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Killer Bob

Who would have thought the confession — media-wise as the debut of a new luxury SUV — by former Senator Bob Kerrey that he was responsible for the massacre of at least 14 Vietnamese women and children would evoke so much sympathy?

Well, there’s ol’ Killer Bob himself, for one. Whose grizzled mug appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a caption: “His sadness, shame and decades-long silence remind the rest of America of the war’s wrenching ambiguity.” Which is to say, isn’t it awful that terrible things like the Mekong Delta massacre could happen to such a nice guy? This is exactly the way Kerrey wanted it played when he made his cold-blooded and pre-emptive (according to accounts in both Inside and Slate) disclosure just days before the scathing New York Times account by Gregory Vistica appeared. Kerrey’s defensive ambush was surprisingly effective — many who read the Kerrey version skipped the real thing. So now it appears it was not enough for Kerrey to have slaughtered all those unarmed people 32 years ago. Not enough to have accepted a medal for the action and to have kept both the decoration and his silence all these years, long after he declared that the war was wrong. Now he has usurped the dead Vietnameses’ victimization.

You expected that Kerrey’s deadly disclosure would go down fine with the congressional Viet Vet delegation. Sure enough, Senators John Kerrey and John McCain asked the world: Who among us hasn’t wasted the occasional civilian? But former Viet War correspondent Peter Arnett was similarly exculpatory in USA Today: These things do happen, he sympathized, and it sure is sad. Why, take this nice young Marine I used to know. Like many commentators, Arnett implied that those most hurt in Vietnam were the grunts themselves. The following week, David Halberstam, journalist, war historian and gadabout ’60s-era pundit, defended Kerrey in person at a New School University assembly (which was, basically, on the subject of whether an institution that once sheltered scholarly refugees from war criminals ought now to be run by one). Some kind of alfresco Stockholm syndrome must be at work here. It is as though public outrage were being held hostage by — and, eventually, succumbing to — Kerrey’s designer remorse and self-pity.

The only dissenting voice I could find in the first week’s coverage was a brief quote from Barry Romo, the national coordinator of Vietnam Vets Against the War: He alone pointed out that the real victims were the Vietnamese. The most recent Los Angeles Times Book Review buttressed Romo’s point with a double assessment of recent Viet War scholarship. Jack Langguth’s sympathetic review of Gerald Nicosia’s history of the anti-war veterans’ movement stresses the emotion with which most of those vets — unlike Bob Kerrey — tossed back their medals.

Arnett and the other sympathizers bought Kerrey’s frail claim that the massacre was a terrible accident: that all these dead women and children were somehow the victims of gunfire in total darkness. But the N.Y. Times piece (and an accompanying 60 Minutes II segment) makes a more plausible case that the SEALS may have lined up their victims and machine-gunned them. It was claimed by Kerrey’s squadmate Gerhard Klann that this would make for a safer getaway. To eliminate risks to your men, you have to eliminate inconvenient people — even women and children.

Right-wing historians excuse many German war crimes in much the same way. The Nazi troops, trying to protect themselves in a variety of shifting, partisan conflicts, weren’t responsible for what they did to whomever they did it to. Thus, atrocities are really just bad luck for everyone. In fact, a president of this very country declared 16 years ago that the SS and its victims were equal sufferers in the same horrible conflict, which that particular president survived in a Hollywood studio. “War,” as the kid said on Cheers, “is gross.” Innocent people get killed all the time; that’s the way it goes. Sometimes, in that they might take a shot at our soldiers, those civilians maybe aren’t so innocent. That’s the Turks’ excuse for denying the Armenian genocide for the past 85 years.

How far have we come from the America that was revulsed by the My Lai massacre 30 years ago? Why didn’t a nasty little nobody like Rusty Calley get the sympathy the charismatic Kerrey is awash in today? It’s because we’re stuck still in the self-pitying Forrest Gump phase of Vietnamese revisionism: This awful war really happened only to us, not to the Vietnamese. Then again, Kerrey’s exculpation may just be another example of that burgeoning 21st-century notion of celebrity immunity — Kerrey perhaps becoming the Puffy Combs of Vietnam. Except he’ll never go to trial, because who’s to try him?

Meanwhile, those of you out there who are as gray as Kerrey, but who resisted the war, who wouldn’t go and who demonstrated against it — who maybe even ditched your citizenship and went to Canada — you folks go pat yourselves on the back. And spare yourselves remorse. You never killed anyone.

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