Medal of Horror

Maybe the most jarring line in Gregory Vistica’s 7,500-word New York Times Magazine piece about Bob Kerrey’s experiences in Vietnam comes in the last paragraph. By this point the story is down to a single column on page 133, shoehorned in next to ads for wheelchair lifts and teak rocking chairs. But the sentence still sticks out like a headline: “In his Capitol Hill office,” Vistica writes, Kerrey “kept an easel where he sometimes made collages using newspaper pictures of people in agony.”

Now, this is news. It’s one thing to kill civilians in a jungle war thousands of miles from home. It’s quite another to engage in behavior this flamboyantly strange in a government office building. Why haven’t we read about it before? Didn’t anyone notice Kerrey doing this? It’s safe to assume that no one else in the Senate was making agony collages.

Not that many people in Washington were surprised by the revelation. Kerrey has long had a reputation as an odd guy. Shortly after it appeared, I asked Sen. John Kerry what he thought of the Times Magazine story. Well, for one thing, Kerry said, it explains a lot. “There’s been the recognition that Bob’s always been troubled by something in the context of Vietnam.” In other words, the eccentricities were never a secret; now we know where they came from.

As for the fact that his friend and former colleague had helped to kill more than a dozen Vietnamese woman and children, John Kerry all but shrugged. “We dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “We had Dresden. This is what war is.”

John Kerry is a combat veteran. He’s allowed to say things like this. He doesn’t have to take a position on whether the civilian deaths were accidental (as Bob Kerrey maintains) or executions (as one of Kerrey’s fellow SEALs claims). As far as he is concerned, Bob Kerrey is a good man with a tragic past. No follow-up questions are required.

Fair enough. John Kerry works in the Senate, not at a newspaper. What’s striking is that virtually everyone else in Washington seems to have taken the same position. “To condemn” what Bob Kerrey did in Vietnam, declared Time magazine, requires “a clarity that was almost never available to young men shooting in the dark. It is a clarity our nation likewise never had at the time. When we judge Bob Kerrey, we judge our nation as well.”

“There’s another reason Bob Kerrey has received a pass on what he did in Vietnam. It has to do with the fact that he went to Vietnam in the first place.”

Maybe it is difficult to judge Kerrey. But it ought to be easy to ask questions about what he did. Here are a few that come to mind: Why didn’t he reveal all of this sooner? If he doesn’t consider himself a war hero, why did he run for office as one? Why doesn’t he plan to return the Bronze Star he won for the mission? And when and how did he get his memory back? If he could not recall for certain what he did that night in the village of Thanh Phong (as he initially told reporters), how does he now recall for certain that he didn’t order executions? When did he remember that he absolutely did not hold down an elderly man while a teammate knifed him to death?

I’d be interested in knowing the answers to these questions. Kerrey prefers to speak in more general, philosophical terms. “My guilt is connected to the nature of the Vietnam War,” he told reporters at a press conference the other day. The reporters seemed to buy this. The nature of the questions soon expanded to include not just Kerrey’s actions in Vietnam but Vietnam itself. One journalist seemed genuinely confused by how what Kerrey is alleged to have done was any different from what every other American soldier did at the time: “This is a classic Vietnam story. What did you do wrong?” Another asked Kerrey what he thought of hauling Henry Kissinger before “a war-crimes tribunal.” Yet another had called Daniel Berrigan before the press conference to ask him what he would like to ask Kerrey. Berrigan gave the reporter this question: “Do you think that if you had taken a different path and refused to kill in that, quote, ‘filthy war,’ as he and his brother Phil Berrigan did, that if you had chosen to be a refusenik from the beginning, that you wouldn’t have any regrets, as he doesn’t, as he turns 80 years old next month?”

None of this shed much light on what Bob Kerrey did or didn’t do at Thanh Phong. (Daniel Berrigan’s little speech was fascinating, anyway. Aren’t people supposed to become less self-righteous with age?) But it explained a lot about why the press and his peers in Washington have treated Bob Kerrey so gently. Kerrey’s story doesn’t challenge fashionable assumptions about Vietnam. It validates them: The war was immoral and unjustifiable; we didn’t know who the enemy was; American soldiers killed babies. The clichés remain undisturbed.

Some perceptions, however, have changed over the past 30 years. Vietnam veterans are still considered baby-killers, but now they’re victims too. This is the essence of Kerrey’s self-defense. “I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is,” he told the Times. “I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.”

This is a judgment that only the living get to make, of course. It’s also glib. Killing for your country may be bad. But having your children killed for someone else’s country must be the worst of all.

There’s another reason Bob Kerrey has received a pass on what he did in Vietnam. It has to do with the fact that he went to Vietnam in the first place.

Last year, novelist Pat Conroy wrote an article in Forbes ASAP about visiting a classmate from college named Al Kroboth. Conroy and Kroboth both graduated from the Citadel. Conroy dodged the draft and became an antiwar demonstrator. Kroboth went to Vietnam as a navigator in an A-6. On his seventh mission, he was shot down and captured. Kroboth endured months of torture in a prison camp. He told Conroy about it one night.

The story shocked Conroy. “In the darkness of the sleeping Kroboth household, lying in the third-floor guest bedroom, I began to assess my role as a citizen in the sixties, when my country called my name and I shot her the bird.”

His conclusion: “I wish I’d led a platoon of marines in Vietnam. I would like to think I would have trained my troops well and that the Viet Cong would have had their hands full if they entered a firefight with us.”

But he didn’t, and the fact he didn’t torments him. “I had not turned out to be the man I had once envisioned myself to be,” Conroy wrote. “It had never once occurred to me that I would find myself in the position I did on that night in Al Kroboth’s house in Roselle, New Jersey: an American coward spending the night with an American hero.”

If we have trouble judging Bob Kerrey – and I do – it’s not because we don’t know enough. It’s because we feel guilty we’re not him.

Medal of Horror