The Brutality of War
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JIM LEHRER: Some perspective now on the issues raised by the Kerrey story. Retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor was an infantry platoon leader in Korea and had two combat tours in Vietnam where he was a military correspondent for The New York Times. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Jonathan Schell covered the Vietnam War for The New Yorker magazine; he’s now a correspondent for The Nation magazine.
Wallace Terry was a Vietnam War correspondent for Time magazine; he’s the author of “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans”; he’s now a contributing editor at Parade magazine.
William Dannenmaier was an army radio man and scout during the Korean War; he’s a retired professor of education, author of “We are Innocents and Infantrymen in Korea.”
Father Bryan Hehir, professor at the Harvard Divinity School, he’s written extensively on ethics, foreign policy, and military intervention.
Jonathan Schell, should there be a Pentagon investigation of this?
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, I think there should be. Serious and credible allegations of a war crime has been made; they’ve been contradicted by others; they’ve been corroborated by still others. I can’t see how this country can afford not merely to know the truth about what happened there. I can’t see a reason not to find out and investigate it.
JIM LEHRER: General Trainor, how do you feel?
LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.): Jim, I don’t think there’s any practical purpose to conduct an investigation. Recently, I spent 18 months as an outside adviser to the Secretary of Defense on another atrocities story that took place in July 1950 in Korea, and there was a long, exhaustive investigation, and we knew midway through there we would never come get the ground truth because there was such inadequate resources available, contradictory testimony, memories that were vague, and I think we’d run into the same thing in this case. And then at the end of the day what do you have? Do you have the basis for a war crimes trial, if the worst comes to light?
I don’t think something like this would ever stand up in court for the very reason that we’d never get to ground truth – because the full data is not there. And I think the only result that would come from something like this is to reopen terrible wounds that were inflicted on the country by the war in Vietnam.
JIM LEHRER: Wallace Terry, how do you feel?
WALLACE TERRY: I agree. Jim, I think sometimes we forget what else Sherman said about war — that war at best is barbarism. And I think that war basically is an atrocity and there are atrocities on all sides. I think this is a sad and tragic small sample of what took place in Vietnam, and I think it does no good to open the sore and expose it in a way more than it’s been exposed already.
I think it’s up to the senator to apologize for what has happened, because obviously something terrible did happen that evening – and I think it probably be not so much to whether or not he goes beyond the rules of conduct of war as the Americans believe it to be, but that he was a young officer, what we call a cherry officer, who’d been in-country for less than a month. He went out on a terribly dangerous mission, a mission that he was not prepared for, not trained for, and should have been along – other people should have gone along with him that perhaps would have kept him the panic that seems to have taken place and caused him to go across the lines.
JIM LEHRER: Father Hehir, where do you come down?
FATHER BRYAN HEHIR: My own sense is that there is an enormous amount of ambiguity around this, and an investigation probably would not provide crystal clear delineation of either responsibility or even final judgment. At the same time, my own sense is that precisely because there’s such different accounts of the story, it is now part of our public life. I think some clarity would come from independent analysis of it and that, therefore, it is useful to pursue that.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Dannenmaier.
WILLIAM DANNENMAIER: I think there is no way at this time to discover the truth of what happened there. For one, you don’t know if those women were carrying arms; number two, you don’t know how many Viet Cong were there who might have been dragged away by these efforts. There’s no way of finding the truth. I know a lot of infantrymen and since my book came out, I’ve had others call.
I don’t know of any working infantrymen who ever deliberately or knowingly or willingly killed innocent people; however, I do and have known other people where they have done killings that they wish they hadn’t. And 70 years later, 50 years later they remember at the age of 70 the things they did that they now wish they hadn’t done in the first place. Senator Kerrey has given all of his life to the service of this nation, and now people who’ve never been there want to investigate. Are they going to investigate all of us who are in combat? I don’t know anybody who was in combat who didn’t do things that they were sorry about afterwards.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s go back to Jonathan Schell. Mr. Schell, take us through now what you think would be accomplished by an investigation, at least trying to get to the bottom of what happened 32 years ago.
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, of course it’s entirely possible that if you do an investigation, that you would not get to the truth, but you can’t know that until you do the investigation. I think there’s a very practical and urgent reason for pursuing it as far as we can. For one thing, I think the Army itself needs that, because it needs to set a standard for its own troops, to make sure that doesn’t happen again, that kind of thing, we don’t get in it again.
But another reason that’s a larger reason is that all around the world today, countries are trying to face dark deeds in their past. We see that in South Africa, in Eastern Europe, and South America, and we’ve even established international criminal courts to bring crimes of war to justice and the United States has supported that very strongly. And that effort has a very great historical importance right at this moment. If the United States refuses to do all it can to find out what its own people have done in committing what looks like a terrible crime, then our voice is going to be weightless in those councils. That is going to be very, very unfortunate for the United States and for the rest of the world itself, I’d say.
JIM LEHRER: What about that argument, General? We can’t have a double standard. Everybody else’s alleged crimes get investigated, but not ours.
LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.): Jim, there is no need to set a standard. The standard exists and it existed then. It is against the rules and laws of land warfare to kill innocent civilians or prisoners. That is clear and absolute now as it was then. The problem in this instance was the complexities that went into the situation.
JIM LEHRER: What would be the harm, General, as Jonathan Schell says, of trying to find out what happened– maybe, as Jonathan Schell says, that Bob Kerrey and his colleagues did nothing wrong. They didn’t violate the rules of war. What is the harm in trying to find out?
LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.): Well, that would be marvelous if we were assured of that outcome, but there is such misinformation, lack of information and contradictory information in this very ambiguous situation that I don’t think that you’ll ever get to ground truth.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Dannenmeier, is that your point too, that if Bob Kerrey and his troops did do something wrong, it shouldn’t bear investigation, we should move on; that’s the accident of war and combat?
WILLIAM DANNENMAIER: That in a way is – in a way I agree with it, but not really. I’m really reacting to that business of standards of wars and rules and regulations. It is against all standard conduct for people not in uniform to carry rifles and fight in the war. It’s against standard conduct for women to come forward and shoot and kill. It’s against standard conduct for six and seven and eight year old children to bring grenades up and stick them in soldiers’ pockets; those things happened in Vietnam, and they happened in the early days in Korea. And the very idea that you can say that war can be civilized is stupid.
JIM LEHRER: Wallace Terry, what about that? Civilized people commit uncivilized acts in war and is there any way to judge it is really what Bill Dannenmaier is saying?
WALLACE TERRY: Well, you’ve taken a descent into hell when you enter a war, we need to understand that, that there is no clean way to fight a war. And in Vietnam, we were fighting within a country that was torn apart by a civil war. We had no idea who was on our side and who was against us, and the very bureau on which I worked for two years –
JIM LEHRER: Time Magazine.
WALLACE TERRY: Time Magazine – the political reporter that I depended on who took me into the palace, into the inner sanctums of the South Vietnamese military and political structures was himself a Viet Cong lieutenant colonel who retired out a brigadier general. The enemy was sitting in my lap, and I didn’t know who he was; nor did the Vietnamese who worked for me know that he was a Communist soldier.
JIM LEHRER: But how do you come to the fact that okay, maybe this – maybe the charges against, the allegations against Bob Kerrey and the others are true? Do we just move on?
WALLACE TERRY: Jim, we’ve been down that path before with the My Lai episode, and I think we tried to cleanse our soul as a nation when that took place. But if we’re going to go after Bob Kerrey, why not go after the people that sent Bob Kerrey over there, beginning with Henry Kissinger, who extended the war four more years after we knew it was a failed exercise, or for that matter Robert McNamara, who’s still with us.
JIM LEHRER: But does that excuse individual soldiers?
WALLACE TERRY: No. You have to have a standard, and I think Bob Kerrey has to continue his soul searching. If he feels that the Bronze Star was not rightfully his return it; make a clean confession of what he feels this whole episode represents, and then we move forward from there. This was one more smear against our noble Vietnam veterans, and I don’t think we need to continue it.
JIM LEHRER: Smear on behalf of what? By The New York Times and CBS?
WALLACE TERRY: No, by the episode itself.
JIM LEHRER: By the episode.
WALLACE TERRY: And its revelation – yes.
JIM LEHRER: Father Hehir, how would you define the purpose in pursuing this investigation?
FATHER BRYAN HEHIR: Well, I think in light of our discussion so far, it’s really important to distinguish two different things; that is to say the establishment of objective standards, the need to have them, even though war is ambiguous and tragic and awful, people have tried for centuries to set limits on how awful it is, and that’s a worthwhile enterprise and we’ve tried to do that. So the objective standards, it seems to me, need to be constantly reiterated, and that’s the first point, and we shouldn’t, I think, eviscerate them by saying war is awful; it is. But it is much worse if there are no limits on it.
Secondly, they’re subjective considerations. Now this is where an investigation would go and would have to be very careful to acknowledge that things that could be objectively wrong, people would have done because they were under subjective pressure or bad judgment, or their assessment of the situation… You can’t make an overall moral judgment without bringing those subjective things into consideration that oftentimes mitigate – mitigate greatly responsibility even when you think the thing is objectively wrong.
JIM LEHRER: So it could be possible that the Kerrey troops killed innocent civilians and yet it still wouldn’t constitute a war crime?
FATHER BRYAN HEHIR: Not necessarily. Once you examine the subjective criteria. I think the other point that has to come in here is the policy framework under which they were working. It’s a mistake to go precisely to individual actions in a vacuum. The question of what the policy guidance they were given and under which they operate would have to be part of any investigation.
It has been reported again and again that this was a free fire zone, and that was one of the norms used in Vietnam for policy. The question about whether that’s an adequate policy guidance for individuals, whether that’s good policy to assume that anyone in the area is automatically vulnerable, that has as much to do with an investigation as any individual decision made under extraordinary pressure.
JIM LEHRER: General Trainor, do you agree with that? Explain to us anything you want to add or subtract to the definition what are free fire zones, because Senator Kerrey mentioned that as well at his news conference.
LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.): Yes, well, a free fire zone was a geographic area that was carved out on a map, and the presumption was that anybody that was in that area was hostile, a VC, because the government, those who favored the government forces, had been removed, so therefore, any unit that went into that area, had to go on the assumption that they were under threat from hostile people, regardless of whether they were man, woman, or child, because as we know in that war and has been pointed out earlier in this segment, that women and children were a very active part of the VC operations.
Then the other item was the rules of engagement. These governed the conduct of troops in the field, which means, when can you use lethal force? And at that particular time and under those circumstances, the judgment was made or was left up to the commander of the unit that if he felt threatened, then he could use lethal force, but there was no definition of what threatened meant; that was left up to the judgment of the individual, and the climate at the time, Jim, was that Robert McNamara and those around him were assessing our success in the war by the number of VC that were killed, and therefore whether it was man, woman or child, innocent or guilty, if they were dead, almost by definition they were considered VC to increase the count to satisfy Robert McNamara’s desire to bean count success or failure in the war.
JIM LEHRER: Jonathan Schell, is there any way to pursue this without opening all those kinds of things all over again that the general and other people have talked about, about Vietnam? Is that a good thing for the country to do right now?
JONATHAN SCHELL: This question has arisen; I don’t think we can duck it. I do think it’s important to ask what the policies were de facto and otherwise. General Trainor has rightly said that there is a standard on the books written there, but the fact of the matter is that it was massively – and I would say it was systemically violated by American forces in Vietnam, and this was done on orders at high levels, and the fact of the matter is that we aren’t clear exactly how it came to be that the United States arrived at the really terrible policy of simply drawing a line around certain areas and saying that everybody in those areas could be killed at will.
As far as I’m aware that was not articulated in any formal policy way, but it was indeed the practice, and I think it would be very useful for us as a country as we try to face ourselves and our own past and give advice to others to understand how we slipped into that kind of thing, and I certainly would hope, as Father Hehir has said, that that would be part of the investigation; it would have to be.
JIM LEHRER: But, Bill Dannenmaier, is there something special about Vietnam, or – you took the position these kinds of things happen in all wars, right?
WILLIAM DANNENMAIER: Absolutely. I have talked with men who were infantrymen from the Second World War, from Vietnam, and of course I was in Korea and from other fellows in Korea. It is simply always true. War is a nasty, dirty business, and there is no way of getting around it, and the infantrymen I’ve known, certain things are true of them in every war. They’re always tense, because somebody’s trying to kill you and it’s 24 hours a day. It’s seven days a week. You can’t go outside to go to the toilet that somebody doesn’t try and kill you. You’ve got the tension there; if you don’t live with it, you die without it. You’re always tired; all of the guys I knew were always exhausted; mostly, we were always hungry. I haven’t heard that from Vietnam, but I have heard that from the Second World War, as well as from – I know it was true of Korea. You lose your sense of reality; you don’t know what’s going on anymore. I – you lose all – all you know is you’re staying alive, you’re finding food, and I said earlier, the infantrymen that I knew, the working infantrymen — never, never harmed people deliberately unless he thought it was necessary.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it. Sorry, Mr. Dannenmaier. We have to leave it there. Yes, sir. Thank you all five very much.