The Fog of War

20 minute read

He was in the land of nightmares, where nothing counted but killing or being killed. Twenty-five and eager to do his duty, whatever that might be. He was supposed to kill, and he was also responsible for the lives of six men in a war with almost no rules. The enemy was all around, but he didn’t know who or where they were. The dark, the confusion, the strain of listening for sounds that signaled death, the tension, the terror. Suddenly he had to make a choice, and he pulled the trigger. Oh, God, what have I done?

For former Senator Bob Kerrey, that nightmare never goes away. He knows that one night 32 years ago in Vietnam, he and his squad of Navy SEALs killed nearly a score of unarmed civilians, mainly women and children. The shame and guilt and remorse have haunted him since. He did not want to make his personal anguish public any more than other Americans want to dredge up the nation’s agony again. But because a fellow SEAL who lived through the same nightmare that night has come forward with an even more damning chain of events than Kerrey admits to, his private pain is reopening hard questions about war, memory and guilt. The tangled tale of ambiguous acts, conflicting recollections and tragic carnage embodies the madness that was the Vietnam War. So here we are, faced with another judgment to make in the endless reckoning of damages inflicted by that disastrous conflict.

Why? Because history never stops being written. Because Kerrey is a politician, a public figure respected for his candor, a certified war hero who survived grievous wounds, a man who once sought and may again seek the presidency. And because the ambiguity of his experience reminds us that good men did terrible things in Vietnam, making us examine what it means when honor is peeled away from war.

Several years ago, a reporter named Gregory Vistica, who worked for Newsweek at the time, got wind of a big story. A former commander had heard from a troubled SEAL that his unit, led by the young Kerrey, had been involved in a Vietnam raid that went horribly wrong. Vistica pursued the tale until he turned up the Navy’s dusty “after action” reports on the events of Feb. 25, 1969, in the isolated peasant village of Thanh Phong. Late in 1998, when Kerrey was contemplating a second run for the presidency, the reporter put those 30-year-old documents in then Senator Kerrey’s hands. The Senator knew his actions on that terrible night were no longer a private affair. “There’s a part of me that wants to say to you all the memories that I’ve got are my memories,” Vistica quotes Kerrey as saying, “and I’m not going to talk about them.”

But he did. And so last week Kerrey found himself talking again, this time in a calculated effort to tell his version of the story before Vistica’s investigation appeared this week in a bylined article in the New York Times Magazine and on a segment of 60 Minutes II, for which Vistica received a producer’s credit. These reports take a condemning view of the raid, strongly suggesting that Kerrey is wrong when he says the civilian deaths were the tragic consequence of the fog of war, and that the former squad mate, Gerhard Klann, is right when he says the killings were a deliberate execution. Now Kerrey faces a whole army of reporters seeking to cut through the shifting memories to get to the truth of what he did that night.

We may never find it. Decisions made under fire look different in hindsight. The trauma of the moment can leave permanent gaps and contradictions in testimony. Either Kerrey or Klann may be lying to himselfand usnow.

In an interview with TIME last Friday, Kerrey said the other five members of his squad have agreed to come forward with a “statement of facts” that he hopes will help set the controversy to rest. Later Friday, they all dined at Kerrey’s house and talked the raid over for the very first time. The next evening, the six former SEALs issued a statement saying the allegation of an execution “is simply not true,” adding, “We took fire and we returned fire.”

In a citation that accompanied the Bronze Star, Kerrey is lauded for his unit’s “heroic achievement” in killing 21 Viet Cong, burning two hooches, or peasant huts, and capturing two enemy weapons. Kerrey never mentioned the medal in his official bio. As he acknowledged last week, there was nothing heroic about what really happened.

Our experience of Vietnam is shaped by what we let ourselves say. Memory plays tricksand to ward off horror, we make our memories play tricks. Except for long ago, when he told his mother, his first wife and a minister, Kerrey never brought up the botched mission at Thanh Phong. And then, on April 18 of this year, at a small speech to officer-training candidates at Virginia Military Institute, toward the end of his discourse about moral justifications of war, Kerrey spoke about the night in 1969 when he led six Navy SEALs on an operation to take out a suspected Viet Cong official. “We used lethal procedures when there was doubt,” he said. “When we received fire, we returned fire. But when the firing stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory; it was a tragedy, and I had ordered it.”

As Kerrey recalls it, the nighttime assault unfolded amid the confusion endemic to Vietnam. In-country for just a month, the 25-year-old lieutenant had charge of a squad of Elite Navy SEALs (short for Sea, Air and Land unit) trained to emerge from the dark, kidnap or kill local Viet Cong leaders, then melt back into the jungle. This night their target was a village secretary reportedly holding a party meeting in Thanh Phong. The straggle of hooches lay deep in the Mekong Delta “free-fire zone,” where innocent civilians hadofficially, at leastbeen cleared out, and everyone left was deemed an enemy.

Kerrey’s Raiders, as the squad called itself, had little experience but lots of enthusiasm. Despite warnings of “considerable danger,” toward 12 midnight on a moonless night, the men piled into a swift boat and headed for Thanh Phong. Darkness gave cover but heightened the confusion. As the men crept toward the village, they bumped into an outlying hooch they thought was a warning outpost. Kerrey says his men, wielding knives, told him they would “take care” of the people inside to prevent them from alerting the village. But Kerrey says he did not join in the killings or examine the victims.

Some minutes later, Kerrey recalls, the squad spotted four or five huts by the faint flicker of candles inside. Then out of the night came the whine of gunfire. “We returned it,” says Kerrey, giving the order for his men to unleash a ferocious barrage of automatic rifle rounds, grenades and armor-piercing rockets. In the flashing tracer light, no one could see who was being hit. The assault lasted only a few minutes.

When the gunfire subsided, Kerrey’s men discovered that all the dead were women and children. “The thing I will remember till the day I die is walking in and finding, I don’t know, 14 or so, women and children who were dead,” he says in the Times Magazine article. He remembers finding the dead bodies clustered together, though he insists his men began firing from 90 m away, shooting as they advanced on the hooches. When the unit spotted several people running away, they shot them too. “It’s come back to haunt me about every other day,” Kerrey told TIME. “If you feel that shame, it’s very hard to talk about it.”

If the inadvertent killing of civilians was a grim commonplace in Vietnam, deliberate execution was a step over the line, a criminal violation of the laws of war. Yet one member of Kerrey’s squad says that is what the SEALs did that night. Gerhard Klann, the veteran among Kerrey’s green tyros, told the Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II that the five villagers knifed in the first hooch were, in fact, an old man, his wife, two young girls and a boy. He said Kerrey ordered the killing and personally helped him cut the old man’s throat.

Klann said he heard no incoming fire as the squad entered Thanh Phong. He said that when they failed to find the Viet Cong official, Kerrey ordered the SEALs to round up the unarmed women and children in the hooches. Then, Klann said, “an order was given” to shoot them. “We lined up, and we opened fire.” A baby was the last one alive, Klann told the Times Magazine. “There were blood and guts splattering everywhere.” 60 Minutes II backs up Klann’s version with the words of Pham Thi Lanh, identified as the wife of a Viet Cong fighter, who claimed to have witnessed the scene. “They ordered everybody out from the bunker, and they lined them up, and they shot all of them from behind,” she said. When a TIME reporter visited Thanh Phong last week, Lanh told a different story, saying she had not actually seen any execution.

It is still impossible to settle whose version is right and whose is wrong. Before Saturday night, the only other SEAL to speak up, Michael Ambrose, an executive at a Houston deep-sea-diving firm, called Klann’s account “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” and in most ways, his recall conformed with Kerrey’s. In the course of the Friday-night dinner, the rest of the squad agreed on two points: they had been fired upon first, and no one had given or received an order to deliberately shoot civilians. Kerrey himself has insisted over and over that while the massacre was an “atrocity,” it had been accidental. “As guilty and awful as I felt,” he told TIME, “I have every reason to believe that there were Viet Cong in that village that night. We did not go there with the intention of killing anybody that was innocent. I was at risk of having dead men in my squad if we didn’t become quite violent.”

Whatever the truth of that terrible night, the long-hidden memory of it explains a great deal about Kerrey, about the way a soldier maimed in body and mind came to cope with the horrors of war.

During Kerrey’s brief, lamentable run for the presidency in 1992, he confounded his handlers with his ambivalence about exploiting what should have been his strongest political asset: his war heroism. Everywhere he went, people thanked him for it. But always, there was an awkwardness in the way he addressed it. In the end, under pressure from his consultants, he mentioned it plenty, but he always seemed to talk around it. Kerrey never mentioned his Bronze Star for Thanh Phong, but he could not escape the glory of his other decoration. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military prize, for his actions in another raid less than a month after Thanh Phong.

That one too went very wronginformation from defectors led Kerrey’s squad into a trap. Chastened by the killings in Thanh Phong, Kerrey had decided to take these targets as prisoners. As a result, he told TIME last week, “I think I almost got some of my men killed that night.” Instead, in a 90-sec. fire fight, seven V.C. were gunned downbut not before a grenade landed on Kerrey’s foot, shattering his leg and wounding his groin, chest and face. Declining morphine for the pain, Kerrey refused to relinquish his command until he had got his men to safety.

The disastrous mission that one SEAL called a “bumbling overf___” was deemed a success by the brass. Ambrose put Kerrey in for a Silver Star, but as the request moved up, senior officers embellished the description and elevated the recommendation. The next year, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.

They all knew it was ridiculous, Ambrose told Karen Tumulty, then with the Los Angeles Times, in 1992. “Bob wanted to turn the medal down … It was just another night out,” he said. “We just got hit.” Kerrey and the others believed the “honor” was politically motivated: Nixon’s unpopular war needed a few more heroes. Kerrey’s buddies told him to accept the medal for the sake of all those who had fought and lost more than he had. Kerrey’s sister Jessie Rasmussen says he was still struggling with a decision as the family gathered in Washington for the ceremony. But on May 14, 1970, just 10 days after National Guardsmen shot and killed antiwar protesters at Kent State University, Kerrey allowed Nixon to pin the country’s highest military honor on his chest.

More than 20 years later and running for President, Kerrey talked about that decision. “I accepted on behalf of other people that didn’t get it,” he said. “I’m very uncomfortable with the introduction, ‘Here’s Bob Kerrey, an American hero.'”

Now we know one reason why. Thanh Phong puts so much in context, especially the competing pulls of public life and Vietnam: why Kerrey never seemed entirely comfortable with one, why he kept being drawn back to the other.

Kerrey grew up the third of seven children in a quiet working-class community on the edge of Lincoln, Nebraska. At the University of Nebraska, he partied hard and nearly flunked officer training. But he was good at his other studies and finished the five-year pharmacy program in four. Still, life behind the drug counter had started to look like drudgery. He once recalled how a farmer came in looking for a treatment for the “sniffles.” Annoyed at the triviality of the man’s complaint, Kerrey said, “Try this” and wiped his sleeve across his nose.

When his draft notice arrived in late 1965, Kerrey jumped at the chance to enlist in Navy officer-training school, then signed up for something more exciting: underwater demolition. Kerrey relished the rigorous training and jumped again when he was selected for the secret counterinsurgent team called SEALs. He was eager to serve, he said, “with a knife in my teeth.”

But his war ended after just three months, when that grenade hit his foot. He woke up in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where doctors sawed off half his right leg. He still calls the hospital, not Vietnam, “the most important and defining period of my life.” In that old-fashioned 12-story building, he shared a room and nine months of recuperation with Jim Crotty, a Marine pilot badly burned in an accident. “What he saw when he arrived at the hospital was room after room of people maimed like you wouldn’t believe,” Crotty said. “He looked at the whole thing and said, ‘Jesus Christ, what did we do, why did we do it, who’s responsible?'”

When Kerrey took his first wobbly steps outside the hospital, he learned how the country was coming to view the war. The G.I. generation came home from World War II to a grateful, admiring nation. The boys of Vietnam were called baby killers. Kerrey heard it in Philadelphia, at a movie theater. “Somebody said something very ugly,” he once said. “I don’t remember the exact words, but very ugly and very hurtful.”

Unsure what to do next, Kerrey headed to Stanford University, intending to get a business degree. He withdrew before class started and moved across the bay to Berkeley. Somewhere in his mind was the idea he might teach, but “the larger purpose was recovery,” he said. There Kerrey learned to read, really read, not the science texts of his college years but the great literature of life. The love of literature has sustained him ever since. Before the Democratic debates in 1992, when the other candidates were deep in their briefing books, Kerrey spent time with moody poetry, especially the lines of Robert Frost:

Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

Restless by early 1971, Kerrey went home to seek a new life in Nebraska. He tried out the antiwar movement but quit when rallies seemed antiveteran. Then he married and turned his attention to business. With his brother-in-law, he started a restaurant chain that made a pile of money. His dedication to the job took a toll on his marriage; he divorced after four years. Yet in those years came the first release from the psychic pain he said often made “it difficult to see.” The moment he felt healed was when his son was born and again when his daughter arrived two years later. Yet he did not tell his grown-up children about Thanh Phong until two weeks ago. Now he talks of how healing it is to hear that they still love him.

Around 1978 he had switched his registration from Republican to Democrat. In 1982 he shocked his friends with another abrupt change: he was running for Governor. No doubt his war record helped in the Republican stronghold: he not only won but wowed the state. His romance with actress Debra Winger added to his allure. Then in 1986 he surprised everyone again by announcing he would not seek a second term, despite a popularity rating of more than 70%.

He didn’t explain it then, but Vietnam was pulling at him again. Less than a week after leaving office in 1987, Kerrey was at the University of California at Santa Barbara as an instructor in a class on the Vietnam War run by Walter Capps, a religious-studies professor who would later serve a term in Congress. When they first met, Kerrey asked if Capps had ever read Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust writer. Capps said he had. “Then you know that when an event is unspeakable, it takes a while to learn the right words,” Kerrey said. Capps, who died in 1997, recalled that in his first lecture, Kerrey ended with a startling comment: it’s more difficult to kill for your country than to die for your country. But while Kerrey would go on at length about tactics and strategy, he never discussed his own experiences.

During the 10 weeks Kerrey taught with Capps, Nebraska Senator Edward Zorinsky died, opening up a seat in the U.S. Senate. Kerrey switched back into politics and won the race. Celebrating on election night, he sang a searing Australian ballad of a soldier whose legs were blown off at Gallipoli: “Then a big Turkish shell knocked me ass over head/ And when I awoke in my hospital bed/ I saw what it had done/ And I wished I were dead./ Never knew there were worse things than dying.”

Kerrey flourished in the Senate, where his candor and maverick streak made him a man to respect. But after his dismal 1992 presidential bid, his life took a new direction. He fell in love; a close friend his age died. “He was starting to look at his life in a lot of different ways,” says Steve Jarding, his chief political operative at the time. In late 1998, Kerrey considered another White House run in 2000, then decided against it. As a result, Newsweek opted not to publish Vistica’s story. “There’s something going on in your psyche,” Jarding told Kerrey, “that says you don’t want to be here.” Four months ago, he left the Senate to become president of the New School University in New York City; he and second wife Sarah Paley expect a child in October.

A few weeks ago, Kerrey sent Jarding a copy of his V.M.I. speech. Should I give it? Kerrey asked. Jarding knew it wasn’t a question at all. “It was something he needed to do,” says Jarding. “He needed to get this off his conscience.”

Confession, Kerrey told TIME late Friday afternoon, has been good for his soul, though it is hard to tell whether the glint in his bright blue eyes reflects anguish or anger. “I don’t regret that it’s public at all,” he said. “I feel personally already better.” His 32-year silence may trouble some, though Kerrey speaks for more than one generation when he says “most men in a war who have done something bad just keep it private all their lives.” Many will wonder too just how voluntary the confession was, though Kerrey says he was planning to reveal the incident in a forthcoming book. His timing still smacks as much of damage control as of a desire to speak up.

While the war is never quite over for physically and psychically scarred veterans like Kerrey, these are normally private agonies, not public matters. Most Americans have long ago put Vietnam to rest; they want to move on. Though exposure of his story might help heal his wounds, it is less clear what it does for the nation’s.

Yet there are still things to be learned from his aching experience. The ambiguity at the heart of the raiddid Kerrey’s squad accidentally kill civilians or deliberately massacre them?mirrors the very nature of the war. For all his talk, Kerrey does not resolve the discrepancies: “Klann’s got a memory of what happened. I’ve got a memory of what happened. They’re both vivid. They’re both awful.” It’s not a satisfying answer, especially from a politician revered for his candor. While much of the public has sympathized with Kerrey, this week he has to weather the hard charges being broadcast on 60 Minutes II, and his heroism is likely to be forever tainted by the doubts they raise. Kerrey professes not to care, since he never wore the hero’s mantle well, or to fear the impact on a political career he says he has renounced.

The message here, Kerrey told TIME, is as simple as it is sobering: “I have not been able to justify what we did militarily or morally. But it’s one of the things that went on in the war.” His shame is the shame of the entire war: what he did was part and parcel of how America fought Vietnam. “In a free-fire zone we had permission to do it,” Kerrey says. “And we had very aggressive instructions from our commanding officer in 1969 for how to deal with people there. And anybody that wasn’t aware that this was going on, in my view, is lying.” Was that policy a license for atrocities? Kerrey says the few rules of war “we’d been taught were a violation of the rules of war” that he finally read for the first time last week. He knows that he could be open to court-martial if the Pentagon pursues an investigation.

Vietnam has come to define the way we ought not to fight our wars. The main lesson is to take no American casualties, to fight only if victory is assured. But Kerrey’s story reminds us that there is another lesson, one far harder to follow. Nations have no business sending their young into battle without lasting moral justification, not only because it is hard to die for your country but because it is equally hard to kill for your country.

To know and understand what Kerrey’s Raiders did that night in Thanh Phong can be cathartic. To condemn it is something else, requiring a clarity that was almost never available to young men shooting in the dark. It is a clarity our nation likewise never had at the time. When we judge Bob Kerrey, we judge our nation as well.

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