War and Remembrance

7 minute read

If you haven’t been in the war, it is sometimes said, you have no business passing judgment on the warriors. So how do other Vietnam veterans feel about what Kerrey confessed last week?

Senator John McCain
Republican of Arizona
It is hard for people who have never seen combat to understand. Even for someone like me it’s hard, because the kind of war I was involved in was antiseptic. I was in an airplaneyou drop bombs, you see smoke, and you leave. It’s different from being on the ground in the middle of the night with people trying to kill you. I can’t question how he handled this. Everybody has to grapple with his own nightmares. I don’t even know if he knows if he grappled with this in the best possible way.

Oliver Stone
This reminded me very much of the difficulties of the war, the ambiguities. I was in villages where villagers were killed and abused. It came from anger, fear. There were rapes, beatings and murders. I heard stories from people I was close to. You’re in a hot fire zone. A villager comes up from behind, let’s say, a sand dune. He’s surrendering, but sometimes a guy would just pull a trigger and blow him away.

The thing with Kerrey is whether there was incoming fire. Was there or not? That’s a Rashomon story. The only mitigating factor is that all villagers were suspect in war zones. We were fighting an enemy army, but we were also fighting villagers. These things don’t take place in slow motion. I know Kerrey, and I think he’s an upstanding citizen. It would be hard for me to accept that he cold-bloodedly killed villagers. He was a lieutenant on one of his first combat missions. There could have been an element of panic. If it went as he saysit was a confusing night and they were fired onthen his situation, as he told it, is justifiable. If they weren’t fired on, then it’s cold-blooded. Could they hear the cries of women and children? If so, if I were a lieutenant, I would have said, “Hold your fire.”

Senator Chuck Hagel
Republican of Nebraska
My brother and I were in the 9th Infantry Division. We had responsibility for the Mekong Delta, so I’m familiar with the general area where Kerrey’s incident occurred. Our mission was to search and destroy, kill the enemy, run ambush patrols. I don’t ever really replay (killings) at all. I learned a long time ago that that’s a torture I don’t wish to put myself through. (But) you can’t help having certain recollections when something like (Kerrey’s story) comes to light. What you do is you start taking your own personal inventory of your time there: Is there something I wanted to block out or didn’t pay attention to? But you control it; most of us by now have mastered it.

Richard Luttrell
A veteran at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
I was a tunnel rat (responsible for clearing out enemy tunnels) in the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Infantry. We were passing by a monastery when mortars started flying at us. Guys were screaming and yelling, “Mom!” I was 18 years old. I was scared. I had a rocket launcher, and I fired it into the monastery. It went quiet. When we went in to look, there were a lot of dead. A French priest and some nuns. That’s what war is. You can’t describe it. It sounds crude, but you just had to be there.

Senator John Kerry
Democrat of Massachusetts
Imagine being alone in the moonless night, knowing that any sound could mean death, with no margin for mistakes and no second chance. We tried to protect the innocent, but sometimes danger and darkness prevailed. The body counters in Washington didn’t care.To them, every dead Vietnamese was Viet Cong. We knew differently. There were literally thousands of cases where shots were fired, bombs dropped and rockets launched without any sure knowledge of the target’s capabilities, intentions or age. America’s children were plunged overnight into a world of sniper fire, ambushes, buddies going home in body bags and the confusion created when enemies and allies look and dress the same.

Winston Groom
Author, Forrest Gump
To try to tell someone who wasn’t there about your experiences is like trying to describe the color blue to a blind man. I served as a lieutenant with the 4th Infantry Division. I was a psychological-warfare officer. I didn’t say anything about my war experiences for years. I remember going out to the scene of a big fire fight40 to 50 bodies, horribly mutilated, that had been dragged into this field. My job was to take pictures of them. The pictures would be put on leaflets that would be dropped wherever the Army expected an enemy outfit was hiding. It was a gruesome sight, like witnessing a plane crash. It’s still in the back of my mindwalking amid heads blown off, stomachs blown open, all of it smelling to high heaven.

You try to remember that you must not cross over from war into murder. I reached that realization at the time. I had some nightmares. I had some friends who were killed. But the experience is not something that torments me. It disgusted me but didn’t torment me. If I had killed women and children, I would imagine that would haunt me. In the brutality of combat, life is cheap. Then you come back to the civilian world, where life is precious. It’s surreal. The only thing that kept me sane was reading Catch-22.

Senator Max Cleland
Democrat of Georgia
War takes its toll, and anybody who doesn’t understand that hasn’t been to war. Part of it is the pain and guilt. It’s taken me 30 years or more to deal with the Vietnam War. I felt guilty coming back, and to be looked upon as a war hero was hard. I thought it was my own grenade that I had dropped that blew me up. (Cleland lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam.) And then a year and a half ago, I found out it was the guy getting off the helicopter behind me who dropped the grenade. I consider what happened to Bob to be a freak accident of war, and he has had to live with that just as I have had to live with what happened to me.

In war innocent people get killednot intentionally, but they do, and young men end up killing young men, and that stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s not something you brag about, but it’s something you live with. One way to deal with the pain and guilt is you find a place of sanctuary where people won’t condemn you. I created such a place because so many veterans came back from Vietnam who had these kinds of problems. I created the Vet Center program. There were 15 centers in 1980; now there are about 200. So there are hundreds of thousands of Bob Kerreys out there just from Vietnam, not to mention Desert Storm or Somalia. Don’t blame them for fighting for their lives.

Barry Romo
National Coordinator, Vietnam Veterans Against the War
Everything is backwards. People shouldn’t be looking at Kerrey as a victim but at the families of the Vietnamese who were killed. If Kerrey killed them by accident, and knew it, then he owed them some reparation. If he did line them up and shoot them, then you don’t get away with murder because you wear a uniform.

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