War Crimes vs. Thought Crimes by Ron Unz
National Review Online, Friday, May 4, 2001
Former Senator Bob Kerrey is fortunate indeed that the charges recently leveled against him are merely that he committed war crimes and not any far more devastating accusations of thought crimes.
Serving as president of the impeccably left- liberal New School University in New York City, Kerrey would have little chance of surviving revelations that he had violated the modern shibboleths of political correctness. Surely if several eyewitnesses had reported that Kerrey repeatedly made highly disparaging private remarks against the ability or behavior of blacks or women or gays, by now massive campus protests would have led to his forced resignation.
But the actual charges against Kerrey are far less serious. Major stories in the New York Times Magazine and CBS’s Sixty Minutes II document that several eyewitnesses have claimed that Kerrey — while serving as a young lieutenant in the Vietnam War — ordered his men to massacre over a dozen Vietnamese women, children, and infants, witnesses to his failed commando raid on a village. Although the charges have received massive media coverage, apparently few students or faculty members at Kerrey’s university has seen fit to express public concern that the head of their academic institution may be a war criminal, and indeed the New School’s own board of trustees immediately issued a statement expressing full support for Kerrey.
Outside observers should hardly be surprised at these further signs that much of America’s contemporary academic Left has decayed into a monstrous state of ideological corruption, in which deconstructionist notions of the meaninglessness of truth and the rise of identity politics have replaced any sort of moral consistency. I have no doubt that during the 1960s many of the New School’s current faculty members regularly denounced as “baby killers” the tens of thousands of brave and honorable American servicemen returning from Vietnam; but now these same former radicals seem little concerned that the president of their university may actually be a baby killer, albeit one who supports abortion and gay rights. The Vietnam War has long since become passé among the Left, and since all the alleged victims were Vietnamese and most Vietnamese-Americans are conservative Republicans, they presumably have little presence at a left- wing campus. Kerrey must simply hope that the swarm of investigative journalists now buzzing around him doesn’t discover anything really damaging, such as evidence he has invested his retirement money in Third-World factories producing Nike sneakers.
Signs of the corrupt nature of America’s major media are almost as blatant. As an influential senator and past presidential candidate, Bob Kerrey has for a decade or more been one of America’s most prominent national Democrats, and according to reports, this same evidence of war crimes had been uncovered by Newsweek years ago, but then suppressed. The why isn’t hard to understand: as a socially liberal but economically moderate Democrat, an anti-war Vietnam Medal of Honor winner with a strong iconoclastic, independent streak, Kerrey has long been a huge favorite with the press, second perhaps only to Sen. John McCain in this regard. Surely even just a whiff of any similar rumors concerning the Vietnam War record of a controversial conservative such as (say) Lt. Col. Oliver North would have sparked an immediate feeding frenzy in the media.
The various conservative columnists and Vietnam veterans who have quickly risen to Kerrey’s public defense also seem standing on extremely shaky ground. One of Kerrey’s own men and two of the Vietnamese survivors of the massacre have independently provided almost identical eyewitness accounts of the events, while Kerrey’s other men only released a classically vague “non-denial” denial (which never explicitly refuted the massacre charges) after meeting together to get their memories (and stories) straight.
Even more significantly, Kerrey’s own denials have a halting, uncertain tone. He says that his memories of the events have grown vague and ambiguous, and he expresses enormous remorse and guilt for the deaths of the villagers. Surely if (as he claims) the confused cross-fire of a nighttime fire-fight had led to the accidental death of civilians, and he were now being falsely accused of ordering the machine-gun execution of children and infants, shock and absolute outrage would be his dominant emotions. By all accounts, Bob Kerrey is a normal and decent human being, and signs of that very decency in his tortured reactions to the monstrous charges support suspicions of his guilt.
Most war crimes are committed by ordinary, decent people placed in extraordinary situations, but they remain war crimes nonetheless. Any hypothetical German officer from World War II — however ordinary and decent in civilian life — who had been tried and convicted of committing identical acts to those with which Kerrey is charged would most certainly have been executed by the American forces as a Nazi war criminal, to almost universal approval. Although atrocities and massacres occur in every army during every war, the charges against Kerrey are among the most serious brought against any American commander in recent history, and no American political leader of Kerrey’s stature has ever faced such accusations.
Conservatives who defend Kerrey on the grounds that his actions in Vietnam were no worse than those of so many other American soldiers in that brutal conflict are implicitly accepting the arguments of the Left that America’s entire military effort was riddled with war criminals and murderers, from the commander-in-chief in Washington down to the grunts in the rice paddies. Perhaps also, some of these conservatives are motivated by the silent nagging guilt that unlike Bob Kerrey, nearly every prominent Republican political figure in America — with the notable exception of Sen. John McCain — managed to avoid service in Vietnam. Perhaps they feel they have no right to judge a man who served in their own place.
And perhaps I also have no right to so judge. As someone who was still a child when the conflict ended, I have never worn the uniform of my country, nor have the vast majority of the members of my own generation in the decades of peace which followed, a peace arguably made more possible by America’s unselfish military commitment to Vietnam. I cannot honestly say how I would have acted or reacted as a terrified 25-year-old leading a commando raid deep inside enemy territory. But I do hope and believe that only a tiny, tiny number of American officers chose in those difficult circumstances to order the machine-gunning of helpless women and children, and failing to fully investigate the charges against Kerrey leaves an indelible stain on the reputation of every American Vietnam veteran who did not commit war crimes.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey may be absolutely innocent of the charges, which are certainly not yet proven. His own supporters should be among the first to demand an immediate and thorough investigation in order to permanently clear his name. Unlike the modern American Left, I believe that psychological healing may be important, but so is objective truth, and that such truth is fully knowable. The facts must come out.