Like Israelis and Palestinians eyeing each other suspiciously from adjacent hilltops in the West Bank, Americans who were on opposing sides of the Vietnam War may share the same space, but there should be no confusing cohabitation with reconciliation. Even in the best of times, what passes for “peace” amounts to little more than a precarious cease-fire.
News reports in late April implicating Bob Kerrey in the killing of Vietnamese civilians over thirty years ago in the tiny village of Thanh Phong shattered that truce. In the furious skirmishing that ensued, one point above all became evident: the truce had owed its existence to the small point at which two otherwise divergent views about the war’s meaning happened to overlap. That Americans had managed to negotiate some semblance of détente regarding Vietnam amounted to little more than an afterthought; on both the right and the left, what really matters are the opposing myths about the war to which each camp remains devoted. The Kerrey scandal (if it can be called that) not only violated the terms of that détente; more importantly, it challenged those myths.
Since at least the time when Congressman Wilbur Mills was found cavorting in an outdoor fountain with the stripper Fannie Foxe, the ritual humiliation of prominent politicians has been a media staple. Although valued chiefly as entertainment, the periodic exposure of some self-important pol—Wayne Hays, Jim Wright, Dan Rostenkowski, Newt Gingrich—has also served a useful purpose: reminding members of the ruling class that they are neither above the law nor at liberty to flout prevailing standards of ethics and propriety. Setting limits on behavior is both satisfying in its own right and can contribute to the nation’s civic health.
But the collaboration of the New York Times and CBS’ 60 Minutes II in laying open Mr. Kerrey, a recently retired U.S. Senator still mentioned as potential presidential aspirant, produced something altogether different. As measured by the angry outcries and anguished commentary it prompted, Kerrey’s evisceration touched a nerve. What was it about this story that Americans found so disturbing?
In a political culture filled with frauds, phonies, and ideologues, Senator Kerrey enjoyed a reputation for being that rarest of creatures: he was (it was believed) a truth-teller. Unlike other politicos, Kerrey, although by his own lights a loyal Democrat, could be counted on to rise above mere partisanship, to tackle the tough issues from which others flinched, and above all, to speak plainly and forthrightly. Thus when Kerrey famously described Bill Clinton as “an unusually good liar,” the charge not only stung, it stuck.
Kerrey’s reputation was inextricably linked to his status as a highly decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. In that regard, he was one among several U.S. Senators whose identity has become inseparable from that conflict. Among this exclusive club’s other members are John McCain, for over five years a POW; John Kerry, a former naval officer who came home from the war to help found Vietnam Veterans Against the War; Max Cleland, a triple amputee; and Chuck Hagel, twice wounded as a sergeant of infantry. Upon each, wartime service has conferred a distinctive and enhanced moral authority.
The respect enjoyed by this group—Kerrey and McCain in particular—derives from a widely held conviction that the Vietnam War was not just any war. On the contrary, in the nation’s long history of armed conflict it was sui generis. Indeed, a belief in Vietnam’s uniqueness is one of the few points on which a consensus about the war has formed.
For those who supported the war (and for the right more generally), Vietnam was uniquely tragic, especially as measured by the futile exertions of those who fought there and who were (many believe) denied a victory that ought rightfully to have been theirs. In a war that produced scapegoats aplenty—LBJ, McNamara, Westmoreland, Nixon, Kissinger—but no heroes of comparable stature, the young men who actually bore the burden of combat came to seem particularly worthy of admiration. That upon returning home, emotionally if not physically scarred, they were frequently reviled, their service mocked, their sacrifices unappreciated, represented a particular affront.
Among conservatives, the eventual rise of a handful of Vietnam veterans to political prominence helped fill this hero deficit. Indirectly at least, their presence at the center of power vindicated all who had served, offering compensation long owed and recognition long overdue.
That several of these men had been credited with performing acts of great valor—Kerrey had been awarded the Medal of Honor—was not incidental. Battlefield bravery served to revalidate ancient connections between physical courage, manliness, and public virtue otherwise in short supply. Implicit in Kerrey’s questioning of Clinton’s veracity (and in McCain’s quixotic effort to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from George W. Bush) was a rebuke directed at all the hip, clever, and well-connected who, whether acting for ostensibly lofty motives or with an eye toward preserving their “political viability,” had sought ways to sit out the war. For those still harboring grudges about Vietnam, that a Kerrey or McCain would deliver such a rebuke was sublimely delicious.
Meanwhile, for those who had opposed the war (and for the left more generally), the uniqueness of Vietnam lay in its evil. As the New York Times commented in an editorial prompted by the Kerrey revelations, it was a conflict that “then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.”
If “then” is the early 1960s, the Times actually supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but no matter. More relevant is the fact that this most recent editorial judgment, despite its apparent severity, actually reveals a noticeable departure from what had been liberal orthodoxy. That today’s Times implicitly absolves the war’s participants of responsibility—it was not combatants on one side who wrecked the lives of their adversaries on the other, but the war itself that did so impartially “on both sides”—marks the distance traveled since My Lai. In those days, when the Times assigned culpability, it did not limit itself to blaming the war.
To what can one attribute this shift in the views prevailing in the high church of establishment liberalism? Two explanations exist—one political and one personal.
On the political level, since the end of the Cold War liberals have recovered their appetite for using American power to set right the world’s wrongs. Since it is military might that makes U.S. intervention in places like Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans possible, liberals have found it expedient to remove from the necks of American soldiers the obloquy hung there during Vietnam. In short, those enamored of pursuing an expansive foreign policy today profess an affinity with and affection for “the troops” that, to put it mildly, did not exist from the mid-1960s through the 1980s. But if the principal beneficiaries of this rediscovered affection for soldiers are members of today’s armed services, the G.I.’s of the Vietnam era also receive something of a retroactive dispensation. Among opponents of the Vietnam War who have lately shed their aversion to using U.S. military power, Senators Kerrey and McCain—men of palpable decency and integrity—have supplanted William Calley and Ernest Medina as representative Vietnam vets.
On the personal level, at least some members of the chattering classes (including perhaps members of the Times editorial board) have developed second thoughts about having avoided military service. For the sons whose fathers had fought World War II, refusing to serve seemed in the 1960s like a brave declaration of political independence and a testament to superior moral acuity. But with the passage of time, it looks increasingly like evidence of a collective loss of nerve, the gauge by which to measure how far the accomplishments of Baby Boomers lag behind those of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” They surmounted economic depression, vanquished Hitler, and stood up to Stalin. We smoked dope, worshiped rock ’n’ roll, and flung epithets at the Establishment.
Nearly forty years on, in a culture awash with narcissism, in a society of poseurs yearning for “authenticity,” more than a few Boomers vaguely regret that the test of military service is one on which they chose to pass. Even (or especially) in liberal quarters, select members of that generation who did serve have taken on a certain allure. Those who actually experienced serious combat—who exhibited notable courage, bled, endured torture, and returned from a heinous war not embittered or broken but seemingly tougher and wiser—have acquired something akin to glamour. Call it Viet Chic. How else to explain the media frenzy touched off when John McCain set out on his “Straight Talk Express”? Something other than a public clamor for campaign finance reform gave the McCain story its legs.
In short, by the year 2000, for both the right and the left, Senators Kerrey and McCain (along with a handful of others) had become central figures in efforts to incorporate Vietnam into each camp’s preferred narrative of recent American history. Although conservatives and liberals continued to advance radically contradictory accounts of that war, both agreed on one point: men such as Kerrey and McCain were bona fide American heroes, admired as men of candor and character.
After Thanh Phong, it is no longer possible fully to accept that formulation. The celebrated hero, it turns out, was complicit in gunning down women, children, and old men—and even accepted a medal for doing so. The widely admired truth-teller harbored dark secrets. Had those secrets been known, the brilliant political career of Senator Bob Kerrey would likely never have occurred.
To the fury of those on the right, the incident at Thanh Phong breathed new life into the old charge that My Lai had been anything but an anomaly. Kerrey, the good soldier, and Calley, the war criminal, apparently did not differ as much as previously advertised. Worse, Kerrey himself was complicit in this blurring of identity, characterizing his involvement in killing civilians as “an atrocity” for which he felt “guilt and shame.” Kerrey not only suggested that he himself had not been a hero; he raised doubts about whether heroism in Vietnam had even been possible.
In doing so, Kerrey placed himself directly at odds with those who had made the tragic Vietnam veteran central to their understanding of the war. The effect of Kerrey’s retreat “into a kind of neurotic confessional mode,” observed John O’Sullivan in National Review, was to “entrench the left’s view of the Vietnam War as the authorized version as binding on all.” To those whose authorized version of the war differed, Kerrey’s refusal to proclaim his own innocence seemed like an outright admission of wrongdoing. To the right, it amounted to an act of betrayal.
On the left, Thanh Phong likewise came as a rude awakening. Having fallen head over heels for the dashing lothario, liberals discovered that he had all along been concealing a sordid past. Kerrey had taken them in, played them for suckers, until they had finally exposed him for what he was: a phony like the rest.
Kerrey’s explanation of the “firefight” portrayed a confusing, complicated war. This, veteran opponents of Vietnam rejected outright. They responded by resurrecting their own canonical interpretation of the war’s nature. Thanh Phong, wrote James Carroll in the Boston Globe , simply confirmed that in Vietnam the United States had been “waging a war that was consistently, not exceptionally, against civilians.” What Carroll termed “Kerrey’s killings” showed that “we have barely begun to plumb the depths of the physical abyss into which America dragged Vietnam, the moral abyss into which America jumped.” Carroll and others of his ilk are determined never to allow the United States to climb out of that abyss. The image of Vietnam as uniquely evil must remain sacrosanct.
It was excruciating to watch Kerrey attempt to answer the barrage of questions hurled at him by his interrogators. Remarkably, he did not flinch. He offered no excuses. But his account of the awful events that occurred on that night so long ago satisfied almost no one. It failed to satisfy because it required that others recognize a truth in terms other than black and white.
When it comes to Vietnam, Americans prefer the simple to the complex. Few of us are willing to relinquish the myths that have enabled us to come to terms with a war whose moral status remains decidedly ambiguous. Bob Kerrey’s story has drawn attention to the presence of those myths and forced us to confront, if only for a moment, the complicated reality they conceal. The piercing of illusions can be a painful process. Bob Kerrey’s public ordeal was the price he was obliged to pay for inflicting that pain on his fellow citizens.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
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