It was early 1992, and I was covering Bob Kerrey's presidential campaign in New Hampshire. At a local high school, someone passed me a fax of a breaking news story about Gov. Bill Clinton's letter thanking a colonel for "saving me from the draft." This should have been a political godsend for Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL who lost part of his leg in combat and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (only 15 were awarded by the Navy during the Vietnam War). I was hardly alone in thinking that Clinton would melt and Kerrey would now surge, possibly to the presidency.
We were wrong. For the rest of the week Kerrey--not a terribly polished candidate that year anyway--completely lost his mojo, wandering aimlessly through his stump speech as if he, not Clinton, had been hit by a two-by-four. Clinton, under great strain but looking relaxed, easily outperformed a jittery Kerrey at a joint appearance on health care, and the press took note of Clinton's grit under pressure. In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to whether Kerrey could handle Vietnam. As Mike McCurry, then a Kerrey aide, remembers, "Every time the subject came up that year, he was ambivalent and uncomfortable. There was always a missing piece to the story."
In 1998, as Kerrey was considering whether to run for president in 2000, Gregory Vistica, then of NEWSWEEK, found out what was haunting him. Kerrey acknowledged to the magazine that his unit had, to his horror, accidentally killed civilians during a 1969 mission in the Mekong Delta. But he adamantly denied the far more sensational account of one of his men, Gerhard Klann, that unarmed women and children had been shot at point-blank range. The other SEALs who would talk sided with Kerrey, but the truth was--and is--elusive.
Many journalists are now arguing that NEWSWEEK should have published the story as soon as we learned of it. (Anecdotal public reaction, which reflects the view that Kerrey is being hounded, is quite the opposite, paralleling the split during the war.) It was a close, difficult judgment call, and it took two years for Vistica to fully develop the story that was published. If it had run in 1998, effectively blowing Kerrey out of the race, the national coverage would have revolved around the shallow cliches of politics: Should Kerrey's career be ruined over a "gotcha" story three decades old? How did the senator "handle" it? What did the "fallout" mean for Al Gore? Three years later the story is still inconclusive. But at least now the focus is where it should be--on the realities of war, particularly the Vietnam War.
The story that ultimately ran in The New York Times Magazine is sad to read, and Kerrey's press conference was painful. But it's important for the country to return every few years to the madness of that conflict. It's like Richard Nixon and Watergate. Nixon's reputation slowly improves, and then--boom!--another Watergate tape is released, reminding us that he was a bigot and a crook. In this case, some hawkish voices, bolstered by the indisputable crimes of communism, almost have us convinced that the lessons of Vietnam have been "overlearned." Then a story like this one breaks, and we learn anew of the consequences of intervening in a civil war and keeping score with "body counts" that inevitably included women and children, some of whom were Viet Cong.
The recriminations have already begun--claims that Kerrey should have returned his Bronze Star or come forward earlier. These seem like easy hits from a safe distance. Combat experience should not be a shield from scrutiny, but it's pointless for someone like me (who was 12 years old in 1969) to second-guess him. So I asked two Vietnam veterans what they thought.
Sen. John Kerry, who led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War onto Capitol Hill 30 years ago this spring, skippered small boats at the same time and in the same area that "Kerrey's Raiders" operated. He stresses the "ambiguities and dangers" of a nighttime operation. "As gory and unsettling as it may be, this was a mission judgment, not a shooting gallery," the senator says, praising his ex-colleague.
By contrast, Michael Norman, a former Marine Corps sergeant who saw heavy action, rejects the "fog of war" argument. "Did we have crazy guys who cut off the ears of the VC? Yeah, but it was absolutely not routine to kill unarmed civilians," says Norman, currently at work on a book about World War II Japanese atrocities. "You just don't let allegations of war crimes go. Kerrey's [memory] may be absolutely right, but at least give it a preliminary inquiry--then you're doing your duty to the dead and to Bob Kerrey by exonerating him, instead of writing it off to the vagaries of history."
The Pentagon has already said no to a formal inquiry, and it's unlikely that the Vietnamese will exhume the bodies to see if they were shot in the back. Unless other SEALs come forward to contradict their C.O., we'll have to live with the ambiguities. But maybe that's appropriate to the moral grayness of this war and all wars. My father, a B-24 bombardier at the end of World War II, recalls learning later that he had bombed the Hungarian village his grandfather came from. He and anyone else with a combat record and a moral imagination knows the romance of war is a myth. Bob Kerrey and the small group of others who have experienced both politics and war should still have a special claim on our attention. Those of us who didn't serve can only witness their anguish, and learn.