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War Crimes, Warriors, Witnesses

James T. Phillips

Countless pundits and televised talking heads have been telling Americans that, unless participation in a war was up-front and personal, comments about war crimes committed by United States Armed Forces personnel are off-limits. Only those American boys unfortunate enough to be plopped down in the middle of Vietnamese rice paddies are capable of describing the horror of war. Loyal citizens must not challenge or question any evidence of alleged war crimes.

American military veterans are the only people currently permitted to judge the actions of their fellow warriors. All others who might have a differing viewpoint are encouraged to shut up and go away, including those brave soldiers who have attempted to tell their truth. The official party line is one that allows no dissent or debate on any possibility that American soldiers are capable of committing war crimes.

The American media has set the parameters of the debate. Only those who have had the misfortune to spend time in Vietnam as soldiers of the United States military – slogging through dark jungle terrain, fearful of every living human being regardless of age or infirmity – have the right to comment on the actions of former Senator Robert Kerrey. Nor will negative portrayals of his fellow Vietnam veterans be allowed to stain the pages of our daily newspapers without a savage retaliatory response in bold headlines.

Without a doubt, loyal Americans will accept the recent denials by Mr. Kerrey and the members of his SEAL team. Kerrey’s team lived through the firefight in the village of Thanh Phong. They were there, live and in person, and they alone are able to relate the events that occurred on that dark, moonless night so long ago and far away.

Gerhard Klann, the lone American SEAL team member who told a story of war crimes, and the Vietnamese civilians who have independently verified his claim, are dismissed and denigrated. Klann is a drunk and the witnesses are commies being forced by their evil government to tell lies.

Or, so it goes in the media in America. It is as if those who witness the killing of women, children and frail old grandfathers are blind, unable to see war as clearly as the scared and confused American soldiers who claimed afterwards that their victims were members of the Viet Cong. In a recently released statement, the members of Mr. Kerrey’s team claimed: "In the Vietnam War gender and age distinctions were not always reliable indicators of who was a threat to your life. No order was given or received to execute innocent women, old men and children as has been described by some. We took fire and we returned fire."

Thirty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the jungle firefight, the SEAL team unit led by Mr. Kerrey told a story of fighting off an ambush while killing more than 20 Viet Cong combatants. Their account of the action led to the awarding of a Bronze Star to Kerrey. The former Senator decided to keep the medal; he also decided to keep his mouth shut and not tell the truth about the killings in Thanh Phong.

"To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it," says Mr. Kerrey in the year 2001. His memory of the incident has been jarred by the accusations by Gerhard Klann and the memories of the relatives of the dead Vietnamese civilians. "I went out on a mission, and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die," he lamented.

In his own words, Mr. Kerrey has described the killings in Thanh Phong as "an atrocity". It is a word never used by his defenders in the military and media. The deaths of civilians in combat is unavoidable and atrocious, but the murder of unarmed innocents is atrocious and a war crime. The facts about what happened in Vietnam during that tragic February night in 1969 will probably never be known. However, justice for the victims should not be buried along with their bodies. The story should be investigated, and whatever evidence remains should be uncovered.

The media in America should be leading this search for truth. Journalists should have the courage to ask questions, and the citizens of the United States should demand the answers. Maintaining a society where freedom and democracy rule is paramount, and to speak out and challenge authority is a right that cannot be denied by warriors wielding weapons or journalists spouting jingo. Citizens should never accept what the Washington Times believes to have been "a fight whose part in history might never have amounted to more than dusty military records and fading memories of its aging survivors" if only everyone would just shut up and go away.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

James T. Phillips

James T. Phillips is a freelance correspondent who has reported on the conflicts in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He can be reached at:

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