A survivor's perspective on collateral damage in war

It was a busy day in the Reuters office in Beirut, back in July 1978: teletype machines clacking, people shouting into phones, phones constantly ringing.

I was standing near the big, taped-for-safety windows, discussing with colleagues developments in Lebanon's continuing civil war. Suddenly, an almighty blast filled the air, followed by the screech of after-burners. I was about three months pregnant, and as the screech hung in the air, I felt my uterus clenching. I slumped onto a chair and struggled to stay calm. Fortunately, the contractions soon eased, and six months later my daughter Leila was born.

Many other civilians were not so lucky. It soon became clear that the Israelis, who were the only folks flying planes over Beirut back then, had sent one or two planes to break the sound barrier at a very low altitude over the city. Our office was a mile or so from the "epicenter" of the resulting blast. But all along the heavily populated Corniche Mazraa, windows on buildings and moving cars were shattered by it. Scores of drivers, suddenly driving blind behind their shattered windshields, plowed wildly into one another. Glass shards flying into private apartments killed others. As so often happened in those years, reports of civilian casualties soon deluged our office.

I have never learned what military goal, if any, the Israeli pilots were pursuing that day. But when politicians or military planners talk about "collateral damage" to civilians during military operations, I do tend to hear them with the deep sadness of someone who has herself survived such damage, and lost a number of friends to it.

Which brings me to Bob Kerrey. Mr. Kerrey, a respected former US senator and current university president, stands accused of having ordered the deliberate killing of 13 or more Vietnamese women and children, during a night-time raid into the Mekong Delta 32 years ago.

What are we to make of this accusation? And how might our view of it affect attitudes about the ongoing, world-wide campaign to establish clear accountability for all those who commit infractions of the recognized "laws of war"?

The accusations against Kerrey have been made by Gerhard Klann, an experienced member of Kerrey's tough-guy SEALs unit at the time of the incident, and by two Vietnamese survivors. The allegations are serious. In particular, if Kerrey ordered the killing of a group of people that he even suspected might include noncombatants, then that would be a serious infraction of both the international Geneva Conventions and the United States military's own field manual.

Kerrey has claimed in his defense that the killings occurred during an incident in which his seven-man squad may have received some fire (though he is not totally clear about this), and that at the time of his squad's firing he believed that the individuals targeted were Vietcong fighters. Only after the victims were all dead and Kerrey approached the bodies, did he learn they were all women and children, he said.

In the after-action report filed hours later, no mention was made of civilian casualties. Instead, the report mentioned only "21 Vietcong" as casualties. Later, Kerrey won the Bronze Star for his reported actions that night.

So is Bob Kerrey a bad person, a "war criminal" who deserves only to be judged and punished as such? Or is he, as some suggest, a basically good man caught up in a dirty war? I would certainly be prepared to say that of those Israeli pilots.

Further: If Kerrey deserves punishment, then how about the higher-ups who ordered his tiny squad deep into an area under hostile control, with orders to snatch or kill a named Vietcong organizer? Or, the higher-ups who had earlier, quite arrogantly, declared the whole Mekong Delta a "free-fire zone" in which scared young soldiers like Kerrey could order fire before making any serious attempt to discover whether noncombatants might be affected? Or, the even higher-ups who got the United States tangled up in that whole misbegotten war in the first place?

The Nuremberg trials of 1945 firmly established the principle that a claim of "simply following orders" provides no defense against charges of war crimes. Bob Kerrey, who seems visibly to be trying to come to terms with the events of 1969, has a lot to deal with. Many other American veterans of that war have tried - with some success - to expiate their feelings of unease over actions they undertook in the course of it by carrying out concrete acts to help rehabilitate Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries torn apart during those years.

Might such an attempt at reparation, coupled with an honest attempt to describe and come to terms with the harms he inflicted on Vietnamese civilians, be an appropriate course for Bob Kerrey?

But we should not seek a separate standard for Americans. In every war in the world, in the heat and terror of battle, grossly inhumane actions are carried out by people - especially, young, scared people - who still have a great deal of good in them. Approaches to atrocities and war crimes that build on that fact will do far better, I believe, than approaches that look only at punishing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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