I want to believe Bob Kerrey. One thing that has become clear over the last few days is that almost everyone in America wants to believe the former U.S. senator when he says the killing of 13 unarmed Vietnamese women and children in 1969 was a tragic accident of war. Desperately, too desperately, we want to believe.
We want to believe because Bob Kerrey is a hero. We want to believe because Kerrey has suffered so much: He lost a leg, then picked himself up and went on to a stellar career in public service. We want to believe Kerrey because he is courageous and decent, and no one wants to crucify him.
We want to believe because we feel guilty about the war, or guilty for not having gone, or guilty about how shabbily those who did go were treated when they returned. And mostly we want it to be over. So just about everyone, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, James Carville and George Will, has lined up behind Kerrey.
I want to believe, too. Yet I can't get beyond certain nagging doubts and questions.
The story that Kerrey, who commanded the squad, tells is that as the unit approached the village, it received and returned fire. When the men entered the village, however, they discovered, to their horror, that all the dead were women and children. ``I was expecting to find Viet Cong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children.'' `The baby was the last one alive,' Klann said.
Initially reluctant to speak to the reporter who broke the story, all but one of the members of Kerrey's commando team subsequently issued a statement corroborating his account.
Th exception is Gerhard Klann, the most experienced of the team of Navy Seals who raided the Vietnamese peasant village of Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969. His account, which led to a cover page article by Gregory L. Vistica in last Sunday's New York Times, differs crucially from Kerrey's.
Klann didn't want to talk to the reporter at first, but relented in order to ``cleanse his soul.'' Klann's key claim: The Vietnamese women and children were killed deliberately upon Kerrey's order out of fear they might alert Viet Cong soldiers after the Seal squad left the village. In Klann's account, the soldiers stood less than 10 feet from the villagers and raked them with automatic weapons. ``The baby was the last one alive,'' the magazine quotes Klann as saying as he tried to fight back tears.
Two stories, and while it's clear which we want to believe, it's not clear which is true. Kerrey's version, now backed by members of his commando team, means the incident was a tragic error.
Details of Klann's account, which if true implies war crimes were committed, coincide with the story told to reporters by an alleged Vietnamese witness not familiar with Klann's version.
While memories are less than perfect, and no account is completely consistent, there is no reason to dismiss Klann's version as some seem intent to do. A good case can be made that Klann's account is more believable. The Times article states: ``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.''
What happened to the survivors? Only Klann's version appears to explain why there were none. What possible motive would Klann, who served a distinguished 20-year career as a Seal, have to confess to war crimes, if not conscience?
No one seems to want the answers, which may exonerate Bob Kerrey. I hope that is what happens. But one way or another, we need to know the truth, and the politicians who celebrate Kerrey's valor should have the courage to call for an investigation.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald