Medal of Honor
KERREY, JOSEPH R.
Rank and organization: Lieutenant, Junior Grade, U.S. Naval Reserve, Sea, Air, and Land Team (SEAL)
Place and date: Near Nha Trang Bay, Republic of Vietnam, 14 March 1969
Entered service at: Omaha, Nebraska
Born: 27 August 1943, Lincoln, Nebraska
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL team leader during action against enemy aggressor (Viet Cong) forces. Acting in response to reliable intelligence, Lt. (jg.) Kerrey led his SEAL team on a mission to capture important members of the enemy's area political cadre known to be located on an island in the bay of Nha Trang. In order to surprise the enemy, he and his team scaled a 350-foot sheer cliff to place themselves above the ledge on which the enemy was located. Splitting his team in 2 elements and coordinating both, Lt. (jg.) Kerrey led his men in the treacherous downward descent to the enemy's camp. Just as they neared the end of their descent, intense enemy fire was directed at them, and Lt. (jg.) Kerrey received massive injuries from a grenade which exploded at his feet and threw him backward onto the jagged rocks. Although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain, he displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind in immediately directing his element's fire into the heart of the enemy camp. Utilizing his radio, Lt. (jg.) Kerrey called in the second element's fire support which caught the confused Viet Cong in a devastating crossfire. After successfully suppressing the enemy's fire, and although immobilized by his multiple wounds, he continued to maintain calm, superlative control as he ordered his team to secure and defend an extraction site. Lt. (jg.) Kerrey resolutely directed his men, despite his near unconscious state, until he was eventually evacuated by helicopter. The havoc brought to the enemy by this very successful mission cannot be over-estimated. The enemy soldiers who were captured provided critical intelligence to the allied effort. Lt. (jg.) Kerrey's courageous and inspiring leadership, valiant fighting spirit, and tenacious devotion to duty in the face of almost overwhelming opposition sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
5 July 1999
Joseph (Bob) R. Kerrey is a former United States Senator from the state of Nebraska. He now lives in New York.
Bob Kerrey Reveals His Role in Deaths of Vietnam Civilians
By Amy Waldman,, April 25, 2001
Bob Kerrey, a former United States senator who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his military service in Vietnam, has acknowledged that a combat mission he led there three decades ago caused the deaths of 13 to 20 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.
Days before an investigation of his role in the incident was to be published in The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Kerrey began describing his version of the events in interviews with other newspapers and television networks today.
He first spoke publicly about the incident - which occurred on Feb. 25, 1969, in the Mekong Delta - in a speech a week ago at the Virginia Military Institute.
"I have been haunted by it for 32 years," he said in his April 18 speech .
The magazine investigation was carried out jointly with "60 Minutes II," the CBS News program. After Mr. Kerrey began granting other interviews on the incident, The Times's posted the article - which is the cover story of this Sunday's magazine - this afternoon on its Web site (www.nytimes.com). CBS plans to show its report on Tuesday.
During the course of an investigation that lasted more than two years, Mr. Kerrey, 57, who is now the president of New School University in Manhattan, granted three lengthy interviews to Gregory L. Vistica, the writer of the magazine article, in addition to several dinners and shorter conversations by telephone and e-mail.
Mr. Vistica also contacted the other six members of the squad of Navy SEALs that Mr. Kerrey led on a mission into Vietcong territory in 1969. Three refused to discuss the events of that night in any detail. One provided an account that differed from Mr. Kerrey's on some respects, but over time has come into line with his.
A third member of the squad offered a starkly different version of events, under which Mr. Kerrey ordered the killing of the civilians because he felt it was the only way for his men to retreat safely.
Mr. Vistica, a former reporter for Newsweek magazine, had originally begun reporting the story for Newsweek, which decided not to publish it after Mr. Kerrey decided not to run for president in 2000. Mr. Vistica did more than a year of additional reporting before The Times Magazine published the story.
In television interviews today, Mr. Kerrey was more emphatic in denying that his unit knowingly killed women and children than he had been in the interviews with The Times over the last two years. In one interview broadcast tonight, he described the incident as "a firefight."
As reports about the incident begin circulating today, the reaction from two of Mr. Kerrey's former Senate colleagues who also served in Vietnam was one of sympathy and understanding.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, told C.N.N.: "My heart goes out to Bob Kerrey at this moment. All of us involved in wars do things we're proud of and things we're not so proud of."
On the Senate floor this afternoon, Senator John Kerry , a Democrat from Massachusetts, offered his public support to Mr. Kerrey.
"He obviously feels anguish and pain about those events," Senator Kerry said. "I don't feel they should diminish for one moment the full measure of what he gave to this country."
Although Mr. Kerrey's public discussion of what happened was described as a single incident, The Times Magazine article examines the killing of two different groups of civilians that night.
At the time, Mr. Kerrey was a 25-year-old lieutenant who had arrived in Vietnam only a month earlier. On Feb. 25, 1969, he led a group of six Navy Seals - known as "Kerrey's Raiders" - on a mission to capture a Vietcong leader who was supposed to be having a meeting in the area that night.
On a moonless night, the squad was dropped off by boat. They moved in, and encountered a hooch, or thatch hut. Mr. Kerrey says those inside were killed by his men, but he did not know who they were and did not participate. Two other members of his unit say at least some women were present, and one says there were children. Both say Mr. Kerrey helped kill one of the men.
The squad then moved on, and encountered another set of hooches. Here, Mr. Kerrey says, they came under fire, and returned it - then discovered that the dead were all women and children.
"The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," he told The Times Magazine.
But another member of the squad, Gerhard Klann, said the Seals rounded up women and children from the edges of the hooches, then debated what to do with them. Feeling they could not safely escape either by releasing them or taking them prisoner, they opened fire on them after Mr. Kerrey gave the order, Mr. Klann said.
As part of the investigation by CBS and The Times, a cameraman for "60 Minutes II" returned to the village to interview residents. A Vietnamese woman who said she was a witness to the events of that night, and two people who said they were relatives of the civilians killed gave accounts consistent with Mr. Klann's version of events. .
Another member of the squad, Mike Ambrose, told The Times Magazine that he strongly disagrees with Mr. Klann's memory of events.
In The Times Magazine article, Mr. Kerrey concedes that his memory, across three decades, may be faulty. But he said in an interview today with The New York Times that he had talked to all of the men in his squad, and only Mr. Klann has a sharply different memory than him of what occurred.
Still, Mr. Kerrey said, "I don't begrudge Gerhard his memory." He added, "Mine's bad enough."
And all of the men, he said, agree on certain significant facts - that it was a free fire zone, that the enemy was operating in the area, and that "there was every reason to believe that the people who died were Vietcong sympathizers at least."
He added: "Some in my squad feel I've gone soft for even being haunted by this, but I am."
After the incident, the commander of Mr. Kerrey's squad reported that the Seals had killed 21 Vietcong. At least one villager, an elderly man, complained to American military officials about the killings, but there was only a minimal investigation, according to the magazine article.
Mr. Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star for the mission; the citation also refers to the killing of 21 Vietcong. But Mr. Kerrey has seldom talked about that honor, and his most recent official biography does not mention the award. Mr. Ambrose told the Omaha World-Herald that he was unaware Mr. Kerrey had earned a Bronze Star for that night's events.
Less than a month later, on March 14, 1969, Mr. Kerrey led his Seals on another mission, and lost part of his right leg when a grenade exploded at his feet. In 1970, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military commendation.
He spent months in a military hospital, and after his recovery he returned to Nebraska and opened a successful string of health clubs and restaurants. In 1982 he was elected governor of Nebraska, and in 1988 he was elected to the United States Senate.
He served two terms in the Senate before choosing not to run again last year. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and had contemplated running against Al Gore for the party's nomination for president in 2000, but decided against it.
His war experience, and the loss of his leg, have become an integral part of his political profile. He is routinely introduced as a hero.
He told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published today, "This is killing me. I'm tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside."
Mr. Kerrey said today in the interview with The Times that he was writing a book about his experience in Vietnam.And he said he would continue talking publicly about what happened in Thanh Phong. Two things, he said, made him feel it was right to continue speaking about the incident.
One was the reaction of his son and daughter - who are just about the age he was when he went to Vietnam. He said they told him, "We still love you."
"Mercy is a powerful thing to give another person," he said. "Love can be healing."
The other thing, he said, was the speech at the Virginia Military Institute to a group of R.O.T.C. cadets attending a leadership seminar. In that speech, he said of what transpired: "It was a not a military victory; it was a tragedy, and I had ordered it. How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night."
The incident, he said, illustrated why military leaders needed to provide training not only in how to kill, but how to cope with killing.
"When contemplating war we must abandon euphemism and answer the question: does the cause justify sending young men out to kill other human beings?"
When he finished speaking, Mr. Kerrey received a standing ovation. Men his age, he said, came up to him to tell him they had had similar experiences.
He also said that while attending a conference last weekend at the United States Military Academy at West Point, discussed the incident at Thanh Phong with Gary Solis, who is a war crimes expert and teaches the rules of war at the academy.
"It's the first time I had read the rules of war," Mr. Kerrey said. "I certainly wasn't trained in them."
Text of Kerrey Speech to R.O.T.C. Cadets
Following is the full text of a speech given on April 18, 2001 by Bob Kerrey, to R.O.T.C. cadets at Virginia Military Institute as transcribed by the George C. Marshall Foundation:
Thank you, Senator Kassebaum, for that kind introduction and your exemplary service in the United States. You possess a skill that is rare and essential in democracy; the ability and willingness to listen to opposing views in an argument and to see where the two sides should find agreement. It took courage for you to be moderate in politics because both ideological extremes get angry at you. Thank you for being a peacemaker.
To the young R.O.T.C. students: Thanks for working and sacrificing as much as you had to do to be invited to this seminar. You do not have to become General Marshall to change the world. If you continue on your chosen path I have no doubt you will change for the future of our nation and world.
To General Goodpaster and the other former servicemen in this audience: thank you, sirs, for all you have given us. Freedom is not free. And you have paid the price to secure liberty's blessings for posterity.
Let your stories be remembered as a reminder to all of us that America can accomplish the impossible if we can only conquer our fears and banish to the sidelines those cynics who doubt our capacity to do good. I served twelve years in the United States Senate and no cynic could stop me from becoming more patriotic in the end than I was in the beginning.
More patriotic because I had the honor of hearing Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and Kim Dae Jung tell the American people thanks for the freedom they enjoy. Each said that the freedom of Czechoslovakia, Poland, South Africa and South Korea was purchased with American blood, wealth and courage.
More patriotic because I witnessed the United States' return to Southeast Asia and help to build a peace in Cambodia. We conquered our fear of failure and helped 340,000 refugees return to their homes from which they were driven by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979.
More patriotic because I saw the United States help transform Sarajevo from a place where it was not safe to travel to a place where at least the killing has stopped.
And I saw much more besides. This is a sample of the miracles I have seen America accomplish.
I am also more patriotic because I had the pleasure of visiting our servicemen and women at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, the Nebraska National Guard in Lincoln, and others at the Pentagon and bases around the world. There is a cynical myth that men and women in government service do not work as hard as those in the private sector. In sixteen years of public service I have never visited a military base or facility without wondering how lucky we are to have such unselfish, hard working, dedicated men and women serving us and the cause of peace.
When Senator Nancy Kassebaum invited me to speak to a young audience of men who have either chosen or are considering the unconventional course of service, I almost said no. I have a new and challenging set of responsibilities as president of New School University, which demands most of my waking energy. However, my respect for Senator Kassebaum and my admiration for you persuaded me to come.
In truth I feel more than admiration. I feel intimidation to stand in the shadow of one of America's greatest heroes; George Catlett Marshall. He was not just a great warrior. He was a man with exemplary and breath-taking character. In life character is more important than native intelligence and physical energy. The good news is that you all have plenty of intelligence and energy. The equally good news is that it is entirely up to you what kind of character you will build. The daunting news is that character does have to be built and must be done one decision at a time.
Your maturity and seriousness of purpose is impressive. My life at 22 years of age looked much less noble than yours. In 1965 when I graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in Pharmacy, I may not have been fortunate to have served at all were it not for the hot breath of a federal law known as the Selective Service Act. I was practicing pharmacy when my draft notice arrived. As a consequence of that inducement, I volunteered for three years in the U. S. Navy reserve. At officer's candidate school I earned junior officer status. I volunteered again for underwater demolition and again to join SEAL Team One in Coronado, California.
George Will tells a story about the great left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn that serves as a reminder of how George Marshall became a man whose character we admire and should seek to emulate. Spahn was facing a rookie who had not yet hit safely. Standing sixty six and a half feet from the new kid, Spahn confidently threw his fast ball. The rookie hit it out of the park. The batter's name was Willie Mays. "What went wrong?" a reporter asked afterwards. '`Nothing. It was a perfect pitch except for the last six inches."
All his life George Marshall paid attention to the last six inches. In the military, we call it attention to detail. In civilian life errors in detail are usually litigated. Both sides seek to avoid responsibility. Recently I heard that the old Soviet Union had an alternative to a tort claim. Soviet bridge engineers were asked to test the accuracy of their design by standing under their fully loaded bridge before any traffic traveled across. We civilians - as we seek to avoid responsibility - could do worse.
In the military things are different. In the military, detail is more than an engineering requirement. The detail can - as we saw in the case of the U.S.S. Greeneville that collided with a Japanese vessel - make a difference between life and death. In the military, the most important ethical lesson is learned when you acquire an understanding of what it means to be given the responsibility of command. Again, in the military, unlike civilian life, where responsibility can be delegated as easily as authority, those with command can only delegate authority. Under all circumstances, whatever happens during my watch cannot be blamed on anyone but me. Judgment of failure can be harsh but it cannot be otherwise if we are to have a functioning and effective military.
The problem for military commanders is that the most difficult choices are made in moments where no training manual can guide us. A man who became a friend when he and I were fellow patients being treated for war wounds, told me a story that describes this perfectly. His name was John Zier and he was a first lieutenant with the Marine Corps. In Vietnam, he was a company commander and the story he told was about one of the first missions when few in his company knew who he was.
In spite of every effort to prepare and master the details of an early mission, his company became lost. The man running compass became disoriented and could not tell where they were on the map. So John took charge and assumed the compass man's duties. Walking with his point man and leading a column of marines, John was just becoming confident of his location when he saw something in front that triggered a rush of aggressive adrenaline. He saw a column of men with assault rifles passing across his route.
In the instant when such decisions must be made he recognized the distinctive posture and walk of U.S. Marines. He ordered his men not to fire and by doing so avoided a disaster.
With his column halted, he angrily asked his point man to go forward to find out who had violated strict rules against operating in an area already being patrolled by friendly forces. He did not have to move to get an answer.
"They're ours, sir."
"I know they're American," John insisted, "I want to know whose unit they are with."
"Sir, they're ours. We've gone in a circle and cut off the rear of our own column."
Chastened but still in command, Lt. Zier ordered his men to continue to follow him forward. As he passed the last man of his own company, he shouted "Who are you following, marine?" "A new lieutenant by the name of Zier," came the answer, "Oh, I know him," John said straight-faced. "He's a good man. You are in good hands."
If you find yourself in a similar situation, you could do worse than use your sense of humor.
Though these kinds of stories make us laugh, leading &emdash;and its necessary corollary, following &emdash;is serious business. It is serious because the requirement of giving and following orders as an American officer involves learning and using two conflicting sets of rules. The first dictates lethality; we must become very good at killing other human beings. The second involves our ethical evaluation of right and wrong, good and evil. If our senior civilian and military leadership train the first but not the second, those who serve us will suffer terrible consequences.
In 1981, just before I decided to enter politics by becoming a candidate for governor of Nebraska, I joined a public protest of President Reagan's plan to reinstitute the registration of all 18 year-old men under the Selective Service Act. I didn't like the draft because it allowed men with privilege to be deferred or to avoid dangerous service altogether. I did not like it because it selected those with little power while using government propaganda to persuade young men to volunteer.
I argued than that if we were going to have a draft, we should raise the registration age to 30 when adults were more likely to understand what they were doing. This would be a more honest test of the worthiness of whatever cause necessitated involuntary service.
A friend, who was a career Army officer with six full tours in Vietnam, ran into me shortly afterwards. Patiently he told me he disagreed with my position. He said that drafting men at 18 was essential and necessary. We had no choice because 18-to 25-year-olds are more suited to combat. "Give me power over when and how much a young man can eat and sleep, and I believe I can get him to do anything I want. After 25, they start to ask questions. And when they start asking questions they're no good to me anymore."
My friend was right. And the implications of this truth are profound in a liberal democracy such as ours. In particular it means that senior civilian and military leaders must make certain they have considered the moral justification for the wars that they believe we must fight or the force that we must use. Moral justification must be larger than something as subjective as the national interest. When contemplating war we must abandon euphemism and answer the question: does the cause justify sending young men out to kill other human beings? Am I willing to sanction and morally support the determined savagery that must be part of effective combat units?
Since evil does not yield to pacifism, sometimes the answer will be a resounding yes. However, there will be times when the answer is no. And if you become a senior civilian or military leader and your conscience says no, you are duty bound to speak, no matter what the consequences.
Allow me to tell an unhappy story about myself and a choice I made while serving in Vietnam. In February 1969, I led a squad of 6 other U.S. Navy SEALs on a military operation in an area of Vietnam that was controlled by the Viet Cong. Reliable intelligence told us that a seven-man squad faced considerable danger if we chose to enter the area. I chose to go. We entered two hours after sunset on a dark, moonless night. It was the most risky mission I had led in my short time in country. My greatest fear was that some mistake on my part would end in the death of my men. Following orders I had been given and training I received, we used lethal procedures when there was doubt. When we received fire, we returned fire. But when the firing stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory; it was a tragedy and I had ordered it.
How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years. Knowing that the people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers and their missing men had fired upon us, drawing our fire, has not helped. Knowing that I followed what I considered to be the standard operating procedure has not helped.
I tell you this story now because I believe a part of your military training must include how to cope with the horrors of war if you are lucky enough to survive them. Your military training must include ethical examination of what is permissible in war. Ho Chi Minh once said famously that Americans do not have the stomach to do what you have to do to win a guerrilla war. He was right, but it is not an insult for us to believe so. It is what makes American leadership at its best so different and so vital in a world where evil still controls too many innocent lives.
George Catlett Marshall became a paragon of what good a good man can do because he had the courage to pay attention to the ethical detail of life. He knew how important those last six inches could be. He became a hero because he did not try to become one. I urge you to do the same.
In May 1970, I received the Congressional Medal of Honor and have been called a hero ever since. I know better. I received this award on behalf of men whose heroism was never witnessed or was lost in the very imprecise machinery of such awards. Most of all, I received it for the George Marshalls of our world whose ethical, heroic, unselfish behavior was sustained every day of their lives.
Your unconventional decision to serve is a beginning of a life that I pray will be full of good fortune, happiness and love. From the depths of my heart I am grateful for your beginning. I know that America and the world will be your beneficiaries.
Kerrey on the left, Klann in the center
One Awful Night in Thanh Phong
By Gregory L.Vistica,, April 25, 2001
Senator Bob Kerrey's hands trembled slightly as he began to read six pages of documents that had just been handed to him. It was late 1998; the papers were nearly 30 years old. On the face of it, they were routine "after action" combat reports of the sort filed by the thousands during the Vietnam War. But Kerrey knew the pages held a personal secret - of an event so traumatic that he says it once prompted fleeting thoughts of suicide.
Pulling the documents within inches of his eyes, he read intently about his time as a member of the Navy Seals and about a mission in 1969 that somehow went horribly wrong. As an inexperienced, 25-year-old lieutenant, Kerrey led a commando team on a raid of an isolated peasant hamlet called Thanh Phong in Vietnam's eastern Mekong Delta. While witnesses and official records give varying accounts of exactly what happened, one thing is certain: around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children. The operation was brutal; for months afterward, Kerrey says, he feared going to sleep because of the terrible nightmares that haunted him.
The restless nights are mostly behind him now, his dreams about Vietnam more reflective. One of those, which he says recurs frequently, is about an uncle who disappeared in action during World War II. "In my dream I am about to leave for Vietnam," Kerrey wrote in an e-mail message last December. "He warns me that the greatest danger of war is not losing your life but the taking of others', and that human savagery is a very slippery slope."
Kerrey - who left the Senate in January and is now president of the New School University in New York - says he has spent the last three decades wondering if he could have done something different that night in Thanh Phong. "It's far more than guilt," he said that morning in 1998. "It's the shame. You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."
Kerrey laid the documents down. He was clearly unsettled not just by their contents but also by the realization that four members of his Seals team had already spoken about the mission. I had heard about Thanh Phong indirectly from one of those men, Gerhard Klann. Klann, the most experienced member of Kerrey's Seals squad, had been so disturbed by his memories of that night that he confided in a commander who, many years later, told the story to me. That in turn spurred the search for the documents. Those were found after a three-month examination of thousands of pages of classified and unclassified Seals reports and communiquÈs that had been boxed up since the war in the Navy's archives.
The after-action reports provided the first concrete evidence of the terrible events, which Kerrey had hardly addressed even in private conversation, and he reacted testily when asked about it. "There's a part of me that wants to say to you all the memories that I've got are my memories, and I'm not going to talk about them," he said. "We thought we were going over there to fight for the American people. We come back, we find out that the American people didn't want us to do it. And ever since that time we've been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don't like it. Part of living with the memory, some of those memories, is to forget them. I've got a right to say to you it's none of your damned business. I carry memories of what I did, and I survive and live based upon lots of different mechanisms."
This first meeting came at a complicated time for Kerrey, who was just days from announcing whether he would make a second run for the presidency and challenge Vice President Al Gore for the 2000 Democratic nomination. Handsome and charismatic, a crafty politician with a keen intellect, Kerrey was widely regarded as an attractive candidate. He was an outspoken Democrat with a strong appeal for independents. There was the glamour of his much-publicized love affair while governor of Nebraska with Debra Winger, the actress. And he was a war hero. Though he rarely wore it, he was a recipient of the Medal of Honor - awarded to him after he lost part of a leg during his last mission in Vietnam.
Kerrey knew that a race against an incumbent like Gore would be an uphill, nasty struggle. It was mostly this fact, he said, and doubts about his commitment to wage such a difficult campaign, that persuaded him to drop out, which he did just before Christmas. A little more than a year later, he would startle even his friends by announcing that he would not seek a third term in the Senate, despite overwhelmingly favorable poll numbers.
In an interview in January, Kerrey said that his actions in Vietnam had no bearing on his decision to drop out of elective politics, presidential or otherwise. He said he left politics simply because he wanted to pursue other challenges - particularly in education - while he was still relatively young.
Over the last two and a half years, Kerrey has spoken at length in three separate interviews - as well as in numerous telephone calls and several e-mail messages and over dinners - about what happened in Thanh Phong. After his initial reluctance, he talked willingly, and at times almost confessionally, about the events of Feb. 25, 1969. He did so "not because a public accounting will help me," he wrote in the December e-mail message, "but because it just might help someone else."
It became clear as he talked that he was still wrestling with the events of that night, fighting the vagaries of memory to reconstruct what happened in Thanh Phong and what he could have done to prevent it. He has spoken to very few people about the incident. As this article's publication neared, he began to talk to others, and first spoke publicly about his version of it 11 days ago in a speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. He says the men in his Seals team have only recently begun to discuss Thanh Phong with one another.
Kerrey says he isn't afraid to accept responsibility for the incident or to own up to his role in it. "The only motivating fear I have is that someday I will face my maker. The opinion of other human beings matters, but the less it motivates me the better." He is under no illusions about the repercussions. "It's going to be very interesting to see the reactions to the story. I mean, because basically you're talking about a man who killed innocent civilians."
In the winter of 1969, a couple of days after the New York Jets won the Super Bowl, a military plane lifted off from the sprawling North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, Calif. Crammed inside were Kerrey and his gung-ho team, on their way to do battle in Vietnam.
Seals (the name stands for Sea-Air-Land units) commandos began as underwater demolition teams in the Second World War. During the Vietnam era, they evolved into special forces units, trained to operate behind enemy lines, collect intelligence and carry out assassinations. Officially, Kerrey's group was called Delta Platoon, Seals Team One, Fire Team Bravo. Unofficially, they would be dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, in honor of their enthusiastic commanding officer, who was ready to take on Hanoi, as he has said many times, with "a knife in my teeth." Only two of the men, Mike Ambrose and Gerhard Klann, had previous experience on Seals teams in Vietnam. The others - William H. Tucker III, Gene Peterson, Rick Knepper, a medic named Lloyd Schreier and Kerrey himself - were flying into the unknown.
Delta Platoon was assigned to the Navy's Task Force 115, based at Cam Ranh Bay and commanded by Capt. Roy Hoffmann, a favorite of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the Navy's top man in Vietnam. Hoffmann was a cigar-chomping officer who brandished an M-16 assault rifle and wore a revolver when he visited troops in the field. "He was the classic body-count guy," Kerrey says. "Bunkers destroyed, hooches destroyed, sort of scorekeeper."
Captain Roy Hoffmann, center, Kerrey's swaggering commanding officer. "He was the classic body-count guy." Kerrey said.
For several weeks, Kerrey and his team operated in the relatively safe environs of Cam Ranh Bay, the Navy's largest base in what was then South Vietnam, about midway up the coast. Then they began looking for a true war mission. They moved south to Cat Lo, a regional Navy command post where one of Hoffmann's senior deputies, Paul Connolly, would oversee their missions. The Navy kept a fleet of "swift boats" a few miles away, in the port of Vung Tau - 50-foot, aluminum-skinned crafts equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns and twin 480-horsepower Detroit Diesels - that moved Kerrey's squad on missions in the Mekong Delta.
Vung Tau was the stepping-off point for operations in the "Thanh Phu Secret Zone," a remote section of the Mekong Delta, about 75 miles southeast of Saigon. A lush, tropical region of palm and banana trees, rice paddies and mangrove swamps, it was considered among the most dangerous parts of Vietnam. Five of its eight villages - including Thanh Phong - were said to be under the control of the rebel Vietcong forces, according to David Marion, then an Army captain who occupied one of the more sensitive posts in the region.
Marion was the senior American military adviser to Tiet Lun Duc, who, as the Thanh Phu district chief, was the top Vietnamese official in the area. Duc, a 45-year-old military officer trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, arrived three months before Kerrey did, determined to drive out the Vietcong by almost any means. Marion says that Duc, whose predecessors had been far more relaxed, came in with the attitude " 'If you are my friend, you will do fine. You support me and the government of Vietnam, we get along O.K. You do not, you're Vietcong, you die.' And those were the rules."
Duc wasn't the only one who wanted to get tough with the Vietcong. In the summer of 1968, Hoffmann complained to his superiors in Pearl Harbor that the prevailing rules of engagement were too constrictive. "This was war," Hoffmann said in an interview last month. "This wasn't Sunday school." He made what he said was a pro forma request for looser rules, which was granted.
Previously, Hoffmann said, military personnel had not been permitted to fire unless they were fired upon. Under the new rules, he said, they could attack if they felt threatened. "I told them you not only have authority, I damned well expect action," Hoffmann recalled. "If there were men there and they didn't kill them or capture them, you'd hear from me."
Duc also re-established much of the Thanh Phu district as a "free-fire zone," which allowed combat pilots and Navy warships to attack any "targets of opportunity," including people and villages, without prior command authority. Peasants in free-fire zones were urged to relocate to government refugee centers, called "strategic hamlets." It was a difficult task, Marion said last month, because "they had been there for generations. They weren't going to leave, and basically they didn't care who was in charge." Those who didn't move to the strategic hamlets were labeled as Vietcong or as enemy sympathizers.
Typically, Navy seals undertook kidnap or assassination missions, looking to eliminate Vietcong leaders from among the local population. These were called "takeouts," Marion says, as in, "come out with me, or you die." Within weeks of Kerrey's arrival in Cat Lo, American and Vietnamese intelligence reported that the senior Vietcong leader in Thanh Phong, the "village secretary," was planning a meeting in the area. Effectively the mayor of the hamlet, the village secretary was a prime target, and Kerrey's squad began planning a "takeout" mission - their first real action.
Thanh Phong was a village of between 75 and 150 people on the South China Sea. Too small to have a well-defined center, or even a school, it consisted of groups of four or five hooches - the thatch huts peasants lived in - strung out over about a third of a mile of shoreline. On Feb. 13, 1969, according to Seals after-action reports, Kerrey's team entered a section of Thanh Phong, searched two hooches and "interrogated 14 women and small children," looking for the village secretary. They departed on a swift boat the next day, then returned to the general area later that night only to abort because of a malfunctioning radio.
In interviews this year, Kerrey says he can't recall going to Thanh Phong that first time, about two weeks before the night of the killings. Yet the after-action reports from these two visits contain Kerrey's name, the date and the location. And in the 1998 conversation, Kerrey clearly recalled this earlier mission to Thanh Phong, when his Seals team found villagers "asleep with no men in the area." If the reports and Kerrey's first recollections are correct, then they must have had a pretty good idea of the situation they would face when they went back.
Kerrey's squad would not return until Feb. 25, when intelligence sources again indicated that the village secretary would be holding a meeting, this time with a Vietcong military leader. A day or two before the fatal mission, Kerrey says, he flew over Thanh Phong with a naval intelligence officer and saw no women or children.
On Feb. 25, the district chief, Tiet Lun Duc, issued a blunt warning to the area's villagers. This was in response to an atrocity, Marion says, in which two Vietcong were said to have thrown a grenade into a hooch at 2 a.m., killing a 5-year-old and wounding a number of others. Reading from an official daily log he kept while in Vietnam, Marion quotes Duc as saying: "We want people to be government of Vietnam. Come out with us, and we will take this area back. You who do not come out, we will consider you to be Vietcong. You are the enemy. You will die."
An exact reconstruction of the events surrounding Kerrey's mission that night, 32 years after the fact, may not be entirely possible. Memories can be vague, and the trauma of such an intense episode can cause the mind to block out or alter major details. "It's entirely possible that I'm blacking a lot of it out," Kerrey said in an interview this month. Even so, official Navy records, Army radio logs found at the National Archives and interviews with some of Kerrey's team members leave no doubt that sometime close to midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, the tiny hamlet of Thanh Phong was visited with terrible and indiscriminate killing by Fire Team Bravo.
There are starkly different versions of what happened on the raid. In Kerrey's, the killings were by and large carried out in self-defense. By his own admission, however, his memory is faulty. "Please understand," he said in an e-mail message last December, "that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire."
Another version, given by Kerrey's most experienced commando, Gerhard Klann, is far more troubling. It is consistent with the accounts given in interviews with one Vietnamese woman who claims to have witnessed the whole tragedy and with two people who say they are relatives of the victims. The interviews in Vietnam were conducted by producers for "60 Minutes II."
Mike Ambrose, today an executive with a Texas deep-sea-diving firm, offers another account, one that alternately supports Kerrey and Klann (who now lives in Pennsylvania, where he works in a steel mill). None of the others on the team would speak in any detail about the incident. Gene Peterson, who is retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was a detective, and Lloyd Schreier, who runs a ranch in eastern Oregon, said simply that they did nothing wrong. William Tucker, who works on a ground crew for American Airlines in Dallas, didn't want to talk, either. He did say that as they were leaving Thanh Phong on the swift boat after the killings, he turned to Kerrey and said, "I don't like this stuff." Kerrey, he says, replied, "I don't like it, either." Rick Knepper, who retired after 30 years with the Seals, also declined to comment, saying: "My time in Vietnam was too hard to talk about. Please leave me alone."
William Tucker and Gerhard Klann, the most experienced of Kerrey's commandos
Kerrey says it was a moonless night when his raiders quietly took up positions on the shore not far from Thanh Phong. After being dropped off by swift boat, they sat motionless for a while, adjusting to the darkness and listening for possible enemy fighters. The blackness of the night gave them good cover.
As they moved out, Kerrey says, they followed their regular patrol routine. Ambrose, as "point man," went first, with Schreier, Kerrey and Klann close behind, followed by Knepper and Peterson. Tucker brought up the rear. They were armed with M-16 rifles, 9-millimeter side arms, knives, phosphorous grenades, disposable rocket launchers and a heavy machine gun that Klann carried, called a stoner.
They were closing in on the village when they came upon a hooch that hadn't shown up on their intelligence reports. Kerrey says he remembers Ambrose and Klann coming back to him and one of them saying, "We've got some men here, we have to take care of them."
In an interview this month, Kerrey, while taking responsibility for the killings, says he did not specifically order them. "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with," he said. "Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission." Kerrey said he viewed the Vietnamese, who he thought were men, as "security, as outposts. It does not work to merely bind and gag people, because they're going to get away." They used knives, Kerrey says, evidently to avoid betraying their presence with gunshots. Kerrey says he never saw who was inside the hooch and denies doing any of the killing himself. He also doesn't recall finding any weapons.
With the first hooch taken care of, the team then began moving along a dike that would take them into Thanh Phong. They crept along for about 15 minutes until they arrived at a group of four or five hooches, Kerrey says, identifiable only by the faint yellow light flickering inside.
At this point, Kerrey said in the 1998 interview, "we took fire from the target." An after-action report says the team "received several rounds from about 100 yards." Speaking this month, Kerrey said he couldn't be absolutely certain that shots were fired. "I don't know if it's noise," he said. "In fact, there is some dispute. Ambrose is certain we took fire." And in the fog of war, it's often hard to tell what is happening. "I was thinking there were a thousand guys over there," he said in January. "What do I know? The first thing I do is direct Knepper to return fire with a LAW," a disposable launcher designed to shoot rockets that pierce armor and explode. Then, Kerrey says, he gave the order for his men to open fire as they advanced on the hooches. Before the firing stopped, according to one of the Seals' after-action reports, the commandos had expended 1,200 rounds of ammunition.
The barrage lasted for only a few minutes as they made their way into the cluster of hooches. "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," Kerrey said in 1998. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children." Sometime later, Kerrey says, they saw several people running away and took them out as well; according to one after-action report, there were seven killed. In the dark, they could not see if the dead were men or women.
It was not only a grisly scene but also a confusing one. It was no secret in Vietnam that hooches had earthen bunkers beneath them or nearby. At the first sign of trouble, the peasants would roll into the bunkers and hide. Often, they would just sleep in them.
Kerrey remembers finding the bodies in a group, though he doesn't know why they were clustered together. Maybe, he suggests, somebody had rounded them up. "Maybe there were guys in there that made them get into that position then got out themselves," Kerrey says. "But I don't know. It's significant that there are no men in the village. It's not a small item."
If Kerrey's story is accurate, then someone would have to have roused the women and children, gathered them into a group in the middle of the village, retreated to safety and then fired a few shots at Kerrey's squad. Another possibility is that upon hearing rifle fire the villagers did not dive into their bunkers - as they were trained to do - but for some reason ran into open ground and gathered together in a group.
In either case, it is hard to imagine that gunfire from 100 yards - no matter how intense - could kill every single member of a group of 14 or 15 people. Some would be expected to survive, particularly when the squad was shooting in the dark and in apparent panic.
But, as Kerrey says, memory is always a liar. That is what happened on Feb. 25, 1969, as he remembers it.
Gerhard Klann tells a much different story. Klann has long been haunted by memories of that night and confided in a former Seals captain in the 1980's in hopes of getting the killings off his chest. But Klann was reluctant to discuss the incident with me, ignoring two letters and numerous telephone calls over a period of about six months. After I drove out to his home in western Pennsylvania, however, he relented and began to tell his story, providing key information that helped to unearth the documents in the naval archives.
Klann, who immigrated to this country from Germany as a child, comes from a long line of German military men. He says he has come forward now to "cleanse my soul" of a deed that goes against his "moral fiber" as a soldier. He served with distinction in a 20-year Seals career and was among the first to be handpicked for an elite counterterrorism team known as Seal Team Six, which was established in 1980 while Americans were being held hostage in Iran.
Klann was known as a brawling, hard-drinking sort - he was demoted once for fighting. (His former classification was later restored.) People who know him say they have never detected any animus for Kerrey, and he is repeatedly described by associates in positive terms, though two did mention alcohol. "He coped with the memory of that night with excessive drinking," says his former commanding officer, who adds, "I never saw alcohol interfere with Gerhard's duty."
In 1999 Klann was stopped by a trooper for alcohol-related reasons, which Klann says was an isolated incident following the death of a close friend. Klann objected vehemently to The Times's publishing this fact, which is in the public record. In anger, Klann said that if it was published, he would disavow his version of the Thanh Phong killings, despite his having described it in numerous interviews with The Times and with "60 Minutes II."
Klann's version of events in Thanh Phong was independently supported by an interview with a Vietnamese woman, Pham Tri Lanh, that was conducted by a "60 Minutes II" cameraman who was not familiar with Klann's account. Klann and Lanh - who repeated her account in subsequent interviews with producers for "60 Minutes II" - tell a story that agrees on the basic sequence of events and several of the critical details. The divergence from Kerrey's account begins with the first hooch, the one that hadn't shown up on the intelligence reports.
Klann says that at the first hooch - where, in Kerrey's recollection, he was told there were only men - were an older man, a woman about his age and three children under 12. Ambrose says that he saw an older man near the entrance and two women and two men inside. "I motioned for Klann to take him out," Ambrose says of the older man. Klann, in an interview with "60 Minutes II," says Kerrey gave the order to kill.
Klann says he grabbed the man, placed his hand over his mouth and took him away from the children so they couldn't see what he was about to do. "I stuck him here," he says, pointing to a spot just below his rib cage. "Then I did it again," pointing to his upper back. The man turned and grabbed Klann's forearm, the one with the knife, and pushed it away. "He wouldn't die. He kept moving, fighting back." Klann says he signaled for assistance and, as Ambrose watched, Kerrey came over and helped push the man to the ground. Kerrey put his knee on the man's chest, Klann says, as Klann drew his knife across his neck.
Klann says he doesn't remember exactly what happened next. He says that while he was taking out the man, some of the other squad members killed the rest - the woman and the three children.
Kerrey, in all his interviews until this month, said he had no memory whatsoever of the killing of the old man. But when told about the recollections of Klann and Ambrose, Kerrey added to his account. He now says he remembers Klann having trouble with someone but insists he had no role in the violent death. "He was having difficulty killing one of the people that he was trying to kill."
Kerrey says he thinks he knows who came to Klann's assistance but refuses to "finger" him. "We were all near the first hooch, but I'm not killing these people. I'm 100 percent positive," Kerrey said in the interview this month. "I don't want to lay anything off on anybody. I'm a lieutenant in charge of this platoon, and I take responsibility."
Klann was adamant that it was Kerrey who held the old man down; and Ambrose, in an interview in 1998, was certain of it, too. But this month, Ambrose had second thoughts. "Maybe it was Bob," he now says.
As for the four others killed that night at the first hooch, Kerrey says that it was Klann and Ambrose who did the killing. The rest of the men "were back with me," he said in a telephone call this month. Ambrose refused to return repeated calls for comment on this aspect of Kerrey's account.
The Vietnamese woman, Pham Tri Lanh, says that she witnessed all the killings. Then 30 years old and the wife of a Vietcong fighter, she says that she quickly snuck up on the scene at the first hooch after hearing cries. "I was hiding behind a banana tree, and I saw them cut the man's neck, first here and then there," she says. "His head was still attached at the back." She says that she also saw the commandos kill what she remembers as a woman and three children with their knives.
Lanh says the man and woman were the grandparents of the three young children. A woman claiming to be a relative of these victims took the "60 Minutes II" producers to a graveyard where a man named Bui Van Vat, his wife, Luu Thi Canh, and, in three small graves, their grandchildren - two girls and a boy - are buried. The date on the adults' gravestones, which were erected 10 years after the fact, is Feb. 24, 1969. (There is no further evidence that these five were in fact killed by Kerrey's squad.)
When the killing in the first hooch was done, Ambrose says, "me, Klann and Bob talked. 'Do we abort or do we go on?' There was plenty of noise in the first location. I felt compromised." The noise, apparently, was the screaming of the victims. Ambrose says that he recommended turning back to the extraction point but was overruled by the other team members, who wanted to get the village secretary.
About 15 minutes later, the team arrived at the cluster of hooches. But here, again, Klann's and Kerrey's versions diverge markedly. Kerrey says that they were shot at and returned fire from a distance of 100 yards or more. But Klann says that the squad rounded up women and children from a group of hooches on the fringes of the village. Klann says that they questioned them about the whereabouts of the village secretary. A quick search of the hooches turned up nothing.
Tucker, Klann and Ambrose. After the raid, Tucker told Kerrey. " I don't like this stuff. Kerrey replied, " I don't like it, either."
Klann says that the commandos were in a quandary over their captives. They were deep in enemy territory with 15 or so people they felt they could not take prisoner. Yet, if they let the people go, they might alert enemy soldiers. "Our chances would have been slim to none to get out alive," Klann says.
They debated their options, Klann says, and finally decided to "kill them and get out of there." Lanh, who had been checking to see that her children were safe, says she crept close enough to witness what happened next. Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting - raking the group with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds. They heard moans, Klann says, and began firing again, for another 30 seconds.
There was one final cry, from a baby. "The baby was the last one alive," Klann says, fighting back tears. "There were blood and guts splattering everywhere." Klann does not recall the men firing at the people who, in Kerrey's memory and the after-action reports, tried to run away after the initial massacre.
Klann, a large man at 6-foot-2 and about 230 pounds, pauses a moment, once again reliving the night's events. Pointing to his heart, he says: "I have to live with this in here. I still can't get it out of my mind. I'd take it back if I could, everybody would."
While Klann's version accounts for why the women and children died in a group, it, too, suffers from inconsistencies. It is not clear, for example, why the squad thought that noisily gunning down 13 people in a settled area would improve their prospects of making their retreat undetected. It also isn't clear why, having questioned the villagers two weeks before, releasing them and retreating without incident, they this time felt that releasing the captives would pose a danger.
Klann provides one clue to the Seals team's thinking on the second point. The first time in Thanh Phong, they were just asking questions. On the second visit, they had already killed the people at the first hooch and may have been concerned about leaving witnesses who could place them in the vicinity that night. "We had already compromised ourselves by killing the other people," Klann says.
When asked in 1998 about Klann's account of the events of that night, Kerrey said, "It's not my recollection of how it happened." But, he added: "I'm not going to make this worse by questioning somebody else's memory of it. But you would operate independently in this kind of situation. I mean, it would not surprise me if things were going on away from my line of sight that were different than what I was doing."
When asked again earlier this month, and after reassessing his memories, Kerrey began to qualify his original story. "It's possible that a slight version of that happened," Kerrey says, responding to Klann's account. "It's possible that some additional firing occurred after the main firing. Yeah, that's possible. But, boy, it's not my memory of it."
(Later, after that interview and as we were departing, Kerrey attacked Klann's credibility. He said that Klann was angry that Kerrey hadn't helped him get a Medal of Honor for his mission in Iran. "It's every man for himself now," Kerrey said. Klann, who says he harbors no ill will, says Kerrey urged him this month not to talk about Thanh Phong. Kerrey denies it.)
Ambrose, in a recent interview, "wholeheartedly" denied Klann's contention that the team rounded up the villagers and slaughtered them. Though he says his memory of the night has dimmed, he remembers bursting into one of the hooches to find only women. When he left the hooch, he says he remembers that "we took a round somewhere near the back by Knepper and Peterson. Somebody yelled incoming. Once we received fire, we immediately fired."
Then, he says, things got out of hand. "It got ridiculous pretty much once the guns got going. I was in survival mode. It was dark, you're not seeing much but movement and shadows. You couldn't tell if they were women or men." He says they were shooting from 20 to 50 feet, and when they stopped, he realized the dead were women and children.
Once the squad had been extracted from Thanh Phong, says William Garlow, the swift boat's commander, he and one of the squad, possibly Kerrey, each radioed an after-action report to Connolly, their operational commander in Cat Lo. The message from Kerrey's squad made no mention of civilians, saying only that they had killed 21 Vietcong. This report was sent to Hoffmann and to various other commanders. Within a day of the mission, however, reports from villagers about "alleged atrocities" in Thanh Phong began to surface in the radio communications at Marion's Army headquarters, and Marion's office began a preliminary investigation.
Army radio logs found at the National Archives include a transmission from 8 p.m. on Feb. 27, 1969: "Be advised an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC. Navy Seals operating in the area. Investigation continues." This is just a message, not an official report, so the number of dead varies from other totals.
Connolly says he responded to Army inquiries that the killings were accidental, that Kerrey's team shot people who were running and that they couldn't tell gender or age in the darkness. Connolly says, however, that he never asked Kerrey about the killings. His response, he says, was based on conversations with various naval personnel, though he couldn't recall who.
By the time of the first Army messages about something dire happening in Thanh Phong, Kerrey and his Seals team were already hundreds of miles away. Garlow's boat had transferred them to the Coast Guard cutter PT Comfort, which whisked them out of the area and back up the coast to Hoffmann's headquarters.
Though Hoffmann sent reports about the incident to his bosses, he says he cannot recall anything about what happened or even that it occurred. His messages, however, generated an "attaboy" letter of congratulation to Kerrey's Raiders from a senior Navy officer. Apparently, the matter ended there, without further investigations. For the mission, the Navy awarded Kerrey a Bronze Star. "I certainly have never bragged that I won a Bronze Star on that evening," Kerrey says. "I don't feel like I did anything heroic that evening. Quite the contrary."
Nine months later, news broke about the slaughter of at least 350 innocent villagers at My Lai by forces under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. Calley, who would ultimately be convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 unarmed civilians, was sentenced to life at hard labor but served only three years under house arrest at Fort Benning. My Lai was a watershed, an event that finally convinced great segments of the American public that the Vietnam War was immoral, if not unwinnable. And in February 1970, about a year after Thanh Phong, a five-man Marine patrol entered the hamlet of Son Thang, about 20 miles south of Danang, and killed 16 women and children. The marines were charged with murder and prosecuted. Two of the accused, including the leader, were acquitted; one was given immunity and two were convicted of murder. Neither served more than 10 months in jail.
Gary Solis, a war-crimes expert at the United States Military Academy at West Point who wrote a book on Son Thang, says that atrocities were more common in Vietnam than we knew. While there were 122 convictions for war crimes in Vietnam, he says, "In my opinion, war crimes occurred that were never reported."
Did Kerrey and his men commit crimes of war, or were they just applying the basic rules of a dirty war as best they understood them? "Let the other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war," Kerrey says. "Let them figure that out. I mean, I can make a case that it was."
The Army's Field Manual is explicit. Though it is an Army instruction, it represents United States policy regarding the law of armed conflict and is applicable to all the services. According to the manual: "A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces. It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation, even in the case of airborne or commando operations, although the circumstances of the operation may make necessary rigorous supervision of and restraint upon the movement of prisoners of war."
While there may be some room for interpretation in the policy, Walter Rockler, a semiretired lawyer in Washington who was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, says, "The basic rule is that in enemy territory you don't kill civilians, particularly unarmed civilians."
Kerrey insists that no matter what version is correct, his squad's actions would have been permitted under the rules then in effect. "Under the unwritten rules of Vietnam, we would have been justified had we not been fired upon," he said in 1998. "You were authorized to kill if you thought that it would be better. If you thought it would be better to bring them out, you were authorized to bring them out." This month Kerrey said flatly, "We were instructed not to take prisoners."
"Standard operating procedure" was widely understood to mean that, in a free-fire zone, any man was considered a "target of opportunity" and could be killed. Yet, there were other considerations. "It was quite clear what he wanted," Kerrey says of his commanding officer, Hoffmann. "He wanted hooches destroyed and people killed." Hoffmann agrees but says he never intended for his men to kill innocent women or children. But in Vietnam, he adds, it was hard to distinguish between guerrillas and noncombatants. Kerrey underscores that point. "There are people on the wall," he says, referring to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, which lists the names of all the Americans who died in Vietnam, "because they didn't realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun."
Kerrey has spoken generally about the practical problems officers face in these situations. The commander's first consideration, he said, is the safety of his men. "With seven men operating, one goes down and you've got two carrying him," he says. "It doesn't take much in the way of casualties to put you in considerable risk of losing everybody."
Several officers, even some under Hoffmann's command, said the rules then in effect allowed for too much violence. William Garlow says he and his fellow swift-boat commanders were ordered to shoot up villages almost at random. "We burned their hooches and killed their livestock," he says. Even one of Hoffmann's senior commanders in Cat Lo says the killing became indiscriminate. "I hated it," says the former officer, who requested anonymity.
Clearly, the official rules of war were abstract for a terrified Seals squad operating in the anarchy of the Vietnam War. We "were given a hell of a lot more latitude than we should have been. . . . " Kerrey said in 1998. "It was generally believed that you did what you had to do to protect your men. We were basically writing the rules as we went. My hope going in was that everything was fair game. Going out I did not believe that."
Bob Kerrey was a more cautious commander when he went on his next big operation. On March 14, 1969, Kerrey's Raiders were sent on another abduction mission, this time to snatch a small group of Vietcong on Hon Tam Island in Cam Ranh Bay. Kerrey says he had already decided that anybody they came upon would be taken prisoner. After scaling a 350-foot, near-vertical cliff, the men prepared their attack. But things went wrong almost from the start, partly because of Kerrey's determination to avoid a situation in which he would have to choose between killing and taking prisoners. Eventually the Vietcong realized the Seals were closing in and opened fire. In the ensuing intense battle, a grenade exploded at Kerrey's feet.
Lloyd Schreier, the Seals medic, dressed Kerrey's wounds as best he could and pumped him full of morphine. Kerrey was then flown by helicopter to the 26th Field Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, then on to a Navy hospital in Philadelphia.
When Bob Kerrey awoke from surgery, he saw his mother and father sitting at the end of the bed. The surgeons had removed the lower part of his right leg below the knee. Kerrey had joined the Navy Seals, an elite corps that required irrefutable physical strength. Now he was disabled, physically and emotionally. And he was lost, confused and angry at his country.
He told the excruciating story of Thanh Phong to his mother, then to a minister and, later, to his first wife. His mother cried as she held her son, telling him that he would be O.K. And he would be, eventually. Yet, "I cannot be what I once was," he says. "Carefree, no nightmares, no pain, no remorse, no regrets, feeling in church like God was smiling warmly down upon me as if I was the most special thing on earth. That's what it was before, and that's not the way it is now."
When Kerrey learned that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, he says he had severe doubts about accepting it. He didn't think he deserved it, he says, and he felt like a pawn in Nixon's war. "The medal was given to me within days of the invasion of Cambodia. . . . I felt like I was being used, . . . flagged. You know, to take the edge off the horrible experiences." But he accepted it, he says, for the sake of all members of the Seals.
After recovering from his wounds, he drifted for a bit in California, taking courses at Berkeley. Within a year he was home in Nebraska, getting involved in antiwar protests. He married, had two children, tried his hand at the restaurant business and, later, opened a health club. Before long he was a wealthy man. Then he surprised most everyone by running for governor of Nebraska. In 1982, as a political novice who supported gay rights in conservative Nebraska, he narrowly beat the incumbent, Gov. Charles Thone. But in 1985, with his poll numbers above 70 percent, he decided to step down after one term.
He returned to California and assisted Walter Capps, a fellow Nebraskan who was teaching a course on the Vietnam War at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The course became a gathering place where prominent veterans would come to talk about the war. Kerrey was still bitter about Vietnam and haunted by Thanh Phong. In a speech Kerrey gave to the class that was later published in a book that Capps edited, Kerrey compared life on the farm to his actions in Vietnam. "Around the farm, there is an activity that no one likes to do. Yet it is sometimes necessary. When a cat gives birth to kittens that aren't needed, the kittens must be destroyed. And there is a moment when you are holding the kitten under the water when you know that if you bring that kitten back above the water it will live, and if you don't bring it back above in that instant the kitten will be dead. This, for me, is a perfect metaphor for those dreadful moments in war when you do not quite do what you previously thought you would do."
In Santa Barbara Kerrey made another spur-of-the-moment decision, this time to run for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska. The incumbent had died, leaving the seat open to challenge in November 1988. Kerrey put together a series of patriotic, Reagan-style, morning-in-America-type commercials and stuck to positive themes. He won easily.
In the Senate, Kerrey had a reputation as a maverick whom few of his colleagues truly understood. For his entire political career, he held his secret. In his Capitol Hill office, he kept an easel where he sometimes made collages using newspaper pictures of people in agony. He wrote poetry and painted in watercolors. In the center of one landscape watercolor, Kerrey wrote in black marker the words of Emily Dickinson.
Remorse is Memory awake,
Her companies astir, -
A presence of departed acts
At window and at door.
Its past set down before the soul,
And lighted with a match,
Perusal to facilitate
Of its condensed despatch.
Remorse is cureless, - the disease
Not even God can heal;
For 'tis His institution, -
The complement of Hell.
Sunday, April 29, 2001
'Defining and Tragic' Moment
Former senator Bob Kerrey and six members of his SEALs team released a statement disputing details of a Vietnam mission that were published in the New York Times Magazine Sunday. The full text follows:
April 28, 2001
Last evening six members of the SEAL team came together for the first time in 32 years to talk about what happened in Thanh Phong -- up to this point a private memory. Our reputations have been challenged about the events of February 25, 1969. We feel compelled to respond. Here is what happened:
On February 25, 1969, our SEAL team squad went on a mission to eliminate the local political leadership of the South Vietnamese communists in the area. Our intelligence sources told us they would be meeting in the village of Thanh Phong. We expected the meeting to be well protected by enemy security. Thanh Phong was behind enemy lines in what is known as a free-fire zone.
From the beginning the mission did not go as expected. We have individual memories of a night that was a defining and tragic moment for each of us. These individual memories have been made worse by individual emotion and the advance of time. We will never know all the details of that night but we do know these for certain.
At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected.
At the village we received fire and we returned fire.
One of the men in our squad remembers that we rounded up women and children and shot them at point-blank range in order to cover our extraction. That simply is not true. We know there was an enemy meeting in this village. We know this meeting had been secured by armed forces. We took fire from these forces and we returned fire. Knowing our presence had been compromised and that our lives were endangered we withdrew while continuing to fire.
In the Vietnam War gender and age distinctions were not always reliable indicators of who was a threat to your life. No order was given or received to execute innocent women, old men and children as has been described by some. We took fire and we returned fire. Our actions were in response to a dangerous situation that we know for certain could have resulted in our deaths.
We regret the results of this night. We might do things differently if we could do it over. But we cannot be certain. We were young men then and did what we thought was right and necessary.
-- Bob Kerrey, Rick Knepper, Lloyd Schrier, Gene Peterson, Mike Ambrose and William Tucker
By William Safire, , April 30, 2001
Medal of Honor winner and former Senator Bob Kerrey, joined by five members of the Navy Seal team sent into a free-fire zone in South Vietnam for the purpose of killing Vietcong Communist leaders, asserts that they were returning enemy fire on that dark night 32 years ago. To their lifelong dismay, their blazing response killed civilians of all ages.
One member of the team disagrees, claiming that Kerrey ordered deliberate murder. That lone account is supported by the wife of a Vietcong fighter, speaking with the approval of Vietnamese officials, whose story has already changed from what she said she "saw" to what she now tells reporters she "heard."
In our system of justice, the burden of proof is on the accuser and a presumption of innocence belongs to the accused. No hard evidence is offered to support this grave allegation. That is why the denial by the anguished Kerrey and his fellow veterans deserves respect. They have long been burdened by guilt at the mistaken wartime killings, but they are not murderers.
This story is another manifestation of the self-flagellation that led to the Vietnam Syndrome - that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat.
It is the pacifist position that holds Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon morally culpable to have helped the South Vietnamese defend their nation from Communist invaders from the north. The American elites that ducked the draft were right to refuse to get involved in somebody else's civil war, goes this voice. Many of those too poor or patriotic to arrange deferments to avoid service were shunned as killers on their return.
The national affliction called the Vietnam Syndrome carried this message: because war means killing, and because killing brutalizes and dehumanizes those charged with doing it, we should never again become involved in such a messy endeavor. Honoring commitments to allies? An excuse for imperialism. Containing the spread of Communist tyranny? One day the democratic and Communist systems would peacefully converge, we were assured; therefore, never hesitate to accommodate.
In commentary that followed the accusation of Kerrey and his men, the point was hammered home that never again must Americans be turned into savage brutes. Time magazine puts it this way: "Nations have no business sending their young into battle without lasting moral justification . . ."
In the 1960's, the majority of Americans agreed with three presidents and most in Congress that resisting the spread of Communism was morally justified. We saw a vast difference between free nations, with all their faults, and tyrannous regimes determined to gain control of their neighbors. Some of us, in our simplistic Manichaean way, saw democratic freedom as good and Communist despotism as evil.
That was America's moral justification for sending our troops to defend Europe in the cold war against a Soviet Union determined to dominate the world. That was why it was right to send troops to South Korea to defend it against Communist aggression from the north and later to send troops to South Vietnam to do the same.
We won two out of those three. Because America was ready to fight, Europe is free. Because Americans were united and limited war was successful in South Korea, that nation is free. But because we were divided and limited war failed in Vietnam, the people there now are unfree.
Ah, but the Syndrome's requirement is "lasting moral justification." If the justification does not last - that is, if we lose, or if real or imagined horrors surface decades later - then ex post facto morality kicks in and it becomes wrong to have sent our young into battle.
Partly to avoid late-hitting charges of individual brutalization and atrocity, military planners are banishing close combat in favor of long-range missiles and smart bombs from 15,000 feet. War by remote control means that more civilians may die but less guilt will be felt.
Some Vietnam heroes in the Senate condemn that conflict even as they forgive Kerrey and his team any possible transgression in the fog of war. Are there no voices left, after that costly loss of human life, to reject the Syndrome's humiliating accusation of national arrogance - and to recall a noble motive?
Kerrey Says Today He 'Cannot Justify' Killings in Vietnam Raid
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, April 26, 2001
NEW YORK (AP) - Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, after publicly acknowledging he led a squad that killed women and children during the Vietnam War, said Thursday that he did not plan to return the Bronze Star he was awarded after the incident.
"It's not my intent to do so,'' Kerrey told a crowded Manhattan news conference. "The medal has meant nothing to me. I put it away with other memories as far as I could.''
Kerrey, a Democrat who served as governor and senator from Nebraska and ran for president in 1992, publicly disclosed the incident this week. He said he has been haunted by the memory of the killings and has kept the details private, even from his children.
Once he told them, he said, "they told me they still love me.''
Kerrey received the Bronze Star for the Feb. 25, 1969, raid in the Mekong Delta. The award citation says 21 Viet Cong were killed and enemy weapons were captured or destroyed, though Kerrey has said he told his superiors there were civilian casualties.
Witness' and official accounts of the number of dead varies from 13 to more than 20.
Kerrey said he and his six-member squad began shooting only after they were shot at in a free-fire zone - an area cleared of civilians by the U.S. military. Anyone remaining was assumed by South Vietnamese and U.S. forces to be the enemy.
"It may be that I did nothing wrong,'' Kerrey said. "But I felt like I did something wrong. Here's what happened, and I cannot justify it.''
The incident was part of an effort to halt Viet Cong movements and activities in the Mekong Delta.
Kerrey, then 25, was a lieutenant leading an elite seven-man team of Navy SEALS. They were approaching an area where intelligence suggested a Viet Cong meeting was to take place.
As Kerrey and his men approached two huts on a dark, moonless night, they were fired upon and returned it on Kerrey's orders. Once the shooting stopped, they found that the only people killed were women, children and older men.
"We fired because we were fired upon,'' Kerrey said. "We did not go out on a mission to kill innocent people. I feel guilty about what happened.''
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Kerrey said he remains convinced that the information that prompted the raid was accurate and that the gunfire indicated the Viet Cong had spotted the Americans first. He said his team took no casualties but never got close enough to see Viet Cong.
"Were there only civilians? I don't know that. I don't know that there were not VC in there,'' he said.
Viet Cong troops generally wore the same black pajamas as Vietnamese peasants. Asked if he ever saw civilians and Viet Cong soldiers dressed differently, Kerrey replied, "No.''
A military radio log, reviewed by the AP at the National Archives, contains an entry dated three days after the incident. It says, in part, "an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to District Chief Headquarters with claims for retribution (sic) for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69 ... thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified assumed to be VC.''
Another squad member, Mike Ambrose, has said he believed the Viet Cong were firing from behind the women and children before fleeing.
Kerrey had remained silent on the incident until recently, when former squad member Gerhard Klann told ''60 Minutes II'' and The New York Times that Vietnamese civilians were herded into a group and massacred.
Kerrey said he does not know why his former colleague claims the civilians were gathered together and shot.
"I don't know his motive,'' Kerrey said.
But Kerrey said he would not challenge Klann's version of the shooting. He replied, "Oh, sure,'' when asked whether memories of such events fade or change with time.
Klann did not return a telephone call Thursday from the AP; neither did Lee "Doc'' Schrier, another member of Kerrey's squad.
Seventeen days after the incident, Kerrey earned the Medal of Honor - America's highest military honor - for directing an attack on a Viet Cong unit even after losing part of his right leg when a grenade exploded at his feet.
Kerrey, who recently became president of the New School University in New York, initially spoke about the incident April 18 at an ROTC leadership seminar at the Virginia Military Institute.
Kerrey denied that going public with the story now was intended to head off criticism should he run again for president. Turning to his wife, Sarah Paley, he asked, "Are we running?''
"No,'' she said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he knew of no plan for an investigation of the circumstances of the Bronze Star award, but did not
Bob Kerrey with his wife, Sarah Paley
Kerrey Defends Account of Navy Seals' Raid in Vietnam
By Amy Waldman, , April 27, 2001
Alternately anguished and angry, Bob Kerrey appeared at a Manhattan hotel yesterday to defend his recollection of a mission he led in Vietnam that resulted in the deaths of 13 to 20 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children.
The mission, which Mr. Kerrey had discussed with less than a handful of people in the three decades since he returned from Vietnam, is the subject of an article to appear this Sunday in The New York Times Magazine - now posted on The New York Times Web site (www.nytimes.com) - and of the CBS program "60 Minutes II" to be shown Tuesday.
Mr. Kerrey insisted, as he had in interviews the previous day, that his squad of Navy Seals, which had entered the Vietnamese village Thanh Phong to capture a Vietcong leader, had fired only after being fired on, and then discovered that the dead were unarmed civilians.
Another member of his squad, Gerhard Klann, has offered a different version of events from the Feb. 25, 1969, raid. He said that the squad, feeling it could not otherwise retreat safely, executed a group of women and children it had rounded up in the village, in the Mekong Delta.
Asked why, if the incident was a mistake born of the fog of war, he felt such anguish and guilt, Mr. Kerrey, who lost a leg in Vietnam, won a Medal of Honor for his service and went on to become the governor and a United States senator from Nebraska, said: "I don't know - it may be that I did nothing wrong. But I have not been able to justify it militarily or morally."
Mr. Kerrey, 57, is now president of the New School University in Manhattan. Yesterday, the trustees of the university issued a statement offering their "unqualified support" to Mr. Kerrey.
"War is hell," the statement said. "We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with."
That agony was visible on Mr. Kerrey's face yesterday as he faced a roomful of print and television journalists at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers. He stood with his wife, Sarah Paley, before an American flag and read a prepared statement in which he said he had anguished over the mission for three decades, but that the shame he felt over it did not prevent him from seeing the facts. He stressed repeatedly that his squad had been operating in a "free-fire zone," and said he was certain his unit had been fired upon before returning fire.
"We did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people," said Mr. Kerrey, who was a 25-year-old lieutenant at the time. "I feel guilty because of what happened, not because of what we intended to do."
But he seemed unprepared for the barrage of questions that followed. Asked repeatedly whether he would return the Bronze Star he received for the mission, he said he did not intend to do so. "The medal has meant nothing to me," he said.
Mr. Kerrey said he had received the citation while he was in a hospital recovering from war wounds. "I put it, along with other memories," he said, "as far behind me as I possibly could, and went back to try to live a private life."
Asked why the citation for the military honor reported that 21 Vietcong had been killed on the mission, he said, "That's a question you've got to put to my superior officer." He said he had reported the civilian deaths to his commanding officer.
"I didn't campaign either on the Bronze Star or the Medal of Honor," said Mr. Kerrey, a onetime presidential candidate. "I've never asserted I was a hero in the war."
At one point, Mr. Kerrey said: "You're asking too much of me. I'm in the early stages of telling this story. I'm trying to deal with it."
To another questioner who said he had had more than 30 years to decide how he felt about the events in question, Mr. Kerrey snapped: "I'm sorry. For the first 10 years of my life I was just trying to figure out how to get healthy again."
One questioner began by saying, "As a potential commander in chief?"
Mr. Kerrey interrupted: "I am not a potential commander in chief."
Asked more directly later if he was ruling out a run for president in 2004, Mr. Kerrey, a Democrat, turned to his wife, who is pregnant. "Sweetheart, are we ruling out a run?" he asked.
Ms. Paley nodded yes.
Mr. Kerrey seemed torn as to how to respond to Mr. Klann's version of events. He said yesterday that when part of his leg was blown off by a grenade in a mission less than a month after the Thanh Phong mission, it was Mr. Klann who held him until he could be evacuated.
Asked how to reconcile their versions of the events, Mr. Kerrey said, "I don't know that you ever can."
Kerrey says he 'struggled' with Vietnam mission
NEW YORK (CNN) April 26, 2001 - Former Sen. Bob Kerrey defended a 1969 Vietnam war mission Thursday, expressing sadness for women and children that were killed in the nighttime mission and saying he had "struggled" with his actions since that time.
"Every person who has gone to war has struggled with the question of, 'did he do it right?' and I have struggled with that question privately since February of 1969," Kerrey, a Democrat who represented Nebraska in the Senate, said in a news conference in New York.
The development was the latest in what appears to be a growing controversy over a 1969 Vietnam War mission in which Kerrey participated. The mission, which claimed the lives of women and children, has come to new light after another Navy SEAL involved in it claimed his squad, acting on Kerrey's orders, rounded up people and intentionally killed civilians.
"I feel guilty because of what happened, not because of what we intended to do," Kerrey said. He said he and other members of his SEAL unit were fired upon in the nighttime mission.
"We received fire, returned it and (later) found that apparently, only innocent civilians were killed," he said.
Wednesday, on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports," Kerrey said he felt "anguish and guilt" about those killed in the mission, but he denied a report the civilians were deliberately shot.
But Kerrey said those killings were a mistake, that his Navy SEAL team had been told only enemy personnel were in that particular village in the Mekong Delta on February 25, 1969. He said they were told Viet Cong were holding a district-level meeting at the site on a moonless night.
"We expected it to be a very difficult mission, and we met some people we believed were the outpost and we killed them," Kerrey told Blitzer on Wednesday.
"And then (we) went on and took fire where we expected this meeting to occur and we returned very lethal fire and when the firing was over, all we had was women and children that are dead," he said.
Kerrey's wartime heroics have been central to his political biography. But the 1969 incident, which earned him a Bronze Star for "heroic achievement," was a tragic mistake that has haunted him for 32 years.
The citation for the medal reads: "The net result of his patrol was twenty-one Viet Cong killed, two hootches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured."
Kerrey decided to come forward when he learned that one of his SEAL squad members on that mission had given a different account during a joint interview with The New York Times and CBS News. Gerhard Klann said the squad, acting on Kerrey's orders, rounded up people and intentionally killed civilians.
Kerrey said that account, which the Times will publish Sunday in its magazine, is incorrect.
"I love Gerhard," Kerrey said. "We've talked to one another over the past 32 years. He's never expressed anything of the kind to me over that period of time."
"But that is not the way it happened. I organized this mission, I flew the area before. It was a free-fire zone, that much Gerhard and I agree on," he said. A free-fire zone allows attack without prior command authority.
Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator, now is president of the New School University in New York.
"There were enemy operating in the area and even though there were civilian casualties, I had every reason to believe they were at least sympathetic to the Viet Cong and at the very worst, participating in lethal force against Americans."
Although Kerrey and his political allies have long touted the Medal of Honor he was awarded for his actions in a different battle, he has rarely, if ever, talked about what he did to earn a Bronze Star as a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant. In fact, nowhere in Kerrey's official biography is the Bronze star even mentioned.
But Kerrey denies that his new admission about the incident is a political ploy aimed at heading off future attacks about his activities in Vietnam should he make a run for the White House in 2004. He was a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992.
"I'm married now, I've got a baby due in the fall and I'm very happy with my life. But I do want to take what has been a difficult public memory and talk about it," he said.
"He is so focused on his wife, on a new baby that is coming, on his new job as president (of the New School), he didn't mention to me politics," Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, told CNN Thursday, in recalling his conversation in a recent lunch with Bob Kerrey. "He is so relieved to be doing something different for a while, and that's what he wants to do.
"Unfortunately, everybody always sees everything that any of us do only in a political context. I can assure you that right now ... elective office is the farthest thing on a personal level from Bob Kerrey's mind."
"It was brutal, it was tough, but war is brutal and tough," John Kerry, also a Vietnam veteran, said.
Friday, April 27, 2001
A VETERAN'S VIEW
Bob Kerrey, War Hero
If you've never seen combat, don't be quick to judge.
BY John McCain
For a long time many Americans thought the Vietnam War was a bad war. The citizen soldiers who defeated the fascists in Europe and the Pacific were ennobled by their service in a good war. Vietnam veterans fighting communists were not.
In a good war mistakes are seldom made. No one lies. Breakdowns in discipline that lead to atrocities never occur. The righteousness of the cause sanctifies the experience of all who fought in it. In a bad war everyone lies. Innocents are slaughtered. Villages are destroyed to save them. Combatants are corrupted. Casualties in a good war are martyrs. In a bad war they are the wages of sin.
But this notion, as a veteran of any war can attest, is simplistic and completely wrong.
All wars occasion much heroism and nobility, but they all have their corruptions, which is what makes war a thing worth avoiding if possible. I hated my enemies even before they held me captive because hate sustained me in my devotion to their complete destruction and helped me overcome the virtuous human impulse to recoil in disgust from what had to be done by my hand. I dropped many bombs in Vietnam, and I wish I could say that they only destroyed military targets. But surely noncombatants were among the casualties.
The combatant, who may be a righteous, God-fearing, lovely human being, must become inhumane day after day if he is to do what his country has asked him to do. The injunction to love all as we would be loved is the first casualty of war, any war. Wars are that awful, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a fraud.
That does not mean that we should forget our humanity. Our experience does not absolve us of our moral obligations, but they can be very hard to keep, given the extraordinarily difficult and conflicting expectations imposed on us: to kill and to be good.
Good men, heroes, make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes have the most terrible consequences imaginable. We should not be spared criticism for them, but it is unlikely that the judgments made by others will be as severe as our own regret.
My friend Bob Kerrey made a mistake in Vietnam. He was sent into a free-fire zone to kill for his country, and he helped kill the wrong people. Those who now judge him must follow the dictates of their conscience. But unless you too have been to war, please be careful not to form your judgment of him on your understanding of what constitutes a war hero. They are not the Hollywood copy you might expect.
Bob received a Bronze Star for his action that night. He would be the first to agree that his conduct, no matter how unintentional, did not merit commendation. But his conduct on another night, one month later, won him the decoration our country bestows on only her greatest heroes. And were you to read the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor, you would know beyond a doubt he earned it.
When he came home from Vietnam, like many others, Bob Kerrey tried to bury his dead. He did not want to remember, much less talk about, a lot of his experiences, especially his mistakes.
But there are ghosts you cannot bury, like our shame over those occasions when circumstances conspired with our own weakness to make an awful experience worse. If the fact that he recovered his humanity, that he felt remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country, does not strike some as adequate compensation for his mistake, it is enough for his salvation, and a harder task than most can imagine. That's a war hero, folks, a sinner redeemed by his sacrifice for a cause greater than his self-interest. That's Bob Kerrey, my friend and hero.
Mr. McCain is a U.S. senator from Arizona.
Gov. Sila M. Calderon of Puerto Rico, a keynote speaker at New School University's commencement on Wednesday, May, 23,2001, and former Senator Bob Kerrey, the university's president.
Commencements: Kerrey, at Ease, Presides at the Ceremony for New School University.
By Karen W. Arenson,, May 24, 2001
Minutes before New School University's commencement yesterday at Radio City Music Hall, Bob Kerrey, the former senator turned university president, was perched on a windowsill, garbed in a black academic robe.
Since the day in late April when he began to talk publicly about the fact that a mission he led in Vietnam had killed unarmed women and children, just days before its scheduled disclosure by the press, his life as president of New School University in New York has been stirred up by debate over his role in Vietnam. This month, the student government at the graduate faculty of political and social science called for his resignation.
But yesterday he looked relaxed and happy and said he was not concerned that the ceremony might be disrupted by protest.
"I've demonstrated with the best of them," he said, trotting out his own credentials as a protester and a supporter of liberal causes.
"But," he added with a mischievous grin, "I always hope something out of the ordinary happens."
Nothing did, unless you count the graduates' loud cheers, hardly unusual at graduations.
The ceremony was a festive, big- spirited affair under the soaring golden ceiling of the music hall. In front of the stage, the Mannes College of Music Brass Ensemble played lustily. (Mannes is one of the university's seven divisions.)
Mr. Kerrey, who was presiding at his first commencement, looked completely at ease. He gave no speech, other than to congratulate the graduates and welcome their guests, who included former Attorney General Janet Reno, there to watch her niece graduate.
The only visible protest sign was a small white placard calling for the United States military to stop bombing Vieques. The governor of Puerto Rico, Sila M. CalderÛn, was a keynote speaker at the ceremony.
The only mention of Vietnam in the two-hour ceremony was in the citation Mr. Kerrey read about Councilwoman Ronnie M. Eldridge, one of eight honorary degree recipients. Among her many accomplishments, Mr. Kerrey said, was work in "redesigning city agencies to accommodate the needs of Vietnam veterans."
Before the ceremony, some students outside the hall expressed support for Mr. Kerrey.
"Killing is what happens in wars," said Karin Wagner, who was graduating with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and said she had worked with Vietnam veterans.
"He expressed an honest sense of regret," she said. "His continuing as president is fine with me."
JoAnn Bello nodded emphatically. "We support him totally," she said.
But Kevin Bruyneel, who was graduating with a doctorate in political science, said he thought Mr. Kerrey should resign because his behavior was not consonant with the university's tradition in rescuing scholars from Nazi Germany.
"His career has been built on his being a war hero," Mr. Bruyneel said. "But his story has lots of holes in it, and he is being duplicitous."
Mr. Bruyneel said he planned to send an e-mail message to Mr. Kerrey and "ask him not to sign my diploma, but to have someone else do it, one of the trustees."
Although the school year is ending, Mr. Kerrey said the fuss over his actions was not over. "It is just moving to a new phase."
He plans to continue to meet and talk with people at the university who are questioning his actions, and hopes to use the debate as the focus of some events next year.
The university's trustees and other students and professors have voiced their support for him.
Mr. Kerrey has continued to circulate among students, attending receptions held by the university's divisions, which also include the Parsons School of Design; the Actors Studio Drama School; Eugene Lang College, the New School; and the Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy.
Mr. Kerrey said he did not plan to make a speech at commencement. "Graduation is not about my reflections on Vietnam," he said. "It is about the students' lives. It is a celebrating event."
Besides Ms. Eldridge and Ms. CalderÛn, the university also gave honorary degrees to Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group Investment Companies; and George Dawson, the grandson of slaves, who learned to read when he was 98 and last year published a memoir, "Life Is So Good" (Random House), written with Richard Glaubman.
Other honorary degree recipients were Elizabeth Murray, a painter; Daniel Urban Kiley, a landscape architect; and God's Love We Deliver, which provides meals and counseling to more than 1,000 people with H.I.V. and AIDS each day.
Nebraska Senator Decides He Won't Seek Third Term
By B. Drummond Ayres Jr.,, January 21, 2000
OMAHA, Jan. 20 - After two weeks of Hamlet-like pondering, Senator Bob Kerrey announced today that he had decided he could best serve the nation in the future as a private citizen and would not seek re-election to a third term, a decision that sharply diminished Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate this fall.
Mr. Kerrey, a 56-year-old liberal whose great popularity at home in Nebraska had made his re-election seem certain until he suddenly and publicly began pondering his future two weeks ago, said he intended to remain active in public affairs, but as a private citizen.
"It is a deeply personal decision," he said during a brief news conference at the Omaha Press Club. "But I feel my spiritual side needs to be filled back up."
He provided little elaboration beyond disclosing that until 11 p.m. Wednesday he had not made up his mind, swaying first one way and then the other.
"I had two statements in my pocket," he said, "one to stay and one to go."
But this much was clear in the wake of today's announcement: his decision to go, for whatever reason or reasons, left the Democratic Party in a bind. Republicans control the Senate 55 to 45 and now a seat that had seemed certain to stay Democratic, even though Nebraska tends to vote Republican, is up for grabs, and Democratic hopes of narrowing, or maybe even eliminating the 10-member gap, are considerably less bright.
Senator Kerrey said he was confident that a strong Democrat would emerge to run in his place.
At the same time, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, pledged in Washington that the party would put up a stiff fight to hang on to the seat.
Still, Mr. Daschle confessed, "I'm disappointed."
Mr. Kerrey, always a bit of a maverick on Capitol Hill but nevertheless something of a power player, said that while he was leaving public life for the moment, he very well might seek public office again. For that matter, he went on, should he be approached about becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee this year, a possibility that has been tossed about by others, he would "never say never."
He ran for president in 1992 but withdrew quickly after failing to win much support in the early primaries and caucuses. Then in early 1998, he said he might try another run for president in 2000, only to drop that idea six months later and announce he would seek a third term in the Senate. By the end of 1999, he had raised more than $3 million in campaign funds and seemed well on his way to victory.
But with the new year came sudden word from Mr. Kerrey that he wanted a change in his life, a life already full by any measure - combat service in Vietnam, where he won a Medal of Honor, followed by a career as a successful operator of restaurants and health clubs, a four-year tour as governor, a much publicized relationship with the actress Debra Winger and then a Senate career.
Asked what kind of change he was pondering, Mr. Kerrey said he was wrestling with the issue but never made clear just why he was wrestling, which only served to increase the attention given his struggle over whether to stay or not to stay.
Today's announcement and news conference shed little new light, beyond the senator saying that he first began thinking about a career change a month or so ago after the New School University in New York asked if he might be interested in being considered for its presidency, with other candidates.
Asked today whether he would take that job if offered - he dates a prominent New York screenwriter, Sara Paley - he replied elliptically that he was not that far along in his pondering. But whatever he does next, he said, he intends to keep close ties to Nebraska.
He said he was leaving the Senate deeply satisfied with the work he had done on agriculture, education, health, intelligence and military issues, particularly reform efforts. "Democracy is alive and well after all," he declared, hastening to add that unlike many Americans, he had not become cynical about politics and, in fact, had more confidence than ever in public institutions.
"As Lou Gehrig said in leaving baseball," he went on, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
While Mr. Kerrey said that he thought a strong Democratic candidate would emerge, only former Gov. Ben Nelson and former Representative John Cavanaugh were reported to be seriously thinking about getting into the race. On the Republican side the list includes Attorney General Don Stenberg; former Representative Jon Christensen; Mayor Hal Daub of Omaha; Tom Osborne, the former University of Nebraska football coach; and Elliott Rustad, a doctor.
Was Senator Kerrey truly serious about remaining involved in the nation's affairs?
The senator, who knows war better than most, replied that one of his favorite movies was "Patton," and he recalled that in one scene the general looks out over the carnage on a battlefield and mutters to himself, "God help me, I do love it."
That, the senator said, pretty well captured how he feels about staying involved in the fray over how to make America a better nation.
One Last Campaign, and Then It's Goodbye to All That
By Robin Toner,, January 31, 2000
WASHINGTON - For a man who recently announced that he was leaving public life, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was in the thick of the fray last week, making a scathing case against Vice President Al Gore and urging former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey to be more aggressive in doing the same.
It is just business, Mr. Kerrey insisted, nothing personal, noting that he had made a point of shaking Mr. Gore's hand on the night of the State of the Union address.
"He understands that it's politics," Mr. Kerrey said. "He said it's maddening sometimes, but it's part of the process." Mr. Kerrey, a 56-year-old Democrat, said he simply had to make a choice in the race for the Democratic nomination. And, he added, "I see in Bill Bradley the most uncorruptible politician I've ever met - and I like him."
Still, it is tempting to see Mr. Kerrey's impassioned campaigning in New Hampshire as one more chapter in a long-running feud between Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton - who, by the way, were bitter rivals for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.
"It's not true," Mr. Kerrey insisted again. "I don't dislike the president."
O.K., he did once describe Mr. Clinton as "an unusually good liar," but "that was in an interview, and frankly I didn't expect it to get out, and that's my own fault." Loaded in the Lexis-Nexis data banks, he said, "It sounds like I'm saying it all the time because it appears - and, by the way, it was in many people's minds a pretty good description of the president."
It was a deftly done dig-while-denying-personal-animus, something of a Washington art form. In fact, in this Friday morning interview, Mr. Kerrey does not seem like a burnout case, saying a weary farewell to politics, even though he declared less than two weeks ago, when he announced that he would not seek re-election, "I have a spiritual, interpersonal and creative cistern that needs to be filled back up."
Mr. Kerrey sighed. "That's an unfortunate statement. First of all, I loved the misinterpretation that occurred early. Some thought I said sister, not cistern, which is a whole subject all by itself." But Freudian slips aside, he said that his was not a case of spiritual death by politics.
"You don't get spiritually hollowed out in politics," he said. "It's not as a consequence of being in politics.
This could happen if I were in the restaurant business or a journalist.
It happens to people in all walks of life."
It all began when the possibility of a job in the private sector was floated - the presidency of New School University, although the university will not comment - and Mr. Kerrey found that he "got more enthusiastic than I should have if I was committed to running for re-election." So, he explained, "I stepped back for a couple of weeks, talked to lots of friends, especially in Nebraska."
While the political world buzzed, he wrote two statements, one saying he was returning to private life, the other saying he was not. "The first one made me smile, the second one didn't. And that still, quiet voice said it's time to go back to private life."
It was the kind of public soul searching that makes people either love or hate Bob Kerrey, who acquired the nickname Cosmic Bob years ago in Nebraska. A Navy Seal who won the Medal of Honor and lost a leg in Vietnam, fighting a war he came to oppose, Mr. Kerrey was a rising political star as the governor of Nebraska, then announced he would serve just one term and returned to private life. He re-emerged a few years later as senator from Nebraska, the darling of the pundits and his party's bright hope; he jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination in 1992 but faltered early. He considered, but decided against, another presidential run this year.
As governor and across two terms in the Senate, Mr. Kerrey was often the quintessential inner-directed politician - not running when he was expected to run, not following his party's marching orders, immersed in his own political journey. Even now, while announcing his retirement, he notes that he has not ruled out a return to electoral politics in some future campaign.
Vietnam was the experience that framed his life - he spent nine months in a Navy hospital trying to recover from his wounds - and over the years he has become a symbol of an era and the unending reflection it spawned. Does he ever get tired of being asked about it?
"There are times I get tired of it, but it's like getting tired of trying to figure out who you are. You can't stop. It's not something you can ever stop doing. I think it's dangerous to stop doing."
Mr. Kerrey has two grown children in Nebraska and a significant other, the writer Sarah Paley, in New York. When asked what he was looking forward to most about private life, he responded, "You can observe, you can see, you can hang out with friends." Pushed to be a little more concrete, he replied: "I'll use a New York City example.
I'm on a subway, and I'm not a senator. People will come up and talk to you differently.
They don't come up and say, 'I didn't like that vote you cast.' Or, 'What the hell are you doing out here, riding the subway? Don't you work?' "
He declined to comment on his talks with the New School University, saying he had wanted to decide whether to seek re-election first, then figure out what to do instead.
But he has clearly thought about life in New York. "I do like it," he said. But, he added, "I think if I lived there I'd miss the sunrise and the sunset and the direct sunlight. I'd need to get out to the flatland, out to the prairie, from time to time."
In the meantime, he was back in New Hampshire over the weekend, in the middle of the political storm he is leaving. For now.
Kerrey Retells War Story in Effort to Connect With the Voters
By Richard L. Berke, , December 31 1991
WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 - His audience could be the jobless, the elderly, high school students or business executives, but Senator Bob Kerrey always stops midway through his basic Presidential campaign speech, lowers his voice, and confides the central selling point of his campaign.
This is his journey from being a Navy commando during the Vietnam War, sure of his enormous physical capacity, feeling indestructable and even "a bit obnoxious," to lying helpless at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Mr. Kerrey recalls March 14, 1969, as if it were yesterday: he led a pre-dawn assault against an island held by the Vietcong and walked into a firefight, only to have a grenade shatter his right leg.
"The United States of America saved my life," the Nebraska Democrat repeats to anyone who will listen. "The American people reached out to me and gave me health care, gave me educational opportunity. This campaign is a life-and-death issue to me. Make no mistake about it: we can save lives as a people."
That is the essence of how Mr. Kerrey is marketing himself as the best Democrat to send to the White House. By telling and retelling the compelling story of Vietnam, with no trace of bitterness, Mr. Kerrey hopes he will strike voters as a candidate who understands pain, understands struggle and understands what it takes to improve the plight of the people.
While Mr. Kerrey's supporters remain convinced that he is the most marketable political comer in America, he has had a rough entry onto the national stage. He is in the anomalous position of being viewed as a candidate who could go all the way and yet during the autumn warm-up, he came be to be regarded as the underachiever of the field.
The signs of early trouble are all there: He had to apologize for an unseemly joke, endure bad publicity about his restaurant business and last week he overhauled his senior campaign staff.
Strip away the war record, many Democrats say, and Mr. Kerrey presents a hodgepodge of ideas with no coherent theme and few specifics. He is polished, looks good and has a war-hero record that is the envy of any politician, yet he has faced a struggle this fall to make a convincing case that he should be President. Two months after his formal announcement, the 48-year-old Medal of Honor winner still faces the task of demonstrating that he is not just another pretty face with an uplifting story. Not Big on Details
His challenge is all the more onerous because, by his own admission, Mr. Kerrey is more comfortable with sweeping generalizations than being pinned on details about making the Government work.
"One of my least favorite things is clarifying something I said," he said in an interview. Yet Mr. Kerrey seems aware that filling in the details is essential to a successful candidacy. "The real burden of running as a candidate is that when you're not well known, people can paint a picture with a fragment of information."
Setting himself apart from candidates like former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts and former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California, who tend to dwell on details, Mr. Kerrey stubbornly clings to the notion that he cannot whittle down his ideas into clever phrases suitable for television "sound bites." Yet he concedes that his ideas do not always connect.
"I'm conscious that I've got a fairly complicated message and the more complicated it gets the more vague it sounds," he said. "When you're talking about fundamental change, rather than reel out 10 or 12 snappy programs, then it gets more difficult. I realize I've got to work so the audience understands who I am."
In a remarkable concession for a candidate who is basing his campaign on character, Mr. Kerrey was hard-pressed to say what should lead people to support him. "I don't assert that there is any special quality about me, in and of itself, that qualifies me to be President," he said. "What matters is the ideas, the values, the willingness to persevere toward the objective."
As Mr. Kerrey seeks to clarify his message, he is paying a price on the trail, sometimes disappointing would-be supporters.
"He's a good speaker," Danny Prats, a political science major at the University of New Hampshire, said after hearing Mr. Kerrey at a forum in Durham. "But there's little that distinguishes him from the other candidates per se, except for health care, and they're all talking about health care." Clutching his cap and gown, he went on: "I'm graduating in five days and I want someone who gives me more than ambiguity when they talk about a better job market."
After addressing a group of unemployed people at a church in Concord, N.H., Mr. Kerrey chased down Wayne Cochran, an unemployed purchasing agent in the audience who voiced skepticism that the Senator's proposals would create jobs. But once he was face-to-face with Mr. Cochran, the candidate was reduced to Bush-speak: "Don't underestimate the importance of this restructuring thing I'm talking about."
Explaining how he would go about this, Mr. Kerrey offers the big picture: "First, we must reduce the size and cost of the Federal Government," he said. "And second, we must renew a productive investment strategy. And finally, we must establish new structures for a global marketplace which will allow the power and integrity of free markets to create a new global prosperity."
His advisers suggested that he is the victim of overblown expectations. "He came into the race as the golden boy with a sense that he was something special," said Sue Casey, who resigned last week as campaign manager after a staff shakeup. "As happens in every campaign and candidate, you have to come down with some reasonable expectations. In December, that's what happened."
Mr. Kerrey has also been held back by his own missteps. In November, unaware he was being recorded by a television microphone, he told an explicit joke about lesbians to another candidate at a political event in New Hampshire. He apologized after being attacked by homosexual and women's groups.
Another jolt late this month threatens to undermine Mr. Kerrey's efforts to portray himself as the only candidate with hands-on business experience. The Labor Department fined the restaurant chain in which he owns 35 percent for violations of labor law restrictions. Mr. Kerrey, who is chairman of the business, insisted that he has not been actively involved in its operations since he was elected Governor in 1982 and that the violations have been corrected. A Compelling Record War Record Gives A Special Status
It Mr. Kerrey's war record, not his business, that has afforded him a special status in the political world. It is a story he seldom told before the current campaign (to be sure, it was always touted by his advisers). But adjusting to big league politics often leads candidates to newfound candor about personal tragedies, and Mr. Kerrey has been forced to sacrifice his timidity.
Michael McCurry, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerrey, said the Senator's aides prodded him to talk about a war experience that now forms the spine of his campaign. "It's delicate because you cannot run for President solely on a war record," he said. "Kerrey was trying to run on a basket of ideas that are important, but people did not see the connection between the strength of his character and the power of his ideas - and they are connected."
Therein is the core psychology of Mr. Kerrey's campaign: he wants people to believe he is on a quest for change, a quest that is above bald political calculations. This element of his campaign has echoes of the most famous casualty of recent campaigns, Gary Hart.
The former Colorado Senator ran for President in 1984 as a candidate with "fresh ideas" but his 1988 campaign collapsed amid disclosures about his personal life. Some of Mr. Hart's former aides now work for Mr. Kerrey, and Mr. Hart said they may be because of similiarities in their messages.
"They do not see him as a traditional politician, or someone who plays the political game for his own advantage," Mr. Hart said. "He gives the impression that politics comes and goes and he can stand with or without it."
While Mr. Kerrey has taken on the Hart mantle, the policy centerpiece of his campaign is not particularly original: a universal health-care plan, including long-term care, that would be paid for largely through a payroll tax and higher levies on the wealthy. Ask him about the economy, about education, and he hammers away on his health-care theme, saying cutting the cost of private health care would allow businesses to compete more vigorously in international markets and generate more jobs at home.
But Mr. Kerrey may run into trouble with his credentials on this issue. Officials with his restaurant chain, Grandmother's, say 75 to 100 of its 700 to 800 employees do not have health coverage. The company is within the law, since small businesses are not required to provide such insurance. But wage earners might well take Mr. Kerrey's call for payroll taxes as a stingy businessman's effort to avoid costs. And there is the appearance problem: Can an employer who does not insure his own employees be entrusted with creating a national health plan?
Asked his view on the morality of having employees with no health insurance, he curtly replied: "It's equally questionable if somebody sits in the United States Senate with free health care and then does not express outrage when 12 million children are living in poverty with no health care. To me, that's questionable morality."
After resisting questions about why his business did not provide health insurance for all its employees, Mr. Kerrey said: "I'm like every other small business in America. The answer is, it's unaffordable."
The consensus among professionals is that both Mr. Kerrey's message and his delivery need polishing. Some listeners detect Kennedyesque tones in his best speeches, and he can have an engaging sense of humor. But Mr. Kerrey rarely drives his audience to a rousing ovation.
Mr. Kerrey's troubles connecting on a regular basis are particularly exasperating to his aides because sometimes he has produced riveting moments. In probably the most memorable exchange of the first debate of the Democratic contenders, he effectively cut off Mr. Brown, who was railing at length about special-interest donations to Congress.
In that same debate, though, Mr. Kerrey was clumsy in answering the first, most basic, question: Why did he want to be President? "I first of all made the decision with my family," he replied, "made the decision that I would like to be President of the United States. And then the next question was why. What would I do?"
Mr. Kerrey seemed to be saying that he made his decision on a whim, and figured out his issue stands only as an afterthought.
That is not too far from the truth. He delivered his announcement on Sept. 30, a month after shocking friends and advisers, who were sure he would not make the run.
"In the 15 months that I was there I did not have one conversation with him or as a group with senior staff with him, about running for President, not one," said Jeremy D. Rosner, the policy director on Mr. Kerrey's Senate staff who left in October after helping draft the Senator's announcement speech. So when the Senator told his advisers in late August that he would run, he said, "It sort of knocked the wind out of all of us, how decisive he was and how quickly he decided to get into it."
But Mr. Kerrey's snap decision is in some ways not surprising. He is an impatient, often unpredictable man. A political novice in 1982, he ran against Nebraska's Republican Governor and won in a state where most voters are Republicans. Though he was a popular Governor, Mr. Kerrey unexpectedly left office after one four-year term. He returned to politics in 1988 when he wrested a Senate seat from David K. Karnes, a Republican appointee who filled out a term after the death of Senator Edward J. Zorinsky.
Mr. Rosner and other advisers say the Senator's abrupt decision to run was partly because he was angered by what he regarded as signals from the White House this summer that Mr. Bush was willing to go along with the plotters of the coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Mr. Kerrey denies this, but he often challenges the President in what is widely viewed as Mr. Bush's strongest area, foreign policy. But Mr. Kerrey is vague about exactly what he would have done differently in dealing with, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union. What he is offering so far is a critique of Mr. Bush without a concrete alternative.
"His foreign policy's grounded in something different from mine," Mr. Kerrey said of Mr. Bush. "I just find myself being moved by the accomplishments of the cold war to conclude that we have to continue to be strong advocates for freedom. I don't get the sense that the President sees that world out there 10 years from now dramatically transformed." Relying on Hart Aides
His late decision to run has forced him to assemble his organization on the fly, and initially, Mr. Kerrey relied heavily on top advisers to Mr. Hart. But in a move to give the campaign a lift, Mr. Kerrey last week announced a major staff shakeup. Ms. Casey, a veteran aide to Mr. Hart, resigned as campaign manager and Bill Hoppner, a close friend of the Senator's who was chief of staff under Mr. Kerrey as Governor, will remain as chairman but play less of a day-to-day role in the campaign. Another former Hart aide, Bill Shore, continues to be an important adviser.
Though Mr. Kerrey denies it, advisers said he was seeking to remedy perceptions that the campaign was floundering so he looked outside his staff and picked Tad Devine, who held senior positions in the 1988 Presidential drive of former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, to oversee his campaign.
The Kerrey campaign hopes to inherit from Mr. Hart the backing of the Hollywood "glitter money." Mr. Kerrey has aggressively sought financial support in California, where he is popular in part because of his on-again, off-again romance with the actress Debra Winger. Mr. Kerrey has also turned to his geographic base, counting on Nebraskans to donate heavily to his campaign.
The campaign will receive $570,000 in Federal matching subsidies in January, about the same amount as Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas but exceeded among Democrats only by Mr. Harkin, who will get $1.1 million. Ron Fried, Mr. Kerrey's finance director, said the campaign has collected close to $2 million.
No matter how much money he raises, no matter how compelling his biography, Mr. Kerrey must convince voters that he should be President. The man who hates to explain facts now faces what could be months of intense questioning about his proposals.
Maybe that is why he sounded almost fatalistic when he conceded something that few politicians like to admit: "In the end," he said, "it's possible that I don't catch on."
April 26, 2001
The War Within Bob Kerrey
In one sense, wars last as long as the lives of the soldiers who survive them. That is why the aging veterans of D-Day still weep to recall the costly landing on the Normandy beaches, and that is why a new generation of men in their 40's and 50's are haunted by operations such as that conducted by former Senator Bob Kerrey and six other Navy Seals in the village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb. 25, 1969. A story to be published in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday and now available at The New York Times on the Web relates the tangled story of how Mr. Kerrey, then a lieutenant, and his men killed as many as 20 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children in what was supposed to be an operation to capture a Vietcong official. The former senator says the event arose from the confusion of night combat but nonetheless filled him with shame, guilt and remorse throughout a political career based in part on the fact that he won the Medal of Honor under heroic circumstances in a later engagement. Another member of the squad says the victims included 14 or 15 women and children rounded up as a group and shot on Mr. Kerrey's direct order. It is a story that - with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic aftermath - sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.
In regard to Mr. Kerrey, who lost part of a leg in Vietnam and is now president of the New School University, our first reaction was one of compassion rather than condemnation. But there is no avoiding the fact that the episode raises serious questions that must be confronted even if they can never be resolved. The purposeful shooting of noncombatants, such as occurred at My Lai, where Army troops killed hundreds of villagers in 1968, is a violation of American military law. It also raises questions of credibility for Mr. Kerrey, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and has not ruled out a run in 2004. Mr. Kerrey once called President Clinton "an unusually good liar," and some Americans will question his long silence and his candor about this episode, for which he received the Bronze Star and a citation for killing 21 Vietcong.
Mr. Kerrey and other members of his unit have begun talking about this agonizing event as the publication of The Times's article and a "60 Minutes II" broadcast, based on a coordinated reporting effort, approached. Mr. Kerrey said he had already made the decision to begin a public discussion of the events at Thanh Phong in the course of writing his memoirs. There is no dispute now that only civilians died in the village. But Mr. Kerrey said they had been shot in the darkness after his unit was fired upon in an area that had been declared a free-fire zone and that civilians had been urged to leave. At least one other member of his unit supports that account. But another Seal, Gerhard Klann, says the unit found no enemy fighters in the village and killed the women and children to facilitate their escape from the area.
The one common thread in both accounts is moral agony. Mr. Klann told The Times he wanted to "cleanse my soul." Mr. Kerrey spoke of inescapable shame and second-guessing about what he recalls as an error in judgment in a place where the enemy was hard to identify. Saying he once thought dying for one's country was the soldier's worst fate, he added: "I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."
The confusion of war, where very young people operate under unimaginable stress, often leaves conflicts in testimony that can never be resolved. Vietnam, because it involved no mission of national survival, also left young Americans like Gerhard Klann and Bob Kerrey with a greater burden of guilt and remorse than any other conflict in the nation's history. With the emergence of this story, Mr. Kerrey's career has entered a new phase of public assessment. The nation, for its part, must stick with the ongoing task of remembering the horrible lesson of the physical and psychological damage to people on both sides when a great power undertakes a war without a rationale.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) says the secret incident has "haunted" him for 32 years.
Kerrey Tells of '69 Vietnam Raid That Killed Civilians
By John J. Goldman, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2001
NEW YORK-Former Nebraska senator and governor Bob Kerrey, a potential Democratic presidential contender, has revealed that he commanded a raid on a village during the Vietnam War that killed only women, children and older men.
Kerrey stressed that members of his seven-man Navy SEAL team began shooting after they were shot at and assumed they were facing fire from Viet Cong soldiers.
He said the secret incident has "haunted" him for 32 years.
"Now I can talk about it. It feels better already," Kerrey said in an interview Wednesday.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) says the secret incident has "haunted" him for 32 years.
Kerrey made his comments after news reports about his involvement in the Feb. 25, 1969, raid in the Mekong Delta.
Then a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant, Kerry got a Bronze Star for the raid and later received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest valor award, for another SEAL action that cost him part of his right leg. His war hero background has been an important part of his political profile.
Kerrey's account, however, has been dramatically contradicted by a member of the SEAL squad he headed and by a Vietnamese woman who claimed to be a survivor of the raid and who alleged the villagers were brought together and massacred.
"It was very crowded, so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one," Pham Tri Lanh, who said she was an eyewitness, told CBS News' "60 Minutes II." The network released excerpts from the interview Wednesday.
"Two women came out and kneeled down," Lanh is quoted as saying. "They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind."
Gerhard Klann, a member of the SEAL commando team headed by Kerrey, described similar events in another interview with the program.
"We herded them together in a group. . . . We lined them up and we opened fire," Klann is quoted as saying.
Klann also told the New York Times that Kerrey at one point helped push an older villager to the ground and put his knee on the man's chest while Klann drew a knife across the man's neck.
Kerrey disputed those accounts Wednesday night.
"This was a free-fire zone and there was significant Viet Cong activity in the area, and our mission was to interrupt a high-level [Viet Cong] district meeting that was going on," Kerrey told the Los Angeles Times. "I believe it went on in that village that night.
"Not only had I flown the area to be sure there were no civilians, but we were told anyone in that area could be considered the enemy."
Kerrey said it is "not true that I put my knee on a man's chest and held him down. That is simply not true.
"The woman who was interviewed who said she crept up and saw all of this is undeniably Viet Cong," Kerrey said.
" . . . My highest responsibility was to deliver the men back to their mothers, fathers and loved ones," the former senator added.
A woman who answered the phone at Klann's Pennsylvania home Wednesday night said: "He doesn't want to talk about this any more. He has nothing more to say."
The accounts contradicting Kerrey were part of a joint investigative effort by CBS and the New York Times. The Times posted a story by Gregory L. Vistica on its Web site Wednesday in advance of publication in the newspaper's Sunday magazine and indicated that the Kerrey story had been in the works for 21Ú2 years. The Times story quotes Kerrey at length, along with accounts from Klann and another team member who alternately supports Klann and Kerrey in the story, but on Wednesday called Klann's version "ridiculous."
A companion report by CBS' "60 Minutes II" is set to air Tuesday. Vistica is a former national security correspondent for Newsweek and is co-producing the "60 Minutes II" segment.
Kerrey, president of the New School University in Manhattan, publicly revealed the incident at the George C. Marshall ROTC award seminar last week at the campus of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.
"It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy and I had ordered it," he said.
"How I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake," he told cadets. "Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years.
"Knowing that the people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers and their missing men had fired upon us drawing our fire has not helped. Knowing that I followed what I considered to be the standard operating procedure has not helped.
"I tell you this story now because I believe a part of your military training must include how to cope with the horrors of war if you are lucky enough to survive them," Kerrey added.
The citation for Kerrey's Bronze Star for the raid on the village of Thanh Phong refers to 21 Viet Cong who were killed, huts destroyed and weapons captured.
"The citation is different than what we reported to military superiors," he told the Omaha World Herald.
He only disclosed the village incident to his wife and children two weeks ago. He said the idea that men in combat with horrible memories "are not willing to tell everybody should not be surprising."
Referring to Klann's charge that an old villager was killed, he said, "I didn't see the man.
"When Gerhard said the old man, he was old relative to him. My guess is he was probably younger than Gerhard Klann was now."
Another member of the SEAL team told the Washington Post that Klann's comments are "the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life."
"It is untrue in every sense of the word," Michael Ambrose, a Houston executive, told the Post on Wednesday.
Kerrey, who is considering running a second time for the White House, served eight years as Nebraska's governor and two terms in the Senate. In 1992 he sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kerrey said a large part of him would have liked the village incident to remain his own private memory forever. He said the New York Times first approached him in 1998 about it.
"But I am not a private citizen," he said.
Discussing the impact of his disclosure on his family, he added: "My kids tell me they love me. My wife tells me she loves me. After that my concerns decrease."
For Bob Kerrey, a Blind Date in Academia
By Karen W. Arenson,, February 13, 2001
Bob Kerrey, the just-retired senator who lost part of his right leg in a grenade attack in Vietnam, served as governor of Nebraska and got rich as an owner of restaurants and health clubs, may have arrived in New York only last month to assume the presidency of New School University in Greenwich Village. But he has already made it into the city's gossip columns (and wants you to know that the reports, which said that he and Bill Clinton were telling lesbian jokes at a popular Village restaurant, were false).
The match between New School University - viewed by some as a fading dowager of the academic world - and Mr. Kerrey, the box- office-handsome man-about-town famous for his relationship with the actress Debra Winger, seems like the ultimate blind date. The question on many lips has been what's in it for either side.
Why would a university known for its historic role as a haven for intellectuals fleeing Hitler's Europe, and for being a pioneer in offering courses for adults, seek out a swashbuckling politician who acknowledged that he had never even heard of it before he was approached? And why would Mr. Kerrey, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and has been mentioned as a future contender, want to spend his time mediating among competing deans and professors and courting New York's rich and famous to fill the university's coffers rather than his own political war chest?
For the university, the answer was simple: exposure. "The attraction of someone like Bob is that he could bring us more visibility, broaden our constituency and give us call on more resources," said Philip Scaturro, an investment banker and trustee of the New School, which has expanded beyond its initial two divisions but has yet to be perceived as a unified university. Mr. Kerrey's leadership skills and independent mind were also pluses, Mr. Scaturro said.
For his part, Mr. Kerrey said that when New School trustees approached him more than a year ago as his second Senate term was drawing to a close, "the first question I had to decide was whether to go back to private life, and whether the first offer was the best offer."
"It was, in terms of money," said Mr. Kerrey, 57, who has a salary of $320,000 and receives housing in a Greenwich Village brownstone. His current companion is a freelance writer who formerly worked for "Saturday Night Live."
"I am not afraid to do something if I think it is useful and fun," he added over a recent lunch of corn chowder and salad at the Blue Water Grill on Union Square, a few blocks from his office at New School's striking art- filled quarters on West 12th Street.
The 82-year-old New School, which has 7,000 students in degree programs and 25,000 students in nondegree programs, is looking to Mr. Kerrey to help it forge a new identity that builds on its progressive tradition and strength in the arts and social sciences.
The university's transformation started in earnest under Jonathan F. Fanton, its president for 17 years, who left in 1999 to become president of the MacArthur Foundation. He added divisions, including the Actors Studio and the Mannes College of Music, and strengthened the faculty, which once counted intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and artists like Aaron Copland among its instructors. Mr. Fanton also led a $200 million capital campaign and laid the groundwork for a stronger liberal arts college.
But the rebuilding was far from complete when Mr. Fanton left, and Mr. Kerrey was a popular choice to pick it up. Mr. Kerrey, a and University of Nebraska graduate, was seen as smart and decisive, someone who could draw attention to the campus.
"He is a star public figure, and people are eager to be near him," said Joel Lester, dean of the Mannes College of Music.
The choice of Mr. Kerrey is certainly bringing attention. People talk of seeing him exercising at Chelsea Piers or walking along the street in the same tone that they use when they speak of sighting a movie star. Journalists have been lining up for interviews. And during lunch at the Blue Water Grill, one admirer rushed to his table to urge him to run for president.
Within the university, Mr. Kerrey's behavior has been more down to earth. He answers his own e-mail. At early meetings with faculty members and students, he did not recount his own war stories but asked instead about the interests and backgrounds of the students and professors. He told faculty members at the Parsons School of Design, another of the university's seven divisions, that a well- designed object can be "as beautiful as a Van Gogh" and assured graduate faculty members that they had come a long way in the last 20 years.
But faculty members also got a taste of Mr. Kerrey's famous candor when he referred to a professor's presentation as "a test in how to stay awake" and asked them why tenure was important.
Mr. Kerrey has moved quickly on other fronts. Last summer, while still in the Senate, he visited Cooper Union, which is strong in engineering and fine arts, to discuss possible partnerships. (So far, no new deals have been announced.) Last month he named Kenneth Prewitt, who had been director of the Census Bureau, as dean of the graduate faculty.
Mr. Prewitt will be central as the university tries to meld the graduate faculty more closely with Eugene Lang College, the undergraduate college with about 500 students, which university officials would like to double in size.
"If we didn't have Lang, we'd have to invent it," Mr. Kerrey said. "It is enormously important to our being a university."
While New School calls itself a university - a name it bestowed upon itself only four years ago - it differs from other universities in the United States. Most are centered on colleges of arts and sciences.
New School University is more of a confederation of disparate units, including not only the adult education division (the New School) and the graduate program in social sciences and philosophy, but also Parsons, Mannes, the Actors Studio Drama School, the Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy and Eugene Lang College. Some of the divisions are ranked high in their fields, but they are often not identified with the university.
Mr. Kerrey said his first mission was to unite these divisions, partly by building "a strong, high-quality core" - a common liberal arts curriculum for all the undergraduates. Each division currently offers its own general education courses.
Technology is another priority, and Mr. Kerrey has pledged to create a better computer network system for the university. He is also promising to build the endowment, which is about $100 million now.
As a politician, fund-raising is a skill he knows well. He was also chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1996.
"I've begun campaigns where people said it would be impossible to raise enough money, and raised more," Mr. Kerrey said. "If you do 100 asks, you might get 10 yeses, or 20 yeses, and you also get a lot of noes. You just have to keep asking."
Outsiders are watching with interest to see whether Mr. Kerrey can work the same kind of magic that John Brademas, the former Indiana congressman, worked as president of New York University, which he helped propel upward in prestige.
Observers like Thomas Bender, a New York University historian and author of "New York Intellect" (Knopf, 1987), an intellectual history of New York City, say that Mr. Kerrey could well make a difference to New School University.
"They have incredible resources," Dr. Bender said. "They have a school that, like New York, is tilted to the social, the political and the aesthetic.
"Kerrey's big challenge," Dr. Bender added, "is to transform the financial base. They've had a very loyal group of financial supporters. But there will be a generational change and they need to broaden that base."
There are other obstacles, too. In an age of science, the university has little. It recently hired its first full- time science professors.
The university also needs more money to lure top professors and students, to expand and refurbish its facilities and to help pay for more full-time faculty members, who Mr. Kerrey says are necessary to provide greater continuity and support for undergraduates. Of more than 1,500 faculty members, only 150 are full time.
Perhaps the biggest open question is how long Mr. Kerrey will stay at the university. He talks of the importance of education, calling it society's "most important function." But he is famous for moving on from high-profile jobs that no longer hold his interest.
For now, he said, he is having fun.
"I like danger," Mr. Kerrey said. "I like education. I like New York. And I like the structure."
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