Vietnam's moral mind game

Bob Kerrey's anguish over his Vietnam wartime experience resonates with many, many veterans. Like him, they - we - can never know for sure whether the "enemy" engaged in deadly combat in fact were North Vietnamese troops, Vietcong soldiers, or simply people caught in the crossfire.

The former governor and senator from Nebraska acknowledges that Vietnamese women, children, and old men were killed on a nighttime commando mission he led in 1969 in the Mekong Delta. One of the Navy SEALs in his patrol insists that the unarmed Vietnamese were rounded up and shot at close range. Mr. Kerrey's recollection is that his young and largely inexperienced unit - sent behind enemy lines to capture a Vietcong official - came under fire, returned fire, and only then discovered that the casualties they caused were civilians.

The episode has haunted him for 32 years. He concedes that the horror of the incident, the passage of time, and perhaps the desire to repress the memory of that night have left the details hazy.

Kerrey's story seems all the more newsworthy because a month following the incident, he won the Medal of Honor - the nation's highest military award - for continuing to lead his men after a grenade severely wounded him.

One can say that the battle - if that's what it was - at Thanh Phong hamlet that night years ago is an apt metaphor for the war itself. From beginning to end, the United States could never quite figure out who was who among the Vietnamese fighting to rid themselves of what they saw as yet another invasion by colonialist repressors.

The only response US political and military leaders could think of was more force - more ground troops, more bombing, more "free-fire zones," more assassinations of Vietcong leaders.

Like Kerrey, I was in my 20s in Vietnam in 1969. While he was working the jungles and rivers of the delta under rules of engagement that were ambiguous at best, I was a Navy attack pilot flying over North Vietnam, the northern part of South Vietnam, and Laos. Some of my missions were at night. But day or night, it was impossible to know for sure what we were dropping our 500-pound bombs on. At 450 knots in a steep dive, one concentrates on the flying.

I like to think that what we were aiming at - typically picked out by Air Force forward air controllers in light aircraft and marked with a smoke rocket - were true military targets: North Vietnamese units attacking US marines near the DMZ (the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam), trucks traveling south along the spiderweb of dirt roads passing through Laos known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, antiaircraft sites, or storage areas for ammunition, fuel, and other supplies hidden under the jungle canopy.

The only time we ever knew for sure that there were people on the ground below was when we came under fire, which was often enough to prevent complacency. In those cases, we immediately tried to kill the gunners who were trying to kill us. But one would have to be self-delusional to assume that all those on the ground in what we insensitively called "Indian country" in fact were combatants.

"I dropped many bombs in Vietnam, and I wish I could say that they only destroyed military targets," Sen. John McCain wrote in The Wall Street Journal the other day. "But surely noncombatants were among the casualties."

Mr. McCain, who had been one of my flight instructors in basic jet training, was shot down and captured on his 23rd mission. If that wish is true for him - the wish for a kind of moral absolution based on a personal "just war" - it certainly is true for those of us who completed a combat tour unscathed and flew more missions than he did.

Most Vietnam vets (only a small portion of whom saw sustained combat) have gotten on with their lives. Among the guys I flew with, Dick Wood is an airline pilot, Phil Gay stayed in the Navy and commanded an aircraft carrier, Ron Cinniger went to law school and is now a judge in Portland, Ore.

But others have had to fight their greatest battles at home.

My friend Lee Thorn was a young sailor on an aircraft carrier, loading bombs on the kind of plane I flew. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he struggled with alcohol and other demons for years.

Today, he heads a small San Francisco-based organization (the Jhai Foundation) that is helping bring new schools, wells, and medical facilities to Laos, a country that experienced more bombing during the Vietnam War than occurred in all of World War II. There is reconciliation there, and I suppose a kind of redemption, too.

Lee just got back from another trip to Laos and called to see how I was taking the news about Bob Kerrey. "I'm still thinking about it," I said, and he is too. I'm thinking, too, that I should do more to help Lee's effort. I can't change the past, but I can do something about the future.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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