2016-06-30
I lost any illusions I might have harbored about combat being fair, humane, or sensible the very first time bullets whizzed toward me.

My First Cavalry outfit was ascending a ridgeline along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

What do you think about the Bob Kerrey controversy?

What your religion says about battlefield ethics.

Around us were fresh signs of enemy activity: scuffed trails, recently abandoned bunkers, half-filled rice bowls, and fresh bloody dressings. We were frightened.

Our spirits lifted when we heard a light observation helicopter buzzing our way, skimming the canopy of the jungle. It was one of ours, of course--the enemy had none of these. The efficient clatter of its rotors reminded us that America's stupefying technological strength was everywhere, even at Vietnam's primeval border with Laos. Then suddenly, it veered in our direction, swooped down, and fired its mini-gun on our troop line. In seconds--some of us were still waving our rifles and smiling skyward in greeting--a half dozen of our men were hit. Some of them were badly wounded.

It took me that long to figure out that in a war zone, you can't trust anyone, or anything, even your supposed comrades and friends. The reality of combat undermines our notion that wars can be fought with rules, predictable behavior, or fine moral principles.

I arrived in Vietnam a half year before Robert Kerrey arrived. I spent less than six months there, but that was plenty of time for me to learn to distinguish the horrifying noises various shards and rounds of metal made as they whirred and zipped my way. I was wounded twice (though much less severely than Kerrey, who lost most of a leg). My unit lost men to mines, booby traps, punji pits, and ambushes. The experience didn't teach moral equilibrium. Over time, warfare's unpredictable but steady moral arc takes most people down. You need to be strong and lucky to survive combat, and even luckier to survive morally intact.

Here's what I mean.

Once my Cav company was attacked by North Vietnamese sappers. Astonishingly brave demolition experts infiltrated our lines through a neighboring village, did their bloody work, tossing satchel charges into our bunkers under the cover of their own mortars, which pinned us down. Then they crept back through our

What do you think about the Bob Kerrey controversy?

Poll: Should Kerrey have accepted his Bronze Star?

What your religion says about battlefield ethics.

barbed wire, dragging their wounded and dead with them. When they left, six of our guys were dead and 18 of us, including me, were wounded.

The next morning, we went back through the village, looking for reprisal. We found no one. We took out our fury on village shelters. After yelling for anyone who might be inside to give themselves up and come out, hearing nothing, we threw grenades. We heard no cries--so unlike Bob Kerrey, I have been spared the shrieks of ghosts. Still, I came close to a life of self-recrimination. What if there had been people inside, kids or women who were too terrified or ignorant of English to respond?

Later, I became an adviser to the South Vietnamese Regional Forces. One morning before dawn, we moved into a string of villages flanked by rice paddies. We knew that the people in the villages were heavily sympathetic to the Communists. It was a free fire zone. Anyone found moving outside their huts at night could be considered VC or NVA.

Ill-trained, poorly led, and nervous, our regional forces fired at the first person they saw that morning--a figure in black pajamas moving across the rice fields. When I got to the point, I found the body of a 50-year-old woman. She might have been getting a head start on harvesting--or delivering secret messages for General Giap--but whatever she was doing, she was unarmed.

I was ashamed of our recklessness. Later that day, when our unit took sniper fire, my counterpart on the regional force demanded that we call in an air strike on a village that harbored a lone VC popping at us with a badly aimed SKS rifle. It was daytime. I wasn't worried. I congratulated myself for resisting the regional force commander's pleas. But that night, when the sniper got going again, I called in an artillery flare to see if we could spot him. The white phosphorus flare landed on the roof of a thatched hut, burning it to the ground in less time than it takes to grill a burger. The family escaped, wailing as they watched all their possessions turn to ashes.

Until last week, former Sen. Robert Kerrey seemed like a noble exception to the sad roster of characters in that ignoble war. A stand-up guy, Kerrey didn't posture or strut. He wore his heroic mantle lightly. He was both more

What do you think about the Bob Kerrey controversy?

Poll: Should Kerrey have accepted his Bronze Star?

What your religion says about battlefield ethics.

introspective than most warriors who turned into politicians, and more forthright than most draft-evaders who later became elected officials.

Then last week, we heard the startling news that Kerrey's SEAL team had killed a dozen civilians. Many who hated that ugly war and despised those who waged it were prepared to believe Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's SEAL squad, who said Kerrey had ordered the civilians rounded up and shot. Klann is no anti-war lefty, no wussy-man. He is a tough, 20-year veteran of an elite navy unit. He seemed like a guy with a guilty conscience who didn't have a motive to speak anything but gospel truth.

Here we are again, back in the turbid waters of Vietnam. We've never seen many clear truths through the muck of that strange war. We don't agree about what happened, or why. Perhaps we never will.

Before the forgiveness rebound of the weekend, reporters grilled Kerrey. You're a man with a reputation for righteous truth telling, they reminded him. How do you square your tell-it-like-it-is rep with the fact that you've accepted a medal for killing innocents? His struggle to answer exposed a man grappling with conscience, faulty memory, and strong emotions. He accepted responsibility, but he drew a line, too, refusing to see himself as a monster on the scale of Lt. William Calley. "I feel guilt and shame," he said. He confessed he'd done bad things, but he didn't cop to leading a My Lai-like massacre. And finally, he admitted he didn't remember everything accurately.

Kerrey's ordeal triggered in combat veterans like me a struggle between fading memories and active consciences. We're being asking questions we hoped we wouldn't have to confront again. Toting up a moral balance sheet is a torturous

What do you think about the Bob Kerrey controversy?

Poll: Should Kerrey have accepted his Bronze Star?

What your religion says about battlefield ethics.

task, and frankly, I'd prefer to admire my good behavior than to recall my bad decisions or cowardice. It's a coping mechanism, I suppose. Yet anyone who was brought up with the admonition "Thou shalt not kill," as Bob Kerrey was taught in Nebraska, yet goes on to kill anyway, as he did, as I did, must necessarily grapple ever after with doubts about gritty moral choices one makes.

If Klann's accusations are true, then Kerrey lost more than his leg in that fetid country. He lost his soul, and no one on this planet would be more aware of that loss than Kerrey himself. But Klann's memory may be no more accurate than Kerrey's. Whatever Kerrey's Rangers did that terrible night was a result of many awful mistakes made by politicians, generals, and, yes, some overeager sailors.

I think Kerrey and his men did some awful things that bleak night in Thanh Phong, but I don't think they did them deliberately. The difference between deliberation and overreaction may be a thin straw upon which to base a moral judgment, but I still think Bob Kerrey is a good man. There but for the grace of God, my friend, go I.



more from beliefnet and our partners