Did Bob Kerrey Get Away With Murder?

by Eric A. Brill

(October 7, 2010)

When American soldiers – on a quiet night, without any contact with enemy soldiers or other provocation – break into a civilian home and decapitate an unarmed old man, stab to death his wife and their three young grandchildren, and then break into several more homes and gun down 21 infants, children and mothers from just a few feet away, should we ask questions? Or is it always too foggy in war? This article presents a closer look at two sets of civilian killings in Thanh Phong, Vietnam in 1969, including a conversation with former Senator Bob Kerrey.

Haditha, Iraq, November 19, 2005. Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas was lying in two pieces in the road, and the men who had set the bomb were undoubtedly nearby – probably watching, almost certainly armed. Sergeant Frank Wuterich was in charge and he was new at this, seven years a Marine but never in combat. A taxi approached the scene a few minutes later and the driver stopped. He and his four passengers, male college students returning to school in Baghdad, were dragged out and ordered to kneel. A quick search turned up no weapons, but one of the students displayed something nearly as objectionable: attitude. He talked back. Not for long, though. Wuterich shot him, and then the other four men, all in the back. Wuterich says they had been running away, but other Marines deny this and photographs show five bloody bodies beside the taxi. All dead? Sergeant Sannick Dela Cruz would make sure. Later, as local Iraqis watched, he pumped more bullets into the fallen men and urinated on the head of one of them – the one with "attitude." A witty fellow Marine nicknamed Dela Cruz "The Urinator."

A bit later that morning, after armored reinforcements had arrived, Wuterich heard gunshots. Though he couldn't pinpoint the source, he focused his suspicion on a house about 100 yards away. He and his men sprinted across open ground to the house, kicked in the front door, shot a middle-aged man in the chest and an old woman in the back, and then "prepped" a bedroom by tossing a grenade inside. They burst in after the blast and sprayed the room with automatic weapons. No luck. Only nine unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, five of them now dead. But the back door of the house was open – maybe the gunmen had run next door. Wuterich and his men repeated the procedure at that house, and later at another. Still no luck. When they finally stopped shooting several hours later, 24 Iraqi civilians lay dead, ranging in age from 2 to 76. One middle-aged man had had a rifle, which had not been fired.

Should the Marines have offered the families a chance to come out with their hands up? Glanced into the bedroom before tossing a grenade? Were the taxi killings justified if the men were running away? Even if they were not running, should we make an allowance for stress? A large bomb had just dismembered an American soldier, after all.

Tough questions, many say. Wuterich says he did what was necessary to protect his men, and would do the same thing if it happened again. He and several squad mates have filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against their critics – including, ironically, a Congressman well known for his strong support of U.S. soldiers and veterans. Many Americans agree with Wuterich; others do not.

But what if the facts had been less favorable for Wuterich? Suppose there had been no bomb. No taxi, no men, no gunshots. Suppose Wuterich's squad had come upon the first house one quiet evening while walking toward another part of Haditha to search for insurgents. They could see it was occupied by an elderly couple and three young children, all of whom appeared to be unarmed and unaware of their presence. To be on the safe side, though, Wuterich's squad broke in and stabbed them all to death. Fifteen minutes later, they broke into three more houses and ordered 21 unarmed women and children to stand outside under guard while they searched. After the searches turned up nothing, Wuterich and his men gunned down the women and children with 1,200 rounds from automatic weapons and returned to their base. Wuterich filed an after-action report claiming 21 insurgents had been killed in action and received a Bronze Star for his evening's work. When a squad mate later disputed his story, Wuterich described him to senior New York Times editors as a "delusional drunk."

If this had happened in Haditha (it did not), would most of us agree that Wuterich had gone too far? Consider how we answered this question in 2001, when we learned a terrible secret about former Senator Bob Kerrey* and a bloody night in Thanh Phong, Vietnam.

* Not to be confused with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts (Bob Kerrey is from Nebraska), though both men were Navy officers and served in Vietnam at about the same time.

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Gerhard Klann may have cried in his beer once too often. After a distinguished 20-year career as a tough Navy Seal, including a few weeks under the command of Lieutenant Bob Kerrey in Vietnam, one memory tormented Klann so much that he confided it to a former comrade, who passed it on years later to a journalist, Gregory Vistica. Vistica dug into the story and confronted Senator Kerrey with his findings in late 1998. Vistica later told me that a friendship, genuine or not, developed between the two men over the next two years as Vistica collected more information from Kerrey and others. He eventually pulled back a healthy distance from Kerrey, typed up his story and found a publisher. Five days in advance, the New York Times announced that Greg Vistica's shocking article would be the cover story of its April 29, 2001 Sunday Magazine.

The announcement touched off a media firestorm, fueled in part by Kerrey's effort to get out in front of the story by seeding a few sympathetic newspapers with a more flattering version. The Times sought to pre-empt the competition by posting Vistica's article on its website four days early. By the time it appeared in print, hundreds of media outlets around the world had run stories on the incident, nearly all of them based on Greg Vistica's piece. Two days later, CBS broadcast an hour-long 60 Minutes II special (co-produced by Vistica), featuring beads-of-sweat interviews with Kerrey and Klann conducted by Dan Rather and an interview in Thanh Phong with a Vietnamese eyewitness. Kerrey challenged the witness' credibility because she had seen only some of the killings and had merely heard the others, but the Los Angeles Times soon located a second eyewitness to corroborate her account – and Klann's. Neither of the Vietnamese witnesses, nor their interviewers, had ever met Klann or been told his story.

The ordeal was excruciating for Kerrey. Five years later, he told me he would have been better off not talking to Greg Vistica. We agreed on little else during that conversation, which occurred after Kerrey had reviewed an early draft of this article. But he had talked to Vistica at length, and to others, cobbling together a story so fragile that he felt compelled to talk even more. And to write – including an entire memoir plainly written for the sake of just two pages, a carefully crafted new account that, ironically, left Kerrey's story beyond repair. He need not have bothered. The greater irony of this tragic story is that Americans demanded almost nothing from Kerrey. The flimsiest of explanations was enough for most of us, and many felt that Kerrey deserved our apology for having troubled him with questions.

What did Bob Kerrey do that night? Did he return fire into the darkness, later to learn that he had killed only unarmed women and children? Or did he herd those women and children into a tight cluster, debate their fate with his comrades, and mow them down with high-powered automatic weapons from just a few feet away? Earlier in the evening, did he hold down an unarmed old man while another soldier slit his throat and other soldiers stabbed his wife and grandchildren to death? Or did he have nothing to do with that? This article clears away the fog that has permitted most commentators to sidestep a moral judgment on Kerrey. Equally important, it shows that our collective reaction to Thanh Phong offered precious little support for this wishful view of Americans expressed by Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic:

Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. ... We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais; so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That's how we show we are different from the jihadists.

Are we different? Beinart would be correct if Kerrey's squad had been a police SWAT team searching for a gang of drug-dealing cop-killers in a dangerous neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. In that setting, if one of Kerrey's men reported that they had rounded up and killed 26 unarmed women, children and elderly people, we would be curious. We would acknowledge the dangerous circumstances and emphasize that our policemen deserve all benefits of doubt for risking their lives to protect us, but we nevertheless would determine whether those killings had been excusable. Precisely the opposite too often happens when the same incident occurs in war. A Bob Kerrey, or now a Frank Wuterich, needs merely to shrug and mutter "fog of war," and there the matter ends. Those who object are shouted down as unpatriotic, sometimes even sued.

Is the scene always too foggy in war? Our soldiers need broad latitude, but do they require carte blanche to decapitate unarmed old men, stab young children and gun down babies and their mothers? When a Thanh Phong or Haditha happens, should we never ask questions?

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Kerrey's Raiders, an elite Navy Seals team commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, arrived in Vietnam in mid-January 1969. They were attached to Task Force 115, headed by Capt. Roy Hoffman, described by Kerrey as a demanding "body-count" type of commander. Only three of the team's seven members – Kerrey, Gerhard Klann and Mike Ambrose – have talked publicly about what happened five weeks later in the small village of Thanh Phong.

Except for Klann and Ambrose, none of Kerrey's Raiders (including Kerrey himself) had had combat experience. Like most first-tour Seals teams, they were soon assigned to the Mekong Delta, a watery expanse of rice paddies and mangrove swamps near the southern tip of Vietnam. In most of the Delta, including Kerrey's assigned area, the war years were quieter than in most of South Vietnam. Enemy units typically were small and included few, if any, North Vietnamese regular troops. Most were lightly-armed Vietcong irregulars, often young men who had grown up in the area and continued to work the rice paddies as their families had done for generations. Though most Delta residents had little interest in politics, the Vietcong had long controlled many villages – including Thanh Phong, a tiny hamlet of 75-150 people living in several clusters of thatch-roofed "hooches" near the South China Sea. Thanh Phong was located in what was then (though not in later years) an especially quiet district – mysteriously called the Thanh Phu Secret Zone – where hostile contact with the enemy was infrequent and American casualties were very low.

Occasionally the South Vietnamese government would attempt to root out the Vietcong by designating an area as a "free fire zone." Thanh Phong was in such a zone. Residents were strongly encouraged to leave their homes and settle in refugee centers called "strategic hamlets." Most families declined to move unless forced, and many who did move would return home after a few months. Nevertheless, military-age males spotted in a free fire zone generally were presumed to be Vietcong and could be captured, or even shot, if they were perceived as a threat by an American or South Vietnamese soldier. This policy induced most young men either to leave the area or to hide by day and visit their villages, if at all, only at night. As a result, most villages in a free fire zone were occupied during the day, and often at night as well, only by women, children and old men.

Another method of rooting out the Vietcong was to eliminate their local leaders. Navy Seals specialized in this. Kerrey's Raiders soon settled on a mission to capture or kill the village secretary (effectively the mayor) of Thanh Phong. An informer had reported that he would be attending a meeting in Thanh Phong on February 13, but no men were there when Kerrey's Raiders arrived that day. They spent several hours "searching hooches and bunkers" and interrogating "14 women and small children," but found nothing. Kerrey and his men stayed overnight nearby and departed on a Navy swift boat the next morning. They returned to the area that night, but aborted the mission because of a faulty radio. Kerrey soon learned that the village secretary was scheduled to attend another meeting in Thanh Phong on February 25, and he planned another raid for that night. A day or two before the mission, he flew over the area to study the new route they would take.

Late in the evening on February 25, 1969, Kerrey's Raiders silently disembarked from a Navy swift boat alongside a canal near Thanh Phong and headed inland. Ambrose was the point man, leading the way. Kerrey, Klann and another Seal were close behind him, followed by the remaining three squad members. They carried rocket launchers, grenades, a heavy machine gun, M-16 automatic rifles, 9-millimeter side arms and knives. Well before they reached the reported meeting place, the Seals came upon a hooch that Kerrey says he had not noticed during his reconnaisance flight. It would be too risky to bypass it. The occupants might see them and foil their ambush by alerting the village secretary, or set a trap for them on their return. Kerrey says his choices were to terminate the mission or kill the occupants. They killed all of the occupants. To keep it quiet, they used knives – not the weapon of choice if they had perceived any risk that the occupants were armed.

Ambrose and Klann gave Greg Vistica similar though not identical accounts of the first hooch killings. Ambrose recalls seeing two men and two women inside and an older man standing outside near the entrance. Klann’s recollection was slightly different, and it was supported by a CBS camera crew's visit to a Thanh Phong graveyard 32 years later. Klann remembers an old man, an old woman and three children under 12. He says he was assigned to "take out" the old man, and that Kerrey gave the order to kill. Klann grabbed the old man from behind, held his hand over the man's mouth to keep him from crying out, and thrust an eight-inch hunting knife into his back. But the man struggled and Klann motioned for help. As Ambrose watched, Kerrey helped to hold the old man down while Klann slit his throat. Klann is certain it was Kerrey who helped him. Ambrose was also certain when Greg Vistica interviewed him in 1998. After talking with Kerrey shortly before Vistica's article was published, however, Ambrose would say only that "maybe it was Bob." Klann says that other squad members killed the old woman and the three children, also with knives, while he was busy with the old man.

Bob Kerrey remembers it differently. He told Greg Vistica that he never saw any of the people, even after they were dead. He says he was told, and thirty years later still claimed to believe, that they were Vietcong sentries – "four men with guns" – even though no weapons were found and Ambrose recalls "plenty of noise" from a screaming victim. Kerrey denies giving the order to kill or taking part in the killing, though he accepts responsibility as "a lieutenant in charge of this platoon" and acknowledges that he could have stopped the killing but chose not to. He recalls Klann "having difficulty killing one of the people he was trying to kill," and he thinks he knows who helped Klann but refuses to "finger" the soldier. He says that Klann and Ambrose also killed the other family members. The other Seals, Kerrey insists, were "back with me."

Kerrey does not hesitate to identify Klann and Ambrose as the killers of an old woman and three children. Why his reluctance to "finger" the second killer of the old man, the only adult male among their victims that night? Perhaps Kerrey understands that his supportive comrades are content to leave this specific blame unassigned, but that any wrongly-fingered soldier would immediately break his silence. Whoever assisted Klann, he was almost certainly not the only helper in these killings. It is all but impossible to believe Kerrey's "back with me" claim – that only two soldiers, Klann and Ambrose, were sent ahead to kill "four men with guns," and to do so quietly with knives, while Kerrey and the other four squad members cooled their heels in the rear. And if it happened as Kerrey claims, why would he omit such a heroic feat from his after-action report? It did not mention the first hooch at all.

What should they do now? Ambrose recommended turning back. "There was plenty of noise in the first location," he told Greg Vistica. "I felt compromised." But Ambrose would not have to write the after-action report. Kerrey would. If he took Ambrose's advice, it would read something like this: "Encountered hooch near disembarkation point. Occupants: elderly couple, three children. Appeared to be unarmed and unaware of squad presence. Killed all with knives. Returned to base." Kerrey overruled Ambrose, and the squad crept along some rice-paddy dikes toward Thanh Phong. They arrived about 15 minutes later at a small group of hooches on the outskirts of the village.

Here again the accounts differ. Kerrey told Greg Vistica that the Seals received enemy fire while they were still about 100 yards from the hooches. He wasn't sure he heard it, even though the Mekong Delta is very quiet at night, but he said "Ambrose is certain we took fire." Ambrose, however, told Vistica only that he heard another squad member (never named) yell "incoming," not that he himself heard gunfire. Klann recalls no gunfire, and no other team member has ever reported hearing it. In any case, Kerrey said he ordered his men to return fire – about 1,200 rounds altogether, according to an after-action report. They advanced toward the hooches as they fired and came upon a grisly scene that Kerrey told Vistica he "will remember until the day I die," though he would soon forget it. A large number of dead bodies (Kerrey estimated 14 to Vistica, though he had reported 21 and Klann remembers 21) lay clustered in an open area outside the hooches. All women and children. No men. No weapons.

Most hooches in Thanh Phong had an underground bunker into which the family would dive at the first sign of trouble. Kerrey knew this: he had inspected several of them just 12 days earlier. It was late at night. Why were all of these women and children gathered outside in the dark, fully exposed to the Seals' barrage, rather than asleep in their beds or cowering in their bunkers? Kerrey did not claim to know, but he speculated to Greg Vistica that "maybe there were guys in [the village] that made them get into that position, then got out themselves." In other words, the local Vietcong soldiers may have herded the women and children into an exposed area and then drawn lethal fire onto them by shooting a few rounds toward the Seals before scampering to safety. A sacrifice with no military purpose, but apparently worth it to embarrass the Americans.

Just as at the first hooch, Gerhard Klann remembers it differently. He heard no gunfire. When they arrived at the second group of hooches, he says, no men were there. As they had done on their previous visit to Thanh Phong, the Seals rounded up all of the women and children, searched their hooches and questioned them about the village secretary. Once again, the villagers claimed ignorance and the searches turned up nothing. Now the Seals were worried, Klann says. Although they had withdrawn from Thanh Phong at their leisure after their previous visit, this time they were "compromised" because they had just stabbed to death three children and their grandparents. If any Vietcong soldiers were in the area, they might soon discover this and seek revenge. Apart from any physical risk, the villagers might report the Seals' visit to government authorities, making them prime suspects in the first-hooch knife-slaughter.

None of the Seals' options was appealing. If they simply left, the women and children might alert enemy soldiers. It would take too long to bind and gag the women and children, and inevitably one of them would wriggle free and untie the others. To take them all hostage would slow down the Seals' retreat to the canal. Perhaps they considered taking just one or two hostages who could keep up – older children, for example – but this alternative would have had the same shortcoming as the first three: Witnesses would survive who could place the Seals in the vicinity of the first-hooch killings. The final solution they considered – shoot the women and children – would solve this problem, though obviously it would announce the Seals' presence to any Vietcong soldiers in the area. The Seals may have anticipated, however, that a loud barrage would intimidate the lightly-armed Vietcong, at least briefly, and that their first reaction would be to check on their loved ones, allowing the Seals enough time to reach the canal and escape on a swift boat. 

After quickly evaluating their options, Klann says, they decided to "kill them and get out of there." He says Kerrey gave the order and the squad lined up and "just slaughtered them" with automatic-weapons fire from 6 to 10 feet away. "There were blood and guts splattering everywhere," Klann recalls, "blood flying up and bits and pieces of flesh hitting us." They paused after about 30 seconds to listen, and then fired sporadically for another 30 seconds in the direction of moans and cries. The cry of a baby was the very last sound, Klann says. It was "shot like the rest of them," and then the village was "dead quiet."

Ambrose has yet another recollection of these killings. He "wholeheartedly" agrees with Kerrey that the Seals did not slaughter the women and children. He told Greg Vistica that he had just burst into a hooch and found only women inside. When he stepped outside, "we took a round somewhere near the back .... Somebody yelled 'incoming.' Once we received fire, we immediately fired." When the shooting stopped, Ambrose, like Kerrey, was horrified to discover that all of the dead were unarmed women and children.

Is this the end of it, then – the two Vietnamese witnesses are disqualified for bias, the Americans are not, and Ambrose and Kerrey outvote Klann two to one? Or is Ambrose's account so shaky that Kerrey would soon change his own story in an apparent effort to undo the damage? Ambrose's recollection places him right in the middle of the second hooch area when the shooting began, and thus in mortal danger when Kerrey ordered his squad to fire at the hooches from 100 yards away. Kerrey did not mention whether he knew that Ambrose – the same soldier who just minutes earlier had urged Kerrey to terminate the mission because he felt "compromised" by the first-hooch noise – had overcome his fear and charged off into the darkness 100 yards ahead of the other Seals. Possibly Kerrey did not know this. Ambrose may have forgotten to tell him and Kerrey may have ordered the barrage without bothering to determine the whereabouts of his point man. Or perhaps Kerrey did know but nevertheless ordered the barrage to protect his other squad members, even though this meant near-certain death for brave Ambrose. In either case, one would expect Kerrey to recall his immense relief, upon entering the village, to learn that the nimble Ambrose had managed to dodge each of the 1,200 bullets that had killed every single woman and child. Yet when Kerrey described his entrance to Greg Vistica, he did not even mention Ambrose. Nor did Ambrose mention his harrowing dance with death.

Ambrose's story begs another question. He says the shooting began as soon as he stepped outside the hooch. Neither Kerrey nor Klann nor Ambrose reported finding any survivors, and all of the dead were found in a group outside the hooches. How did the women in Ambrose's hooch get there? Rather than roll into their protective bunker at the first sound of gunfire, as they had been trained to do, did they all jump out of bed, run through a doorway occupied only seconds earlier by an unsmiling American soldier with an automatic rifle, and gather with the other women and children in an open area fully exposed to the Seals' thundering barrage?

A more plausible explanation comes to mind for the good fortune of Ambrose and the misfortune of the women and children who were near him: Kerrey did not know that Ambrose was 100 yards ahead of the other Seals because Ambrose was not. The entire squad was already in the village when the shooting began, just as Klann reports. The women and children were outside their hooches because the Seals had ordered them to come out when they arrived several minutes earlier. This explanation fits the story told by all Vietnamese and American witnesses (including Ambrose, for the most part) other than Kerrey. 

Even so, no fair-minded observer could categorically reject Kerrey's "100 yards or more" account when this story first broke. The Vietnamese witnesses might have lied; Klann might have lied; Ambrose might have dodged the 1,200 bullets and simply neglected to mention it; the women he had just seen might have dashed out of their hooch and had much worse luck with the bullets. This irreducible uncertainty was the underpinning of Kerrey's support when Greg Vistica's article was published, and he deserved the benefit of the doubt it left. It probably would have remained sufficient forever if Kerrey had been content with grudging support from skeptical observers.

But Kerrey naturally preferred an explanation less vulnerable to attack from those who some day might compare it more closely to Ambrose's account – or maybe it was more innocent than that, as Kerrey insisted when we talked: he had simply come to doubt his own memory. He sought professional help. Shortly before the story broke, Kerrey spent $60,000 in leftover campaign funds to have John Scanlon, a notoriously aggressive public relations consultant, improve his recollection of the horrible night. Two days after Greg Vistica's article was published on-line and two days before it would appear in print, Scanlon assembled all of Kerrey's squad mates – except Klann, who had not been invited – at a five-hour dinner in Kerrey's New York hotel suite. Very early the next morning, they faxed to the Washington Post a brief statement that elegantly blurred a key conflict between the accounts of Ambrose and Kerrey: it stated simply that the Seals were "at the village" when they received enemy gunfire and fired back. Were they still 100 yards away from the hooches, as Kerrey claimed, or were they standing right next to a hooch known to be filled with unarmed women, as Ambrose reported? The statement did not say, and its big-tent phrase – "at the village" – was broad enough to cover either possibility, maybe even both.

This was an improvement, but it turned out to be all the help that Scanlon could offer. He died soon after this story broke, leaving Kerrey on his own with a very troubling question still unanswered: Why were all of the dead women and children found in a tight cluster outside the hooches? Possibly concerned that his earlier speculation on this question was unconvincing, Kerrey supplied a new answer in his memoir, When I Was A Young Man, published a year later – an entirely different account of the second-hooch killings that whisked away all but a speck of doubt about his guilt.

Before and shortly after Greg Vistica's article appeared, Kerrey emphasized several times his certainty that the Seals had been fired upon while they were still 100 yards from the village. "I don't have any doubt about it, this part. We engaged from a distance," he told Dan Rather in his 60 Minutes II interview. In his new account, however, Kerrey was equally certain they had all reached the village without having received any fire at all. Indeed, they had been there long enough to have finished searching three hooches. The sleeping women and children had climbed out of bed and gathered outside the hooches. Then, Kerrey recalls, "someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children" and his squad "returned a tremendous barrage of fire." The unfortunate women and children were trapped in the cross-fire and all of them were killed. Kerrey and his men retreated to the canal, "continuing to fire" at their unseen Vietcong attackers. The swift boat soon arrived to pick them up and they never returned to Thanh Phong.

In his original account, Kerrey vividly remembered entering the village after the firefight had ended and discovering that all of the dead were women and children. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead," he sadly recalled to Greg Vistica. "Instead I found women and children." In his new account, Kerrey must have been much less surprised to learn who had died. He and his men had been standing right next to the women and children, listening to them "talk loudly in high sing-song voices." Once the shooting began, Kerrey saw "women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces" as his squad fired 1,200 bullets in their direction from a few feet away – details understandably missing from his earlier account, in which his squad had fired into near-total darkness from 300 feet away. The absence of "Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead" in the heap of bodies must also have come as no surprise. Kerrey had been standing next to the women and children for several minutes when the shooting began. He does not mention having seen any Vietcong soldiers with weapons standing among them. He probably would have noticed.

Kerrey and his men were much luckier than the women and children. Not a single one of them was killed, or even wounded, in this terrifying firefight. Every enemy bullet had missed its target. It was a lucky night for Vietnamese men as well. Kerrey does not claim to have killed or wounded a single Vietcong soldier in this firefight – or any other Vietnamese man, for that matter – or even to have seen one. This firefight was altogether an unusual one: Not a single bullet from either side appears to have struck any adult male on either side, but every single unarmed woman and child was killed. More than just killed: "cut to pieces," in Kerrey's words.

In his memoir, Kerrey acknowledges that "the story told in this book...is different than the one I first told," though he insists that "the most important details remain the same." He emphasized to me that he alone – not John Scanlon or anyone else – was responsible for the change in his recollection. His after-action report did not resemble either of his later accounts. It omitted the first-hooch incident entirely – not a word about "four men with guns" killed by two brave Seals with knives – and did not mention civilians, much less unarmed women and children. He reported that 21 Vietcong had been killed in action, confirmed by a body count, and that enemy weapons had been recovered. Reports from outraged villagers about "alleged atrocities" in Thanh Phong soon surfaced, but U.S. military authorities concluded that any civilian deaths must have been accidental. Kerrey's Raiders received a letter of congratulation from a senior Navy officer and Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star with a Combat V (for valor).

His conduct that night was "not out of the ordinary," Kerrey writes in his memoir, and he assured Dan Rather that "the Viet Cong were a thousand per cent more ruthless" than he had been. "We would have been justified [even] had we not been fired upon," he told Greg Vistica. "You were authorized to kill if you thought that it would be better." He points out that some American soldiers died in Vietnam "because they didn't realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun." Even though these women and children presumably had been searched and found to be unarmed, Kerrey told Dan Rather that "I don't have any doubt that the people that we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong."

Capt. Roy Hoffman, the cigar-chomping, tough-as-nails commander of Task Force 115, does not minimize the risks faced by American soldiers in Vietnam, but he stressed to Greg Vistica that commanders never authorized soldiers to gun down unarmed women or children. All soldiers face risks, and Navy Seals willingly face more than most. The particular risk Kerrey mentions could be significant in some situations, but not when a group of mothers and their own young children had just been searched for weapons and now were standing together in an open area with several automatic rifles pointed at them from a few feet away. The long-standing rule against killing unarmed civilians was sometimes a nuisance in Vietnam, just as in earlier wars. It is often safest and most convenient for soldiers to shoot every civilian they encounter. The rules of war count on some measure of military honor and bravery to overcome that temptation, and most soldiers have that measure.

Several justifications were offered for civilian killings in Vietnam, but the one Kerrey mentions was heard most often: civilians living in enemy-held territory often sympathized with the enemy and could not be trusted. As Tony Karon of Time magazine put it:

And if a whole South Vietnamese village supported the Vietcong, providing a base, logistics, and intelligence to soldiers who were often their husbands or sons, then where exactly was the line drawn between civilians and military personnel?

Many Americans felt that no line could or should be drawn. Never before in the history of warfare, they seemed to believe, had an army moved into enemy territory and discovered that the people living there were relatives of the enemy soldiers. Men like Kerrey felt they had been handed a blank slate and, he said, "we were basically writing the rules as we went.” 

But the rules had been written on that slate long before. A generation earlier, for example, American troops had been marching through Germany, past the homes in which their enemies had been born and raised. The local residents had labored and sacrificed for years to help their soldier-relatives kill Allied troops. Thousands of their homes had recently been fire-bombed by Allied planes, in the dead of winter, and many thousands of their family members had been burned alive. Allied military planners predicted that those German civilians would try to resist or sabotage the American invasion – and some did, though far fewer than expected. American ground troops did not slaughter those civilians, nor believe they had a right to do so. Contrast their conduct with that of the Russian ground troops who were then advancing through Germany from the other direction. The Russian soldiers did treat the civilians brutally, sometimes as brutally as Kerrey and his men treated the villagers of Thanh Phong. The difference in treatment of those German civilians reflected the character of the soldiers, not the behavior of the civilians.

Americans also rejected this "enemy sympathizers" excuse when Saddam Hussein's troops gassed the Kurdish village of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war. Just as at Thanh Phong, the victims on that fateful day were predominantly women, children and elderly persons. Why so few military-age males? Geographically, the residents of Kurdish Halabja were Saddam's "own people," as has often been noted, but many of Halabja's young men were soldiers off at war – assisting the Iranians against their own Iraqi countrymen. Their families left behind in Halabja probably shared the anti-Saddam sympathies of those young soldiers. Like Kerrey's men 19 years earlier, the Iraqi troops were prudent to suspect that those civilians could not be entirely trusted. Like Kerrey, the Iraqi commander decided this was sufficient reason to kill them all. 

Can we distinguish Halabja from Thanh Phong because the Iraqis used chemical gas? Would our revulsion be less strong if the Iraqis had rounded up the Halabja villagers and gunned them down at close range, as Kerrey and his men did? Is Halabja different only because the slaughter of unarmed civilians is prohibited for other countries' soldiers but not for ours? As Jonathan Schell writes about Thanh Phong, do "the very acts that before inspired prompt anger ... become fascinating philosophical puzzles" when performed by our own soldiers?

Kerrey's next and final mission took place three weeks later, on a small coastal island far from Thanh Phong. This time he resolved to avoid situations that would pose a choice between taking prisoners and shooting them, and not to shoot them in any case. The choice did not arise, since no civilians lived on the island and Kerrey's squad began firing almost immediately upon contact with enemy soldiers. Once again, the mission failed. Afterward, the lower part of Kerrey's right leg was amputated and his Navy career was over. Nonetheless, he had fought bravely and led well. Klann recommended that Kerrey be awarded a Bronze Star, and Ambrose recommended a Silver Star. Kerrey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, however, the highest military honor. He wondered whether his squad mates' recommendations had been upgraded for political reasons. He felt like a pawn in Richard Nixon's war. "The medal was given to me within days of the invasion of Cambodia," he told Greg Vistica. "I felt like I was being used, ... flagged ... to take the edge off the horrible experiences." He nevertheless accepted the medal – for the sake of all Seals, he said.

Kerrey's troubled conscience can hardly be blamed on Richard Nixon. Kerrey had eagerly volunteered for the Seals long before Nixon was elected (with the help of Kerrey's vote), and the Thanh Phong killings occurred just weeks after Nixon's inauguration. It was Kerrey's war that night, not Nixon's. Despite his vague denials, all Navy officers were taught at least the basic rules of war, particularly the long-standing strong taboo against killing unarmed civilians. They understood that no senior officer had authority to waive those rules, and even Roy Hoffman stresses that his get-tough directives were limited to Vietnamese men, not unarmed women and children. Other Navy officers understood the rules and resolved from the outset to obey them. Nearly all of them did. Even Kerrey made this resolution – after Thanh Phong. Why not before?

Suppose we nevertheless grant that Kerrey's fear of retaliation at the second set of hooches calls for a sympathetic assessment. Though that danger had resulted from the Seals' own brutal behavior at the first hooch, their fear was nonetheless genuine, and decisions made in a panic are rarely optimal. But even if we excuse Kerrey for gunning down the women and children, what about the knife slayings of three children and their grandparents at the first hooch? Most commentators have focused narrowly on the second-hooch killings, a richer lode of "fascinating philosophical puzzles" than the straightforward first-hooch killings. But need we even reach the second-hooch killings to condemn Kerrey?

There was no fog-of-war panic at the first hooch. As Greg Vistica details in his later book, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey (2003), Kerrey and his men had disembarked from the swift boat only minutes earlier. It was quiet and dark. They hid, watching silently as the grandfather stood outside smoking an evening cigarette while the grandmother helped the young children get ready for bed. They discussed what to do. Simply bypassing the first hooch was too risky. But terminating the mission was an obvious alternative, and one that Kerrey has frankly acknowledged was acceptable. Many brave Seals made that choice in similar situations. As Vistica explains, however, Kerrey's superiors had criticized him several times for what they perceived as reluctance to engage the enemy. Terminating the mission within the first few minutes, without having encountered any enemy soldiers or having been detected, would only have deepened this negative impression. Kerrey may have concluded that a bold stroke was required to prevent that: kill the three children and their grandparents, and move on. That is what he did, and his superiors never again suggested he was timid.

This article has spared few of Bob Kerrey's rationalizations, but one has slipped by until now: Kerrey's recurring dream about an uncle who disappeared in action during World War II. He warns Kerrey that "human savagery is a very slippery slope." Certainly we should hesitate to judge a soldier whose moral sensitivity has been dulled by the horrors of combat. But this hardly describes Bob Kerrey. Before that night, he had been on a few uneventful missions but had not experienced a single moment of actual combat. The only enemy contact mentioned in his memoir is his questioning of a seriously wounded Vietcong prisoner in an American military hospital. If we insist on enough respect to dismiss Kerrey's claim that Vietcong soldiers shot at him in Thanh Phong, his enemy-contact slate remained equally clean when the bloody night was over. None of his victims had been armed. No one reports that any of them had threatened him, provoked him, disobeyed him or cried out. Only one was an adult male, and he was an old man. None of Kerrey's decisions was impulsive: in each set of killings, he observed, he discussed, he decided, and he killed. There was no slope, slippery or otherwise, for Bob Kerrey that night – just human savagery.

Kerrey did well after he left the Navy – wealth, a term as Governor of Nebraska, a much-publicized romance with the actress, Debra Winger, two terms in the U.S. Senate and a brief run for President (1992). He did his best to erase the black smudge of Vietnam from his memory. Except during every one of his election campaigns, that is, in which he invariably presented himself to voters as a war hero – a modest war hero, to be sure, but a war hero nonetheless. Kerrey would protest that he was not merely a modest war hero but a reluctant one as well, that he tried his best but failed to restrain zealous campaign workers from advertising his war hero credentials to voters. A reader tempted by this claim of humility should compare Kerrey's biographical sketch on his former U.S. Senate Web page, presented with Kerrey's approval for years before this story broke, with his biographical sketch on the Web page of his current employer.

Since leaving the Senate in 2000, Kerrey has served as President of the New School in New York, which is satisfied with his explanations notwithstanding its historical support of victims of Nazi oppression and its self-proclaimed emphasis on "critical thinking." He considered a run for mayor of New York in 2005, and stopped just short of running for Senator in 2008 as a maverick pro-war Democrat. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for President in December 2007 and promptly drew fire by "praising" her opponent, Barack Obama, for having succeeded in life despite his boy-named-Sue middle name (Hussein, as in Saddam) and his childhood attendance at a "secular madrassa" – an oxymoron that might have amused Kerrey's critics had they been less quick to pounce.

Several commentators believe Kerrey sat out the Senate race in order to avoid embarrassing questions – about his relationship (apparently not improper) with recently-convicted swindler Norman Hsu, not about Thanh Phong. Indeed, one supporter, Richard Reeves, had argued earlier that Thanh Phong could provide just the boost Kerrey needs:

I am reasonably certain that the debate over his conduct as a young Navy lieutenant will make him better known and more popular than he ever was as a governor and U.S. Senator. The publicity, the charges and counter-charges, could even make him President.

No one else has suggested that Kerrey's story can be polished to quite this luster, though Christopher Hitchens, rarely a soft judge of his fellow "mammals," also spotted silver-lining virtue in Kerrey's cloud:

Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around [afterward] referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants."

(For the record, Hitchens' overall assessment of Kerrey's behavior was not as favorable. He complained, for example, that Kerrey's formal statement on Thanh Phong "did not contain one word of contrition...or...sympathy for the victims.")

Kerrey's employer preferred simply to express its deep sympathy for Kerrey and move on: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. ...We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with." Senator John Kerry agreed: "He obviously feels anguish and pain about those events." Kerrey's pain was felt across the political spectrum. "The denial by the anguished Kerrey and his fellow veterans deserves respect," insisted William Safire. "They have long been burdened by guilt at the mistaken wartime killings, but they are not murderers." Senator Trent Lott wondered why anyone felt pain at all: "I don't understand what all the hoopla is about here."

Other Kerrey supporters insisted on a parting slap at his critics. "Where do these peace-time Charlies get off?" huffed Alex Beam in the Boston Globe. "The only rule of war is kill or be killed." The trigger-happy coward of old war movies, nervously spraying bullets at every chicken or pig, woman or child that moves or makes noise, is Beam's tough-minded realist. The soldier who will not gun down civilians to enhance his own safety is a Hollywood fiction, or utterly naive if he actually exists. Equally naive, and annoying to boot, is anyone who insists that an apparent slaughter of 26 unarmed civilians, in two separate incidents, calls for some questions. To Mark Shields of PBS, the mere suggestion of an inquiry was "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen." Fox News' Juan Williams found it "unbelievable" that "these elite New York press type people" had the temerity to question Kerrey. NPR's Mara Liasson agreed, though she was comforted that "you didn't see people from the major newspapers or television networks asking those questions." Dozens of other commentators expressed considerable anger at those who would open "old wounds" for Bob Kerrey and the country.

His confidence undoubtedly bolstered by such support, Kerrey set aside his contrition long enough to label Gerhard Klann a "delusional drunk" and to link his media critics with the enemy: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." Kerrey told me that CBS's motives were even more impure: it irresponsibly rushed its 60 Minutes II special to the airwaves to beat the TV "sweeps" deadline, neglecting to interview "other people" who would have supported him. "That's business," a top CBS executive confided to Kerrey. Kerrey declined to identify any of these other people, and none of them has since come forward.

A reader who has got this far may wonder why so many respected officials and commentators have supported Kerrey, often vehemently. Some have argued that to criticize him, guilty or not, is to criticize all American soldiers – implying that we do not dishonor decent men and women by failing to distinguish them from rogue soldiers who slaughter unarmed civilians. Others – the "kill or be killed" group – have insisted that the age-old wartime distinction between soldiers and civilians is no longer practical, or perhaps never was. They have drawn opposing conclusions from this harsh reality: to Senator Chuck Hagel, for example, it means we should be less quick to choose war and should blame only our leaders, not our soldiers, for what happens when we do; to others, it means simply that we should stop coddling civilians and get on with the fighting. Still others, such as William Safire, have argued that criticism of American conduct in Vietnam amounts to "self-flagellation," casting a moral cloud over noble American motives and weakening our resolve to intervene overseas when necessary. For the same or different reasons, many other Kerrey supporters have echoed this bury-the-past sentiment, though most of them have claimed to agree that an unprovoked slaughter of unarmed civilians should never be condoned. For reasons never given, however, none of Kerrey's supporters has applied this principle to the first-hooch knife killings, which have largely been ignored. As for the second-hooch killings, they have properly pointed out that the stress and chaos of combat call for doubts to be resolved in favor of the soldier. To be fair to Kerrey's supporters, most had genuine doubts when this story broke, for the simple reason that they were reacting to Kerrey's original explanation: his squad returned fire into the darkness from 100 yards away. An ABC TV reporter probably summed up their feelings when he asked Kerrey this:

Given all those factors that you've enumerated, what did you do wrong? You opened fire because you were fired on. ...You didn't think civilians were going to be there. This is a classic Vietnam story. What did you do wrong?

With nothing to contradict his original story except the accounts of Klann and biased Vietnamese witnesses, and the defects in Ambrose's story being hard to spot, no one could fairly condemn Kerrey. It is not clear how many would support him after considering his revised account of the second killings. Fortunately for Kerrey, most Americans preferred to put Thanh Phong behind them as quickly as possible. Very few took another look when Kerrey's new account appeared in his memoir a year later. Even fewer recognized how damning it is.

Not surprisingly, many other commentators do not believe the matter should be dropped, much less that anyone owes Bob Kerrey an apology for asking about it. They wonder whether the "old wounds" opened by this story would seem as old, whether Kerrey's questioners would seem as rude, if Kerrey were a Vietnamese politician and his victims had been American women and children. They point out that even older wounds were eagerly opened just days later when Thomas Blanton was convicted of murder for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. They argue that the large number of victims, the brutality of the killings and the gaping holes in Kerrey's story compel us to determine whether Thanh Phong was a horrible war crime or a forgivable fog-of-war mistake. The account of every witness, including Kerrey, now places his squad right next to the women and children when the shootings occurred. Investigators could skip directly to his claim that "someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children," the only justification he has ever offered for gunning down 21 unarmed women and children. No one, including Kerrey, has ever claimed that he himself heard this incoming gunfire – only that someone did, someone who has never been identified. A competent questioner should require little time to determine who, if anyone, heard these shots, and even less time to identify the mystery soldier who held down the old man while Klann slit his throat. Once fingers begin to point, the truth will tumble out.

Should we instead leave Bob Kerrey alone with his private demons – stop blaming the warrior and start blaming the war, as Senators John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Max Cleland have urged? Is Kerrey even beyond blameless – are we indeed "blaming the victim again," as the New York War Resisters League has argued, because "tons and tons of people were doing the same thing?" Was Newsweek's Jonathan Alter right – that "those of us who didn't serve can only witness their anguish, and learn?" Was Fox's Bill O'Reilly right – that this is a private matter among Kerrey and his men since "only the Seals ... know what they did or did not do. And only they have to live with it?"

What messages do such comments convey to our soldiers in the field? That whatever they do will be all right with us if it is all right with them? That if their war has become unpopular, they are free to slaughter unarmed civilians? That if enough soldiers behave like Bob Kerrey, we will assign the blame to untouchable government leaders, or to "the war," so that none will be left over for them? If a squad of enemy soldiers breaks into an American home and slashes the throats of three children and their grandparents, or kidnaps an American civilian overseas and cuts off his head, must we withhold judgment because we weren't there? If "tons and tons" of enemy soldiers do this, must we label them all "victims" and "witness their anguish?" If we capture one of them, would it be "an act of moral arrogance" to express our displeasure and ask him a few questions? If the rules are different for enemy soldiers, are we confident that our enemies understand this and agree?

Are these the messages we'd like to convey? Or would we like to make clear that what happened at Thanh Phong is unacceptable to Americans? If so, we leave that far from clear when our collective response is to comfort Bob Kerrey and challenge the patriotism of anyone who would even question him about that night. When the next Thanh Phong comes to light and the next Bob Kerrey tells us he is troubled by his memories, will we once again assure the remorseful soldier that our prayers are with him, apologize for embarrassing him, and lash out at anyone who would disturb him as he works through his anguish? Or will we behave like the Americans that Peter Beinart believes we are: bring the killers to justice and make changes that make it less likely to happen again? Will we show next time that "we are different from the jihadists?"

Maybe next time. Not this time. Credible or not, Kerrey's explanations have been good enough for us. Case closed, or never opened. Nonetheless, "next time" may have arrived in the form of Haditha, which presents striking parallels to Thanh Phong. In each incident, a squad led by a 25-year old soldier with no combat experience brutally killed five unarmed civilians within the first few minutes. After breaking into several more homes, the soldiers gunned down a large number of unarmed civilians, each time in response to enemy gunfire that no one seems quite sure he heard and which missed its target every time. Each time the soldiers accomplished nothing – not a single enemy fighter killed, wounded, captured, or even seen; not a single enemy weapon found. Each squad leader was respectfully interviewed in his own 60 Minutes special, and neither of them has been punished. (Two differences, which reflect well on Kerrey: Wuterich maintains an elaborate website devoted to Haditha, and he has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania – one of Congress' strongest supporters of U.S. soldiers and veterans – for having harshly criticized Wuterich's conduct that day.)

Though it may already have slipped away, Haditha has presented a fresh opportunity to send an important message to our soldiers and their senior officers. We have long made it clear, properly so, that our soldiers' safety has priority over their mission. This policy has kept our casualties low for several decades, at the expense of some frustrating failures – most famously in Afghanistan in 2001, when our troops surrounded hundreds of al Qaeda fighters at Tora Bora but walked away empty-handed because no commander was willing to order American soldiers into the mountain caves and fistfuls of hundred dollar bills could not persuade Afghan fighters to finish the job for us. Though our commander in Afghanistan complained years later that we are "pre-occupied with protection of our own forces" in that war, most Americans probably disagree with him. We should now make it just as clear that the safety of unarmed civilians also has priority over our soldiers' missions. If the capture of Osama bin Laden's most hard-core supporters was not worth risking our soldiers in the caves of Tora Bora, certainly the capture of a roadside bomber in Iraq, or the village secretary of a tiny hamlet in Vietnam, was not worth slaughtering dozens of civilians who happened to live in the area.

The conduct of too many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan shows they do not understand this, and our kid-glove treatment of Bob Kerrey has not made the point more clear. Haditha's Bob Kerrey – Sergeant Frank Wuterich – has defiantly insisted that he did exactly what he was trained to do that day and would do exactly the same thing again. His superiors played their part as well. Had it not been for a persistent Time magazine reporter, some were prepared to blame the deaths of numerous widely scattered civilians on a roadside bomb that killed only one of three soldiers in the vehicle it struck – a story even less credible than Bob Kerrey's. Photographs of bullet-riddled bodies and blood-spattered bedroom walls were dismissed with a shrug. Our collective shrug over Thanh Phong may have persuaded them that any explanation short of absurd would be good enough.

There will always be a few bad apples in our military, but only a few. When substantial numbers of well-trained soldiers – otherwise decent young men and women – plainly believe that the unprovoked killing of unarmed civilians is acceptable behavior, or at least are confident that their comrades and superiors will condone it and cover it up, that is our fault. And when the penalty for covering up such killings is so light and rarely applied that cover-ups appear to be standard operating procedure for many senior officers, that is our fault too. There is no need to tie our soldiers' hands so tightly that they will be afraid to act. They will keep themselves comfortably away from the line if we simply come down hard on the clear cases. A soldier should not need a rule book in his back pocket to understand that he may not follow the examples of Bob Kerrey, Frank Wuterich and William Calley, that he must walk away if he cannot accomplish his mission without slaughtering unarmed civilians and we will not fault him if he does. His comrades and superiors should find it equally simple to understand that they will be severely punished if they cover up such a slaughter.

Finally, what about Bob Kerrey? No court will ever hear his case. Nevertheless, though it may strike many as a small consolation, each of us is free to judge Kerrey if we like. He told me several times that he does not care what people think, but almost certainly he does, and he still has some ability to influence our judgments. Despite what he has done, he does not strike one as an evil human being – rather as a human being who once did evil, wishes he had not, and now feels trapped. And several barriers do surround him: his natural fear of punishment, however remote the prospect may be; his pact of silence with his loyal squad mates; a pending indictment against him in Vietnam. I was not surprised when he told me "I will take it to my grave.” But when he arrives there, Someone will want to talk about Thanh Phong, as Kerrey himself acknowledges. That conversation may go more smoothly – and our judgments may be more kind – if he has not waited until then to atone for what he did.

The most important step seems obvious: Kerrey should apologize in person to the victims' families. Naturally they have expressed great anger, and some have vowed never to forgive Kerrey and his men. But if they are like most human beings, a visit from Kerrey may prove the truth of his own words, spoken in another context (Parade Magazine, May 12, 2002):

One thing I've learned: Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly and most underrated agent of human change. ... Kindness that catches us by surprise brings out the best of our natures.

The same is true for unexpected apologies. After all these years, many family members probably would welcome – and certainly they deserve – an opportunity to forgive Kerrey and move on if they believe he is sincere. Nearly all of them will at least be grateful that he came; it will be more than anyone has done so far. Most Americans probably would be satisfied as well. Peter Beinart's observation about us may have missed the mark, but this one remains true: remarkably often, we are willing to forgive, sometimes even eager to do so, provided only that the person seeking our forgiveness is sincere. Conversely, we are angered by someone who ought to be seeking forgiveness but stubbornly clings to a lie.

As he reminds us in the title of his memoir, Bob Kerrey was a young man on that terrible night. Like many of us, he may have lacked the courage and judgment to do the right thing. He is a mature man now, and he has had ample time to reflect. One hopes he will do the right thing now.

– Eric A. Brill

© Eric A. Brill 2019