WASHINGTON — Four leading Vietnam veterans in the US Senate - John McCain, John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Chuck Hagel - have drawn a sort of verbal defensive perimeter around former Sen. Bob Kerrey, center of a controversy about the killing of civilians in Vietnam. In multiple media appearances in the past week they have tried to convey that memories of what happened in Vietnam are best left buried, and that one cannot understand the awful things that happened unless one has experienced the terrors and the hatreds produced by such a jungle war.
That pretty well excludes from the argument the Bush administration, which has been busying itself with its hundred-day festivities. Among those who were of draft age and did not serve in combat in Vietnam were the president himself, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and, not to be forgotten, former President Bill Clinton.
As an octogenarian who did his bit in World War II - the "good war" - I feel free to reflect on this controversy. What should one think of Bob Kerrey's belated effort to come to terms with himself? Is Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta, where more than a dozen civilians were killed by a commando unit of Navy SEALs, to be considered as another one of those atrocities like My Lai, for which Lt. William Calley was found guilty of participating in a massacre of civilians in 1968?
I asked that question of my friend Seymour Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing My Lai. The implied question was whether Kerrey should have been - or still should be - investigated and tried for war crimes.
Mr. Hersh said there was an important difference beyond the numbers (a dozen or so killed in Thanh Phong; more than a hundred deaths attributed to Lieutenant Calley's Charlie Company alone in My Lai). The crucial difference, said Hersh, was that My Lai was systematic murder by daylight against no resistance, following a coolly-laid plan. In the case of Kerrey's group - at least if you accept the version of most of them - the commandos were giving a jittery response to a perceived attack on a dark night.
There must be more Vietnam veterans trying, after 30 years, to exorcise uneasy memories of killing innocent people. As early as 1967, New Yorker correspondent Jonathan Schell wrote of being driven in a jeep by a GI who suddenly turned around and said, "You wouldn't believe the things that go on in this war...." The soldier added, "No one's ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we've all gone home, no one is ever going to know."
"Some things" did become known - My Lai, Marines torching thatched huts with Zippo lighters, the Phoenix program of assassinations of suspected Viet Cong leaders. And now Kerrey's SEALs in the Mekong Delta.
In that war, the distance between war hero and war criminal was not great.
Senator McCain wants us to know that if a soldier in Vietnam did inhuman things, it was because his country asked him to do inhuman things. "His country" meant Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. And Secretaries Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. What do I think of the Bob Kerreys? Good men in a dirty war.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor