Let’s put down one instant-myth before it becomes established as the “enlightened” way to discuss this Kerrey story. It is not wrong to judge Bob Kerrey for what he did in Vietnam. It is not wrong to judge him, even if you weren’t there and you’ve never been in combat or even in uniform. This formulation, already repeated a thousands times on the airwaves, is a moral and intellectual cop-out offered to either stifle discussion or to assuage guilt.
Indeed, the idea that you have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes — or combat boots — before you can form an opinion of him contradicts everything we know about law and justice. Judges, juries, and lawyers are usually disqualified if they are too close to the events in dispute.
What’s also interesting about this “who am I to judge” line is that judging is precisely what the anti-Vietnam hysterics have been doing for over a quarter century. Will we be hearing the same sort of equivocation about William Calley and the massacre at My Lai? Perhaps we will hear about the horrific casualties Calley’s company received in the days leading up to that tragedy. Indeed, perhaps with all of this eagerness to “weigh all the facts” we will finally hear the Left accept some responsibility for driving ROTC programs from American campuses to the extent that the army had no choice but to make sub-par men like Calley officers in the first place. But I doubt we will hear anything like that.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think anyone should be quick to judge or that we shouldn’t give greater weight to those who served than, say, people like me. Still, the suggestion that the “fog of war” is some sort of impenetrable barrier that prevents us from ever drawing judgments is absurd and dangerous. Besides, if that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to elevate heroes any more than we could denounce criminals. Valor and villainy would be concealed behind the same curtain, something neither the war’s supporters, nor its detractors would want.
So, I don’t know what happened that night in Vietnam but I am interested to know. And if the journalism about that night is reliable and it turns out that Bob Kerrey ordered the execution of a bunch of civilians without good reason (I can imagine some) then at minimum he doesn’t deserve the Bronze Star he earned for that incident. Something Kerrey seems more than willing to accept.
The Times Sullies Itself
But let’s talk about that journalism for a moment. The New York Times, which has been driving this story, editorialized yesterday about the Kerrey allegation: “It is a story that — with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic aftermath — sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.”
You catch that? The Vietnam War lacked “any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.” Funny, I admit I was pretty young during that war, but I’m fairly certain I’m on solid footing when I say that I don’t think anybody — on either side — justified the Vietnam War solely on the grounds that it would “wreck” lives; not LBJ, not Robert McNamara, not Richard Nixon, and certainly not the millions of Americans in and out of uniform dedicated to the war effort.
The fact that the New York Times cannot muster the necessary imagination, let alone the modicum of good faith, to say that “any rationale” for that war could even “seem” to exist is breathtaking in its arrogance, its asininity, and, frankly, its un-Americanness. One need not have supported the Vietnam War to at least nod to the fact that some people had honorable reasons to wage it. Indeed, by the clever use of “seems” the Times in effect says that every single person who said the war was actually about defending our allies, fighting Communism, promoting freedom, keeping our commitments, or simply doing the right thing was not merely incorrect but were liars too. Lord knows I criticize the Times a lot, but this time I really mean it: Shame on them.
Of course the Times is not alone in this sort of glib moral vacuity. It is in fact the standard position of the mainstream media and liberal elites everywhere. Take, for example, that famous picture of a Vietcong soldier being shot in the temple. We’ve seen that picture or the NBC film footage a million times. It’s used in retrospectives and montages as a symbol of the evils of the Vietnam War or the heroics of American journalism incessantly. And yet, you may not know that the person who took the photo and earned a Pulitzer Prize for it, Eddie Adams, wishes he never took it. That image which the press still holds up as the noble reporting of evil, is viewed by the man who took it as almost the complete reverse. General Loan, the executioner, was a legitimate hero reduced to a single picture that told thousands of wrong words.
That photo was as deceptive as the New York Times editorial, but at least deception was not Adams’s intent (see “There Are Tears in My Eyes.“) Or take another example, this one not from journalism but from the previous occupant of the White House, Bill Clinton. In a 1993 interview with the Washington Post, Bill Clinton famously explained how he “missed” the Cold War because “We had an intellectually coherent thing. The American people knew what the rules were.” This comment has been thoroughly dissected before.
Charles Krauthammer called it “the greatest Cold War myth of all” because, of course, Bill Clinton was not a Cold Warrior. Indeed, the entire generation — ideologically, culturally, and demographically speaking — that Bill Clinton represented and that currently resides on the New York Times editorial board, considered the Cold War a terribly incoherent, complex, and ultimately misguided effort. When the Cold War was actually going on, Bill Clinton wrote a letter to get out of the draft saying he despised the Vietnam War — the relevant manifestation of the Cold War at the time — “with a depth of feeling I have reserved solely for racism in America.” During the 1992 campaign George Stephanoplous asked Clinton for “tighter” answers about his Vietnam experience. Hillary Clinton exploded, “Bill’s not going to apologize for being against the Vietnam War!” Bill concurred saying that he would rather lose than say the war was right. Of course, this was doubtlessly a lie, since Bill Clinton would have French-kissed G. Gordon Liddy if it would have assured his victory. But the fact remains that when it mattered Bill Clinton was on the wrong side of the “intellectually coherent thing” and he didn’t particularly care “what the rules were.” He told the Post that so he could whine about how much tougher he had it in a “post-Cold War” world.
Still, liberal nostalgia holds that everyone was on the “right” side of the Cold War. But the fact is that largely because of the Vietnam War, anti-Communist liberals were pretty hard to come by for the last two decades of the Twilight Struggle. Perhaps this is why the Vietnam War, which, flawed as it was, represented a noble, necessary, and worthwhile fight against Communism, needs to be cast in the most two-dimensional light possible. To admit that the War was about anything beside “wrecking lives” is to concede that many liberals were wrong. And not just about Vietnam, but everything in it’s aftermath — détente, the idiotic nuclear-freeze movement, the “Goodwill Games,” Jimmy Carter, and of course, Ronald Reagan — as well as all of the pre-Vietnam myths about domestic anti-Communism baby-boomer liberals embraced in order to justify their personal opposition to the war.
Ironically this may be Kerrey’s greatest defense in the eyes of the liberal establishment. If there’s no room for any nobility in the cause, if the war was thoroughly wrong to its core, than Kerrey isn’t at fault, he was simply on the deck of the Titanic and he can’t be held accountable for the actions he took to stay afloat.
For example, last night on the NBC Nightly News Jim Miklaszewski reported to Tom Brokaw: “Tom, in his defense, Bob Kerrey came out today to claim that everyone, including those who survived, is in some way a victim of the Vietnam War. He says he’s still anguished over the civilians killed by his combat squad, but implies the ultimate blame lies with the war itself.”
They then ran a clip of Kerrey saying, “I feel guilty because of what happened, not because of what we intended to do. My guilt is connected to the nature of the Vietnam War.”
Now, I’m not sure Kerrey’s statement backs up what Miklaszewski claims, but the point is that such a defense seems eminently reasonable to liberals of a certain stripe who cannot accept that there was good to be found in the Vietnam War too.