in 1969 and for many years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain.”
During a book tour after the Thanh Phong facts emerged in 2001, Kerrey responded angrily to some reporters’ questions by asserting, “Both sides did a lot of damage in the Vietnam War.” This astounding claim is similar to what former President Jimmy Carter said in 1977 when he was asked whether the US had “a moral obligation to help rebuild” Vietnam. He replied that we owed it no debt and had no responsibility because “the destruction was mutual.” Noam Chomsky called it one of the “most astonishing statements in diplomatic history,” one that created no stir “among educated Americans” and did not “diminish Carter’s standing as patron saint of human rights.”
As for the “both sides did plenty of damage and mutual destruction” claims, we might recall the facts of death and devastation during the war: The US killed some 3.8 million Vietnamese people; the Vietnamese killed zero Americans here. The US expended 15.5 million tons of bombs and other munitions on Vietnam; the Vietnamese expended zero tons on US soil. The US war produced some 14 million Vietnamese refugees; the Vietnamese produced zero American refugees. The US sprayed some 20 million gallons of poisonous herbicides on Vietnam; the Vietnamese sprayed zero gallons of herbicides here. Does this sound like “a lot of damage” on “both sides” and “mutual destruction?”
When challenged about the February 1969 crimes, Kerrey blamed the media, saying: “The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were… The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort.” In fact, the “liberal” mass media didn’t oppose the war, only how it was fought. They endorsed the honorable intentions of US policy in Vietnam and only deepened their concern after the Tet Offensive in early 1968 when it was clear that things weren’t working as planned. The essence of the media’s response to the war is similar to what CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather said about the bombing of the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century. “I’m an American, and I’m an American reporter. And yes, when there’s combat involving Americans, you can criticize me if you must, damn me if you must, but I’m always pulling for us to win.”
The announcement of Kerrey’s appointment to Fulbright University has had three major effects: (1) it reopened the wounds of the war and bitter memories of staggering ecological and physical devastation and human loss; (2) it awakened memories of Kerrey’s 2001 admission of the atrocity in Thanh Phong and of the many US war crimes that were never reported officially or in the media, never admitted, and for which no one was ever charged or convicted; and (3) it ignited a controversy among Vietnamese people about Kerrey’s appointment.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, disagrees with those who favor Kerrey’s appointment “as an act of reconciliation.” Nguyen criticizes the predominant view in the US that the war was “an American tragedy,” and disagrees with those who claim Kerrey is also a victim “of an unjust war and disastrous leadership.” It “seems ironic, if not outright ludicrous,” when one compares Kerrey’s “prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he led and the relatives of those killed now live.” In the end, Kerrey’s life and career “have barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets.”
What lessons can we draw from Kerrey’s recent appointment? It was a tactless and insensitive affront to the people of Vietnam. Can we imagine a German army officer whose unit murdered unarmed Jewish civilians in a Polish village, decades later being chosen the president of a university in Germany, and eventually being named the head of Tel Aviv University? Some Vietnamese people accept the Kerrey appointment on the basis of reconciliation and forgiveness. But reconciliation and forgiveness do not require that someone be appointed to a prominent position after he committed war crimes, lied about it for 32 years, and only confessed when the truth was about to be revealed to the world.
This appointment indicates that the US government still does not understand the enormity of its crimes against the Vietnamese people. Many Americans still deny that the US committed war crimes and Washington will not allow its responsible civilian and military officials — and lower-level soldiers — to be tried before international tribunals. But Washington asserts that those from other countries be indicted for war crimes and demands that international courts punish the offenders. On this issue of war crimes, historian Gabriel Kolko, author of one of the outstanding works on the Vietnam conflict, Anatomy of a War, addresses the My Lai massacre in a manner that goes to the heart of what happened in Thanh Phong: It is “the foot soldier’s direct expression of the… fire and terror that his superiors in Washington devise and command from behind desks…. The real war criminals in history never fire guns [and] never suffer discomfort.”
The evidence of US war crimes in Vietnam is overwhelming and indisputable. The most death-producing and devastating crime was the massive aerial bombing of rural villages. These attacks were calculated and planned, part of the deliberate mass murder of civilians; they were waged against an entire people. As Kolko writes, the US “made South Vietnam a sea of fire as a matter of policy, turning an entire nation into a target,” an “intentional and intrinsic” part of Washington’s strategic and political premises. In such an attack, “barbarism can be the only consequence of [US]… tactics,” conceived and organized by “the true architects of terror… the respected men of manners and conventional views….”
The fundamental issue, however, should not be Bob Kerrey’s anguish or his chairmanship of Fulbright University. It is about the victims of that raid and the Vietnamese people on all sides who suffered grievously from the death and devastation visited upon that country — summarized by historian Nick Turse in Kill Anything That Moves: “[The] stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some ‘bad apples,’ however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process — such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam.” These “were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military” — and the national security state establishment in Washington, including the presidency.
The US government’s latest attempt to write its own self-interested version of the Vietnam War and obfuscate whatever facts might successfully challenge this official version is its Vietnam War Commemoration. This Commemoration is based on two dominant and false narratives: (1) American beneficence — the US is forever faithful in its quest for justice and always follows a righteous path in its conduct of war; and (2) the United States government did the right thing in Vietnam. In truth, it was a long reign of terror against the people of Vietnam, North and South — a shameful war that no government-sanctioned lessons or eloquent Commemoration rhetoric can hide.
We must demand that the US government honestly evaluate the documented truth of what it did in the Vietnam War and apply whatever lessons it takes away to the endless US conflicts now raging throughout the Greater Middle East and Africa. The Kerrey issue presents the American public with an opportunity to redefine itself in more realistic terms, especially in terms of the actions of the government and military during a time of war and the mass media’s complicity in reporting these actions. The Kerrey issue also gives us the opportunity to expose the dark side of our national psyche, the part that allows us to justify terror against other people.