The Moment of Truth — April 28, 2001

The Thanh Phong Massacre

Hi, I’m mejeffdorchen and this is the Moment of Truth, pure as the wave of memory that engulfs you when you smell a fragrance that sparks memories of your childhood

Bob Kerrey smelled something that reminded him of the past. Maybe it was tear gas lobbed at protesters in Quebec City.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey decided to break the story about the raid he led on a Vietnamese village that ended in the massacre of upwards of twenty unarmed civilian Vietnamese women, children and old people. In spite of the fact that the article in the New York Times Magazine and the 60 Minutes II segment already contain and present Kerrey’s version of the story. Nevertheless the one-and-a-half legged Medal of Honor winner found it necessary to launch a pre-emptive strike of internationally broadcast soundbites to get his spin out before the scheduled airing and publishing of the in-depth story that took three years to put together. The New York Times Magazine responded by posting their story on the web early. Still, in the battle of soundbites, it seems like the shot across the bow is the only one the commentators are paying attention to.

The tacit text is that the story belongs to Bob Kerrey. After all, he scooped the Times. He very publicly displayed his remorse, he talked about it endlessly, all in a blitz of media opportunities smeared like grape jelly all over the baby face of the American spectacle. He’s a public man, big on the political scene, president of an educational institution, possible presidential candidate. And he was the commander of the raid, after all.

And who is Gerhard Klann? A blue collar worker. A subordinate of Kerrey’s both on the raid and in social and economic status. Not to mention credibility. Klann got stopped for DUI once. Also, he’s of German decent. And proud of it.

The problem is, drunk, working class, heirarchically challenged and German though its source may be, Gerhard Klann’s version of the events of February 25, 1969 in Thanh Phong are, unlike Kerrey’s version, corroborated by a witness, a Vietnamese woman whose statement was taken entirely in isolation from Klann, by an interviewer who himself had no knowledge of Klann’s version. Pham Tri Lanh, thirty years old at the time of the massacre, says that, watching from behind a tree, she saw members of the Navy Seals kill an old man by nearly cutting his head off, knife his wife to death and then do the same to their three grandchildren.

Kerrey claims that his team was only guilty of ACCIDENTALLY killing civilians. Klann and Pham Tri Lanh’s version of things paints the massacre as more deliberate. Maybe Klann’s alleged involvement with alcohol has to do precisely with the fact that his memory of the incident is clearer.

Also, Klann’s version actually came first. He confided it to an officer in the 1980s. And people from Thanh Phong gave their version only days after the massacre. All that’s left of their version is the following Army radio communique:

“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.”

The problem was, the district chief the old man reported the atrocities to was a man named Tiet Lun Duc, a notably vicious minion of the increasingly repressive and unpopular South Vietnamese government. Duc had no problem killing civilians if they didn’t obey his commands to abandon their villages and go to refugee camps outside Saigon so he could wipe out the remaining VC. A witness of events in the Delta said of the villagers: “they had been there for generations. They weren’t going to leave, and basically they didn’t care who was in charge.”

Now, as bad as the rest of the media is handling the story, even the Times Magazine editors seem guilty of a kind of subtle doublespeak. The intro to the article begins like this

‘On the night of Feb. 25, 1969, an inexperienced lieutenant named Bob Kerrey led a team of Navy Seals on a raid of an isolated Vietnamese peasant hamlet called Thanh Phong. During the course of that raid, something went terribly wrong.’

Nope, something went terribly, horribly, abominably right. Rules about killing civilians while fighting the Cong in the Mekong Delta in 1969 were, according to accounts of officers and soldiers involved, pretty much non-existent. Orders were issued to indiscriminately shoot up and otherwise destroy villages. But even beyond the Delta, in the US war against Indochina at large, the destruction of civilian lives and land was far from excluded from strategy. In fact, it was a key part of one particular strategy: the forced urbanization of the rural Vietnamese.

See, part of why there were so many civilian South Vietnamese killed, supposedly, was that you could never tell a Vietcong from an innocent villager. Even a sweet little girl could end up gunning you down if you weren’t careful. The only way to keep from killing these innocent people was to force them out of their homes and into refugee camps. You could do this by threatening them or by destroying any reason for them to stay. It certainly seems like a lot of the indiscriminate jungle bombing, and the use of DOW Chemical’s Agent Orange and other defoliants, were part of the Pentagon’s strategy to drive the people they were supposed to be saving out of their homes and into camps on the outskirts of Saigon. Eventually, the South Vietnamese government, thanks to its combined efforts with the United States, had so little support among its own people that they had to try to corral as many of them as possible in the vicinity of the capital, apparently so they could keep an eye on them.

Now, whether the massacre at Thanh Phong was deliberate, or whether Kerry’s story or Klann and Lanh’s story is more true, or whether some third or fourth or fifth version – that’s really not the point. Even Kerrey says so. I’ll quote him from the Times article:

“It’s entirely possible that I’m blacking a lot of it out.”

‘My memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.’

Also from the article:

‘Speaking this month, Kerrey said he couldn’t be absolutely certain that shots were fired.’

As Kerrey says, memory is always a liar.

If Kerrey believes that his recollection may be wrong – if he believes, as he says, that it’s possible that the way things happened might be more or less the way he remembers it or more or less like someone else’s version – and, since his version is given plenty of weight in the Times article – which Kerrey himself was interviewed for beginning in 1998 – then why is it so important for him to try to give his argument more weight in the media than the others by getting himself and his version so much publicity? Three years he’s been talking about it on the record to reporters. His version of the massacre is in the upcoming article. So why now, just before the article comes out, does he grab every opportunity to pump his slant into the ether? He claims not to be doing damage control. But after three years, the timing is suspicious. His soundbites are misleading on this point, too, leading one to believe that only now has he been emotionally able to speak about the massacre. Not true. He’s been speaking on the record to journalists for the past three years.

And equally to the point, why are the media giving his version so much play. The radio pundits even on the so-called left side of the dial this week were all about Kerrey, how much he’d gone through, how that’s what kind of war it was – an accidental massacre of civilians due to chaos. How often it happened, you know, because the Cong wore the same kind of hats and pajamas as the villagers. And how alien the culture was. And the jungle. And how the Cong would hide behind and among civilians. And just the whole god damn unbelievable confusion of it all.

Like in “Apocalypse Now.” Just a lot of young American kids in an insane world of horror, fighting for their lives. And, from some soldiers’ point of view, that’s apparently what it was. But the truth about the Vietnam war, about the war against Southeast Asia altogether, was that destruction of villagers, of rural society, of the village – in order to save it, was a calculated tactic that was an integral part of the overall strategy of the US military.

The thing that went “terribly wrong” didn’t happen on the night of February 25, 1969 in Thanh Phong. The thing that went terribly wrong happened from the time the first advisors were sent to South Vietnam by Kennedy. The thing that went terribly wrong happened again in 1964, when the Pentagon and the President decided it was so important to indiscriminately destroy Asians for no reason that they had to fabricate a Tonkin Gulf “incident’” to justify escalating the war. It happened again under Nixon. But it was really one long happening, one long disregard for the dignity and the lives of both American soldiers and Asian civilians.

I really want all you listeners to look at what stories get told about the Vietnam war. Because they really concern us. If we allow the Vietnam war to become story about a series of tragic accidents, I think we’ll really lose something. We’ll lose the vivid image of a war that really was one of the purest of all wars. It’s an example not of war’s insanity, but of its rationality. Of the calculatedly vicious, violent, unconscionable decisions of those who were the managers of the war. There was no separation from the dark and the light. There was no heart of darkness here in the heart of the jungle, with civilization so many miles away from the madness of primal evil. Evil civilization was supervising the madness, moving the pieces on the map below into each other for the purpose of creating hell.

If we don’t remember this key aspect of the war against Indochina we run the risk of slipping into the complacent stance that ‘all people really just want to do what’s right – like in the Vietnam War, our good intentions just got totally out of hand, and it just kept snowballing into this monster no one could stop.’ No, there are people who have no such desire to do what’s right, they’re perfectly happy to do what they know to be so horrible that they’d rather kill innocent people than let it be discovered.

I mean some people – they’d rather force others into poverty, misery, death, than give up a cent of potential profit. Chevron would rather help the Nigerian government kill some upstart villagers with concerns about their land than even negotiate with them. Just bring in the helicopters and mow ‘em down.

A lot of people know this. That’s why they laugh sardonically when they hear about how all these trade agreements between the rich are gonna help the poor and foster democracy. As if there were no such thing as greed, as if greed weren’t the sole driving force of corporations, and hence of any organization they form and any treaties they might sign. As if they will, out of the goodness of their hearts, not try to create an international legal system that gives them the upper upper upper upper hand. Yeah, we won’t even get a fair shake in their courts, let alone a fair share of the wealth.

The Vietnam war was not manslaughter. It was premeditated torture, arson, extortion, larceny and murder. These crimes were committed by the US government and its client corporations with full knowledge and malice aforethought. If they duped a bunch of people into helping them, well, then, if we learn the right lesson, maybe we won’t be duped again by some enterprise undertaken with our resources supposedly to serve some good purpose without demanding full participation in the decision-making process. Judging from events in Seattle, Brazil, Switzerland, and Quebec City, to name just a few, it seems that more and more people are remembering not just what the Vietnam war was about, but what it was symptomatic of, who benefited, under what kind of circumstances such plans are made. And in the end, I don’t think the corporations will in the long run be any more successful than the US was at shoving tyrannical rule down people’s throats.

Maybe the corporate and financial forces themselves should take a lesson from the war in Southeast Asia. Maybe they should try the peace with honor approach before their whole project of subjecting the world to their will becomes a quagmire we’ll all be sorry for.

Or not.

I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been the Moment of Truth.