The front page news in New York City last week was former senator Bob Kerrey’s announcement that he was considering a campaign for mayor next year against incumbent Michael Bloomberg. Kerrey (not to be confused with fellow Democrat John Kerry) is a famous war hero — winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour, the US’s highest military decoration.
He is also a notorious war criminal and liar, who in February 1969 oversaw the massacre of 21 women, children and old men in the Mekong Delta hamlet of Thanh Phong. Kerrey was “outed” four years ago by one of the veterans of his elite Navy Seal unit who told the New York Times that unarmed villagers were herded together and then shot at point blank range.
In one case, Kerrey reportedly pinned an elderly peasant to the ground while a Seal cut his throat. In a television interview soon after the Times article, Kerrey was asked, “Was it or was it not within the rules of engagement for you and your men, as you understood it, if necessary, to kill those people?”
Kerrey replied, “I don’t know how you’re gonna cut this tape, but I don’t have any doubt that people we killed were at the very least sympathetic to the Viet Cong, and at the very most were supporting their efforts to kill us.” The interviewer was shocked: “Old men, women and children?”
“Yes,” replied Kerrey, “I mean, the Viet Cong, in a guerrilla war, the people that get caught in the middle are the civilians. And the Viet Cong were a thousand percent more ruthless than any standard operating procedure that any American GI or Navy Seal had.”
Kerrey’s Seals were operating under the procedures of the sinister Phoenix programme — the CIA inspired reign of terror that set a quota of 3,000 “neutralised” Viet Cong supporters per month. The CIA also paid a bounty to anyone bringing in “the head or ears” of a suspected Communist.
Tens of thousands of villagers were assassinated. Those who weren’t murdered on the spot were locked up in the infamous “tiger cages” and tortured by Gestapo methods. A former Marine officer told the US congress in 1971 that in addition to the electric shocks routinely administered to the genitals of suspects, interrogators inserted a piece of wood into the ear of one detainee, “tapping through the brain until he died”.
Is it possible that someone with Kerrey’s record of atrocity could be seriously considered as a Democratic candidate in New York? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
After the true story of Thanh Phong broke in 2001, student rallies at the New School called for Kerrey’s resignation. But the Democratic establishment, including good friend John Kerry and leading liberal pundits, vigorously rallied behind Kerrey.
In the end, Kerrey easily rode out this small storm. Some observers might claim that Kerrey’s exoneration is a small price to pay for the larger “healing process” between the US and Vietnam.
Likewise, it could asserted that fading memories of a war that ended 30 years ago simply don’t sustain much contemporary outrage. Such arguments have been frequently made by leading Democrats, even former anti-war activists.
But they are wrong — foolishly, disastrously wrong. The US defeat remains an open wound that is constantly inflamed by acid Republican rhetoric. Vietnam still functions as the US counterpart to the “stab in the back at Versailles” or “the betrayal in Algeria”, mobilising society’s darkest forces around a myth of national victimhood.
Americans are still almost as mired in the muck of Indochina as they were in 1967. The ownership of the terrain of historical memory, moreover, has become the Republicans’ most prized property.
But it is essential to remember that Vietnam was deeded to them by the liberals’ abdication of conscience. After Nixon began to replace US ground troops with a genocidal bombing campaign against Indochina in 1971, the mass anti-war movement disbanded. Without the threat of the draft hanging over their heads, students returned to exams and marijuana.
Leading anti-war organisers sought their fortunes in Democratic Party politics. But the anti-war movement disarmed unilaterally. The pro-war forces have never ceased fighting and refighting the war.
When the Democrats eventually realised that Vietnam would not go away, they became patriotic revisionists as well. Not even the Japanese ruling party has gone as far as American Democrats in the rehabilitation of war crimes and war criminals. Small wonder that recent revelations about other horrendous massacres in Vietnam or earlier in Korea have had such negligible impact.
Or that the torture cells at Abu Ghraib have failed to mobilise American conscience to any significant degree. Perhaps even deeper structures of American history are involved.
George Armstrong Custer, for example, was so headstrong and careless at Little Big Horn because he was eager to use a final massacre of the Plains Indians as a boost to his presidential ambitions. Bob Kerrey is his legitimate descendant.
Mike Davis is a socialist writer and activist. He is professor of history at the University of California