Published on Tuesday, May 8, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Death, Taxes and Bob Kerrey
by A. J. Langguth
For 10 days now, we have been flogging Bob Kerrey for what he might
have done in Vietnam 32 years ago. I suggest pausing for a moment to
consider a few other young men from the Vietnam era who, like Kerrey, had
to make their own hard choices: Ron Ridenhour, Hugh Thompson Jr., Norman
Morrison, Muhammad Ali and--most important to me--a man whose name I wish
I could remember.
Late in 1967, Ridenhour was drafted out of college and trained in Hawaii with a unit that was split up when its members were sent to Vietnam. Ridenhour went to a light observation helicopter company. Fifteen of his buddies were assigned to Charlie Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade.
When they met up again after four months in Vietnam, the men from Charlie Company unloaded on Ridenhour their guilt about the four hours on March 16, 1968, the day they had stormed through a village that the U.S. Army called Pinksville and the Vietnamese called My Lai.
The atrocities at My Lai have been well documented. In their scope and sadism, they dwarfed even the worst interpretation of what may have happened at Kerrey's Thanh Phong.
Ridenhour could hardly believe what his friends were confessing. During their training together, Mike Terry from Utah had impressed Ridenhour as one of the finest men he had ever met. Now, lying out under the stars, Terry was telling him about sitting down to his lunch on that March day and being disturbed by moaning and the flopping of limbs from a ditch where his lieutenant, William Calley, had lined up and shot unarmed women and children.
Terry and a friend walked to the ditch and finished the job with their own rounds of ammunition. That done, they returned to their lunch.
Ridenhour was stunned. "Mike, don't you see that it was wrong?" 'I don't know, man,." Terry shrugged and then delivered the summation justification used for every kindred act in the long war:. "It was just one of those things."
He rolled on his side and went to sleep.
Back home in Phoenix in 1969, Ridenhour was tormented by what he knew. He felt that if he did nothing, he would be as guilty as the men who pulled the triggers. He must expose what happened, and yet his family and friends argued strenuously against that decision. "Why would you betray your friends, they asked, for people you don't even know?" Only Ridenhour's high school English teacher, a veteran of the Korean War, encouraged him.
Ridenhour sent 200 letters to every official he could think of: President Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Sens. Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, Gen. William Westmoreland, back from commanding troops in South Vietnam to serve as Army cChief of sStaff.
Ridenhour's accusations were too horrific and too detailed to ignore. The Army launched an inquiry, and three years after the massacre, four men were brought to trial. Only Calley, charged with the premeditated murder of 22 civilians, was convicted. After Calley spent just three days in the stockade, Nixon reduced his punishment to house arrest. Calley's immediate superior, Capt. Ernest Medina, was acquitted but admitted afterward that he had lied under oath.
Not every American was had been appalled by the revelations from My Lai. Then, as now, apologists noted the distinctive nature of a war without traditional front lines, a war in which village women might be informants for the enemy and a child could grin at an American convoy one day and lob a grenade the next.
A sympathetic ballad, "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," sold 200,000 records. At Fort Benning, Ga., recruits counted cadence with the chant, "Calley! Calley! He's our man! If he can't do it, Medina can!"
But the Army's investigation also revealed that several G.II.s in Calley's platoon had refused to take part in the bloodletting and that one man on the scene had been a genuine hero.
Hugh Thompson Jr., a 25-year-old warrant officer, was flying a helicopter over My Lai and saw the carnage beneath him. Landing, he told his door gunners to train their sights on Calley. If he tried to interfere as Thompson attempted to rescue a band of cowering Vietnamese, they were to shoot him. Calley took the warning, and Thompson flew the villagers to safety, including a 2-year-old spotted by his crew as the child cried in a ditch beside his murdered mother.
Back at his base, Thompson was told to keep his mouth shut, but he assisted the Army prosecutors and testified against Calley at his court-martial. Only a few years ago did the U.S. government recognize officially the gallantry of Thompson and his two crewmen on that day. Even then, the Army tried to slip them their medals without a public ceremony.
Remember also, Norman Morrison, the 32-year-old Quaker who burned himself to death in November 1965, under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Pentagon window. Morrison, a husband and father, was protesting the way Lyndon Johnson had expanded the war in Vietnam.
His suicide reminded the nation that advice from civilians like McNamara, Dean Rusk and, later, Henry Kissinger, had led to terrorizing more than just a few villages. They had presided over the ravaging of all Vietnam, North and South, with B-52 bombings, napalm and Agent Orange.
Eighteen months after Morrison's death, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world boxing championship, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He made that sacrifice rather than fight a war he didn't believe in.
And then came the man whose name I don't know but whose example has shamed me for 30 years.
As I remember the story from a local news broadcast, a Southern California man refused to pay his taxes as his form of protest against the Vietnam War. The IRS had seized his car and other personal property, and he was headed for prison.
"Of course, I thought, with a sinking heart. If you want to protest and not simply posture, that's what you must do." I had written against the war, and friends had marched in antiwar demonstrations. Those actions made us feel good about ourselves, but, at the same time, we were paying our taxes, money that helped to keep the war going.
To be serious and not merely self-satisfied demanded sacrifice--not self-immolation perhaps, but not evasion and hypocrisy, either. That realization troubled my conscience. Not enough to act on it, I'm afraid, but enough to temper a tendency to easy moral judgments about Vietnam.
Now, in the year 2001, we owe it to the villagers dead at Thanh Phong to try to find out what happened there so long ago. We owe it, too, to the hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who went to Vietnam and behaved honorably during their time there.
As for those who argue that many years have passed or that Kerrey's civilian life has been exemplary, what do they say about Sara Jane Olson? She is currently on trial in Los Angeles Superior Court for a crime committed in 1975, while she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Do we release her at once? Or do we accept that killing a score of Vietnamese is a lesser offense than trying unsuccessfully to kill two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department?
We may never know the truth about Thanh Phong, but we needn't apologize for seeking it. In the meantime, I'd ask those of us who paid our federal taxes every year of the Vietnam War to look upon Bob Kerrey's ordeal with some trace of humility.
A. J. Langguth is a journalism professor at USC and author of "Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975."
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times