The Kerrey Affair: Why the Scars of Vietnam Will Not Heal

Mackubin T. Owens

May 29, 2001

Ever since the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (VVM) was unveiled in Washington DC in the 1980s, there has been a great deal of talk about “healing” the divisions of the Vietnam War. Indeed, there is now something called “the wall that heals,” a one half-scale replica of the VVM that tours the country, presumably permitting people to get over the trauma of the Vietnam War without actually having to visit our nation’s capital.

“The wall that heals” was in Newport two weekends ago. The timing of the visit was ironic, considering that it coincided with the controversy about former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey’s role in the killing of Vietnamese civilians some 32 years ago in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong. The Kerrey affair indicates that there is still a lot of “healing” to do. Indeed, it has reinforced my own view that the divisions over the Vietnam War will never heal as long as those who fought it and those who protested it are still alive. This is because the vary act of remembering Vietnam places one in the midst of a culture war.

On the one side in this culture war are those who believe that Vietnam wasn’t that different from other wars. The cause was just, but it was as affected by ambiguities as any other war, including World War II. In the end, the US defeat was the result of strategic failure, not moral failure. Those who fought it were doing their duty as they saw it, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done theirs when the times demanded it of them.

On the other side are those for whom the Vietnam War represented the very essence of evil. The US had no business fighting this war and could never have won it. It was not like other wars. All it did was wreck lives, American and Vietnamese. It was one continuous atrocity. War crimes were par for the course. Those who fought it were different from those who fought the “good war.” They returned home psychologically if not physically crippled; homeless, drug addicted, and likely to commit suicide.

Some on this side have moderated their views in light of what happened in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Southeast Asia. They stipulate that they were wrong about communism. The cost of American defeat was high, especially to the South Vietnamese and Cambodians. The price of South Vietnam’s “liberation” was, in addition to Saigon’s war dead a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the communist liberators, a million and a half “boat people,” a like number of individuals sentenced to “reeducation camps,” genocide in Cambodia, and a perceived shift in the “correlation of forces” that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s. But as Mickey Kaus admits in a recent essay in Slate, they still want to be honored for their “idealism”; “the Thanh Phong story reminds us that avoiding serving in Vietnam had an honorable and realistic ethical basis (in addition to its realistic selfish basis).”

But others on this side of the culture war take their bearings, either directly or indirectly, from the hard-core opinion of those who believe that the Vietnam War represented all that is evil about America; capitalistic exploitation, racism, and imperialism. Noam Chomsky and H. Bruce Franklin exemplify this view. As the latter writes in “The Vietnam War and the Culture Wars,” Vietnam, far from being “an aberration, some kind of wayward mistake by a nation long leading the world’s march to progress,” instead “typified the nation’s history from colonial settler regime to global empire.” Indeed, for Franklin, the Vietnam War was the culmination of the 600 hundred-year old European crusade to oppress people of color throughout the globe; thus the mass murderer Lt. William Calley (My Lai) was only the latest manifestation of another mass murderer, Christopher Columbus.

The perspective of the” Vietnam was evil” side dominates the media. The Kerrey affair demonstrates two points beyond a shadow of a doubt: 1) that for many members of the American media and the liberal elite in general, service in the Vietnam War (bad) trumps anything “good” that may have occurred later; and 2) many in the press are predisposed to believe the worst about those who fought in Vietnam.

The first point is illustrated by the fact that until this story broke, Bob Kerrey was a media star. He had it all. In stark contrast to another prominent Democrat, former President Bill Clinton, Mr. Kerrey served his country with distinction in Vietnam, losing part of his leg in the process and receiving the nation’s highest award for valor. Yet after his return, he questioned both the wisdom and the conduct of the war. In politics, he was the quintessential maverick, although always reliably liberal. He dated movie actresses. He was hip. He was laid back in a quirky, intellectual way.

But none of this mattered once the story broke. Now he was just another likely war criminal. Reporters confronted him with hostile questions, playing a game of “gotcha” about memories three decades old. They might as well have been chanting, “Bob Kerrey, hey, hey, hey! How many babies did you kill today?” One wonders what the response of the press would have been had Oliver North been accused of an atrocity.

The second point was on display not too long ago with the “Tailwind” story; the ludicrous claim that US special forces used nerve gas during an operation in Vietnam intended to assassinate American defectors to the communists. Anyone with an ounce of sense could see that this story was ridiculous, and indeed, it began to fall apart almost from the instant that it was reported, ultimately ruining the reputations of important people at CNN and Time Magazine.

Would anyone have believed such a story about World War II and the “greatest generation?” Of course not, but many in the media have always been willing to believe that US servicemen in Vietnam were capable of any atrocity. The Kerrey story is merely one more example of this predisposition; even though the preponderance of evidence supports his contention that Thanh Phong was a terrible tragedy resulting from the chaos of night combat, much of the press acts as though it really wants its old favorite to have committed a war crime.

The hard core left has taken advantage of the Kerrey affair to argue that atrocities were an every-day occurrence in Vietnam. This is nonsense. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were far from widespread. Even Daniel Ellsberg, a severe critic of US policy in Vietnam, rejected the argument that atrocities like My Lai were in any way normal events: “My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They know it was wrong….The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves.”

But even mainstream writers have played the atrocity card, albeit more subtly. In the May 10 issue of the Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen laid out a carefully-hedged but nonetheless unmistakable line of attack on Mr. Kerrey that by now is familiar to those who fought in Vietnam. Positing the unproven allegation that Mr. Kerrey ordered the deaths of the villagers in Thanh Phong, Cohen assumed its plausibility, extrapolated from that plausibility to everyone who served in Vietnam, disingenuously made reference to the actions of German soldiers in World War II, thus cleverly implying that US soldiers in Vietnam were no different than the Nazis.

The Kerrey affair suggests that the prospects for healing are not good. The anti-war side long ago completed what the German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke called the “long march through the institutions.” From their tenured positions on university campuses, they now inculcate into new generations of students the idea that the United States is irredeemably racist and oppressive. And from their perches in the news and entertainment industry, they shape public opinion about “Amerika,” awaiting the next flare up of the culture war. Unfortunately, it will come soon enough.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport. He can be reached by e-mail at