June 1, 2001 Episode no. 440
Amidst the observances of Memorial Day week and the recent revelations about former
senator Bob Kerrey's 1969 mission in Vietnam, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY invited
two writers to comment on war, combat ethics, and moral accountability:
The Dark Night of the Soul
by Walter T. Davis
"Who was to speak of rules and ethics in a war that had none?"
--Philip Caputo, A RUMOR OF WAR
"In Vietnam, Americanism failed. Power, innocence, purity, organization, technology,
can-do optimism, heroism, the defense of civilization -- the whole myth turned
in upon itself ... The resulting crisis ... is really the loss of national identity
because the national story -- the national theology -- is no longer credible."
--Walter T. Davis, Jr.
SHATTERED DREAM: AMERICA'S SEARCH FOR ITS SOUL
Congress has had many chances to launch investigations into American atrocities
in Vietnam and has never done so. Any investigation of Bob Kerrey and the events
at Thanh Phong on the night of February 25, 1969 would be self-serving for the
military and for Congress. It would make scapegoats of Kerrey and his men and
once again absolve those with a far greater degree of responsibility for the mayhem
wreaked on Vietnam by the U.S. during those years.
A RUMOR OF WAR, Philip Caputo's memoir of Vietnam, he shows how soldiers are trained
-- turned into killers -- and how military propaganda systematically dehumanizes
the enemy to break down the normal taboo against killing. Then he describes the
morass of Vietnam: the rules of war were turned on their head; the military brass
demanded higher and higher body counts; women and children were fair game if suspected
of aiding the Vietcong; and the line between bravery and savagery was often indistinguishable.
Caputo, a lieutenant, was court-martialed because a squad of men under his command
assassinated two young Vietnamese who were suspected of being Vietcong. In the
military trial, he and his squad were treated as if they were hit men who had
committed murder on the streets of Los Angeles. While not denying his role in
the killings, Caputo tags the trial a charade: "The war in general and U.S. military
policies in particular were ultimately to blame for the deaths of Le Du and Le
Dung. That was the truth, and it was that truth which the whole [court] proceeding
was designed to conceal."
Gerhard Klann, who was in Kerrey's squad of Navy Seals, claims that after killing
five people in a hooch outside Thanh Phong, Kerrey ordered his men to round up
the people in the hamlet and gun them down point blank, even though they were
all unarmed women and children. Kerrey denies this. He says that the killing of
women and children was done from a distance and was unintentional. We may never
know whose version of the story is correct.
Any investigation that only looks at the actions of Kerrey and his squad on the
night of February 25, 1969 would be an exercise in blaming the victim. I regard
the American GIs as victims -- not innocent victims, but victims nevertheless,
of deception, manipulation, and scapegoating. The only kind of investigation I
could support would be one that also investigates the policies and conditions
of the war itself and those who were responsible for them.
crimes should be investigated and war criminals punished. I consider it an ethical
advance that the international court has brought charges against a former head
of state, Slobodan Milosevic, for crimes against humanity in the Balkans. But
by limiting the scope of investigations into Vietnam war atrocities and focusing
only on the actions of those who pulled the trigger, our military and civilian
authorities have protected their own hind sides.
What would a more adequate moral accountability look like in this particular case?
For starters, Thanh Phong was a free-fire zone where villagers who did not evacuate
were marked for killing. Those higher up in the chain of command, who trained
and ordered the Seals to kidnap, assassinate, and "take care of" any civilian
who accidentally got in their way, bear more responsibility than the men who implemented
the policy. Has anyone asked for an investigation of the policy makers who designated
certain areas free-fire zones? Why have the commanders who demanded high body
counts and dished out medals for indiscriminate killing not been court-martialed?
The greater the responsibility for policies, the greater the moral accountability
for their implementation, all the way up the chain of command to Secretaries McNamara
and Kissinger, and Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. It is a double standard
to prosecute President Milosevic and let our own leaders and ourselves as a nation
off the hook.
Caputo put the issue clearly: "According to the 'rules of engagement,' it was
morally right to shoot an unarmed Vietnamese who was running, but wrong to shoot
one who was standing or walking ... it was wrong for infantrymen to destroy a
village with white phosphorus grenades, but right for a fighter pilot to drop
napalm on it. Ethics seemed to be a matter of distance and technology."
It is the basic rules of engagement that are ethically dubious. (And I would apply
the same critique to the U.S. air war on Baghdad and Belgrade.) What I'm calling
for is the concept of shared responsibility. A squad leader is responsible for
the actions of those who follow his or her orders. The same should apply up the
chain of command.
I don't think that much good would be served by singling out Bob Kerrey, Gerhard
Klann, and the other Navy Seals for investigation and possible prosecution at
this time. They are still living with the memories of their war experiences. We
don't need to make those memories worse at this late date.
Walter T. Davis is the author of SHATTERED DREAM: AMERICA'S SEARCH FOR ITS SOUL
(Trinity Press International, 1994), a book on the religious dimensions of the
Vietnam War. He was for many years a professor of the sociology of religion and
director of advanced pastoral studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
On Guilt and Good Character
by Jonathan Shay
1. War is hell. There are no "rules of war" other than kill or be killed any way
you can. All's fair, and anything goes as long as you win.
2. Killing innocents is always a war crime. Better to die yourself than to kill
innocents. If you did kill innocents, you should be tried and punished.
These two absolutes are mirror images of righteous self-certainty. They show up
in how people react to veterans who reveal that they are in moral pain about events
they played a part in, and in how people have responded in recent weeks to Bob
Kerrey's pain-filled account, and the competing narrative by fellow squad member
Gerhard Klann, of the 1969 killing of at least 13 unarmed Vietnamese women and
children in Thanh Phong.
I want to complicate things for both groups of absolutists -- those who think
Kerrey didn't do anything wrong and doesn't have anything to feel guilty about,
and those who think that if he feels guilty, he must have done something wrong.
distinction between a lawful combatant (a term of art in military law) and a protected
person is essential to the safety and well being of our own ground fighters, whether
soldiers, Marines or Navy Seals. The classic examples of protected persons are,
of course, unarmed, unresisting civilians and surrendered, disarmed, unresisting
prisoners of war. A good troop leader takes care of the troops. Restraining troops
from committing atrocities is taking care of them. The reasons for this are quite
First, every atrocity strengthens the enemy. There were a handful of officers
in the U.S. Army in Vietnam who saw this clearly at the time. These few leaders
regarded the way Seal teams were employed in the Mekong Delta as an advantage
to the enemy and a setup for harm to the Seals.
One of them, Colonel Carl Bernard, is a retired Army infantry officer who fought
in both Korea and Vietnam. During part of his time in Vietnam, Colonel Bernard
was a province senior advisor in the Delta, working for John Paul Vann, the career
Army officer and critic of the war who was the subject of Neil Sheehan's book
about Vietnam, A BRIGHT SHINING LIE. A few days after the Kerrey story broke,
"This episode proves again the very old conclusion about how little Americans knew
about the "Peoples War" that Kerrey and the rest of us were in. Simply stated,
we did not know how to fight such a conflict at its beginning, and we learned
very little during its course, in significant part because of the constant transfer
of personnel [causing their knowledge and experience to be lost]. We were hurt
even more by bringing the wrong lessons from Korea, and our dedicated, enduring
refusal to learn anything at all from the French experience. We knew almost nothing
of our enemy; we knew very little more of our supposed allies beyond our assumption
of common goals. And we knew far too little of our own forces and those who manned
The Seal teams had no more capability to accomplish their so-called counterinsurgency
missions one month (!) after they arrived in country than I have of doing brain
surgery. The difference is that I know that I do not have these exotic skills,
and I stay out of hospital operating rooms.
I was damned unkind a couple of months after Than Phong in restricting the activities
of the Seal team in Vinh Binh, the province below the one in which [Kerrey was]
operating. As I told them in some dudgeon, their activities were sustaining the
Viet Cong's recruiting effort even better than the Air Force's activities."
In a "People's War," the enemy recruits the uncommitted and unmotivated in the
civilian population to its side when they can entice us to respond indiscriminately
or massively against the civilian population.
Second, every atrocity potentially disables the service member who commits it.
When I speak here of atrocity disabling the service member, I am not pointing
to that person's distant future as a guilt-ridden veteran, as important as that
may be. I refer to the immediate question of whether he or she is lost to the
because of the psychological injury incurred by committing
atrocities. Sober and responsible troop leaders and trainers, who have personally
"seen the elephant" and cannot be painted as cravenly "PC," are concerned about
prevention of psychological injury as a readiness issue. An injured service member
is lost to the force, whether the injury is physical or psychological.
distinction between lawful combatant (who may thus be legally and morally attacked)
and protected person is the bright line between soldier and murderer. The overwhelming
majority of people who volunteer for our armed forces are not psychopaths; they
are good people who will be seared by knowing themselves to be murderers. You
do not "support our service men" by mocking the law of land warfare and calling
it a joke.
Francis Lieber's 1863 "Instructions for the Armies of the United States" expressed
what I believe to be the continuing consensus of serious military professionals:
"Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account
to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God." Even tough-guy gunslingers
in the ground forces, and all those whose ideals includes "supporting our troops,"
have good reason, based on national self-interest, to respect and support the
rules of war. Everyone who thinks that repeating "there are no rules" demonstrates
patriotic support for the troops should think again.
I want to give equal gadfly treatment to those who simply hold Kerrey absolutely
culpable because innocent civilians died. These absolutists deny even the possibility
of ethical and honorable conduct in a bad war. There are a thousand variations
on what people mean by a bad war. These range from condemnation of war under any
circumstances by absolute pacifists, to those who saw the large-scale American
aims in Vietnam to have been unwise and confused, along with large-scale policies
and operational doctrines, such as free-fire zones, that were both vicious and
counterproductive. Those who deplore that we fought in Vietnam and how we fought
in Vietnam are often ready to blame the people who fought there. They hold Bob
Kerrey to a standard of ethical responsibility that says, "If innocents died,
you are to blame. End of story."
I would like to complicate their picture by pointing out that the Vietcong commander
who was the target of Kerrey's team's mission was a "lawful combatant." The hamlet
where he was headquartered (or merely sleeping) was deep in enemy territory.
is morally irrelevant whether he was attacked by airplanes, artillery, or a small
deep-penetration infantry team. It was not morally irrelevant for the Vietcong
commander to situate his headquarters in a civilian hamlet, because to do so compromised
their protected person status. Bombs and shells were then and still are crude
ways of attacking a legal combatant and much more likely to cause innocent deaths
than the sniper's rifle or commando's knife. The concept of Kerrey's mission had
much to recommend it from an ethical standpoint -- the much sought-after "surgical
strike." Had it gone off successfully, as conceived, there would have been no
Here is where we get to the two conflicting accounts of what happened. Kerrey
says the team was fired on in the dark. He says they returned the fire, and when
they came forward to look, they found numerous dead women and children. Klann
says that they got into the hamlet, didn't find their target, but did find a dozen
or so women and children. Klann is quoted as saying, "Our chances would have been
slim to none to get out alive" if they had left the villagers alive to call in
their own forces to kill or capture the Americans during their retreat. Kerrey
tells it as a horrible accident in the dark; Klann frames it as "us-or-them,"
and says that Kerrey gave the order.
Kerrey was in-country about a month at the time this disastrous mission took place.
He understood himself to be responsible not only for the mission, but for the
lives of the seven other members of the team. At the time, it was universally
believed among American ground forces that the enemy kept no enlisted prisoners
alive and very few officer prisoners. The rank makeup of the small number of prisoners
eventually repatriated bears out this belief. So even if Kerrey had been of the
saintly disposition that said, "Better I should die than shed innocent blood,"
what was his moral position regarding the members of his team? Would he have been
blameless making the decision that they should die for them? Could he, or anyone
in that position, have known the right thing to do? Even if we accept Klann's
version, Kerrey's decision was not an uncoerced choice to do evil. The situation
evil. Kerrey now finds the whole incident tainting, even though in
his version it was utterly an accident. I do not consider him morally or legally
culpable under either version.
One does not have to be Aristotle or Bertrand Russell to see that both Kerrey's
and Klann's accounts cannot be true simultaneously. Most people will then conclude
that one of the two narrators, Kerrey or Klann, is lying. I confess that I am
not enormously interested in this question, which is separate from the question
of culpability for the actual act of killing the civilians. Can Klann and
Kerrey be telling the truth? Factually, no, but psychologically, yes. The returned-fire-in-the-dark
narrative may well have been created in the riverboat returning the team to base
and repeated by everyone thereafter, becoming implanted as sincerely remembered
"truth" by all concerned. As the most experienced person on the team, Klann himself
may well have been the one to say, "Now listen up. This is what happened tonight.
Got it?" Memory has a large component of social construction. Klann's greater
experience at the time
and (in my conjecture here) greater role in constructing
the group narrative may have contributed to his being able to recall it differently
than Kerrey and the other five team members whose memories correspond with Kerrey's
and not Klann's. It is possible, given the way memory works, that none
of them is lying, in the usual sense of knowingly telling a falsehood about what
they remember from that night more than 30 years ago.
Bernard's judgment now and at the time was that this mode of employment of the
Seal team in that densely populated area was wrong-headed from the start, and
that the blame lies with the ignorance, negligence, and arrogance of the higher-ups
who ordered these young Americans into morally impossible situations. The difference
between an accident in the dark and a tragic us-or-them decision is thus a difference
without a moral or legal distinction.
Innocents died, and apparently everyone involved that night feels tainted by it.
The "gotcha!" journalists, who seem to believe that because Kerrey admits to feeling
guilty, he must be
guilty, are completely wrong. A person of good
character feels moral pain -- call it guilt, shame, anguish -- after doing something
that caused another person suffering, injury, or death, even if entirely accidental
or unavoidable. Ethics philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made that point in her
commentary on Aeschylus's "Agamemnon," pointing out that the chorus -- the voice
of the moral consensus, of "what's right" -- condemns Agamemnon for his lack of
anguish at having been forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, not for the
fact of doing it. Even if Klann's account were correct, it would mean only that
Kerrey had bad moral luck in being faced, like Agamemnon, with a choice between
two courses of action, both disastrous. War creates these situations in abundance.
I take it as evidence of Kerrey's humanity and good character that the events
of February 1969 -- whether accident or tragic choice -- weigh on him, not
that these painful emotions are incriminating on the one hand or pathological
on the other. Pioneer trauma specialist and Holocaust survivor, Yaël Danieli
speaks of the "four existential functions of guilt": to deny helplessness; to
keep the dead alive by making them ever present in thought; to sustain loyalty
to the dead; and to affirm that the world is still a just place when someone (even
if only the guilt-ridden survivor alone) feels guilt at what was done.
Is guilt, then, never pathological? Never in need of therapy? Here I speak as
a psychiatrist whose only patients are combat veterans who have sought help from
the Veterans Administration. If the guilt leads them to feel deserving of execution,
and to arrange or try to carry out that execution, we will intervene to stop it,
with involuntary hospitalization if necessary.
If guilt leads to self-destructive patterns of self-neglect, drug and alcohol
abuse, danger-seeking (in the hope of "getting lucky" -- i.e., dying), we will
offer education, treatment, and the opportunity to heal with and for other veterans.
If guilt results in the sense that one's taint is contagious, that other people
will be harmed simply by getting to know the veteran and his narrative, we offer
the same treatment mix. If guilt leads to an all-too-common pattern of family
life that oscillates between aggressively messing up anything good that happens
and being a passive door-mat to other family members, we offer those treatments
plus family or couples therapy.
But what if the guilt results in private anguish alone? What I have described
above might be called medical/psychological therapies. They often help, but they
are not, and should not be the only therapies available for moral pain. Religious
and cultural therapies are not only possible, but may well be superior to what
mental health professionals conventionally offer.
In the medieval Christian church, everyone who shed blood in war had to do penance.
If you committed atrocities, you had to do more penance, but even if you wore
a white hat and were a perfect model of both "jus ad bellum" (law on war) and
"jus in bello" (law in war), you had to do penance. Most warrior societies, as
well as many not dominated by warfare, have historically had communal rites of
purification of the returning fighter after battle -- the purifications in Numbers
31: 19ff, for example, in the Hebrew Bible.
The performances of the Athenian tragic theater -- which was a theater of combat
veterans, by combat veterans, and for combat veterans -- offered cultural therapy,
including purification. Aristotle famously said that tragedy provides "katharsis."
Scholars tell us that three meanings of katharsis circulated in Aristotle's time
and would have been known to him: 1) religious purification of a ritual taint
and expiation of a religious sin; 2) medicinal purgation of something unhealthy,
poisonous, or impure; 3) mental clarification, removing obstacles to understanding
-- the psychological equivalent of producing clear water from muddy water. The
ancient Athenians had a distinctive therapy of purification, healing, and reintegration
of returning soldiers that was undertaken as a whole political community. Sacred
theater was one of its primary means of reintegrating the returning veteran into
the social sphere as "citizen."
One of my patients, whose father was torpedoed in the World War II Merchant Marine,
greeted him with a $50 bill on his return from Vietnam and the words, "Here. Get
drunk. Get laid. And I want you at the union hall on Monday morning." That
is not purification after battle.
Over the years, I have said to my patients (who are almost entirely Roman Catholic
because of the demography of the local veteran population), "If the church's ideas
on sin, penitence, forgiveness of sin, and redemption are about anything, they're
about the real stuff. What the church offers is about cruelty, violence, murder
-- not just the sins you confessed in parochial school."
clinical team has encouraged many of the veterans we work with to avail themselves
of the sacrament of penance. When a veteran does not already know a priest he
trusts to hear his confession, we have suggested priests who understand enough
about combat neither to deny that he has anything to feel guilty about nor to
recoil in revulsion and send him away without the sacrament. We also recommend
service to others and the doing (not simply passive consumption) of the arts as
ways of living with guilt.
Have we learned nothing about the importance of judging separately a war and the
people who fight it? Yes, the Nuremberg Principles on war crimes are crucial.
But do we condemn an inexperienced young Navy lieutenant for not refusing an order
because it could lead him into the illegal act of killing unarmed women and children
if the mission failed in some particular way, but not if it went off as conceived?
Prior to all these "revelations," I admired Bob Kerrey greatly (so you can suspect
me of being biased in his favor if you wish), and I continue to admire him. But
now that admiration is deepened by an appreciation for how much pain he carries.
The nature of the pain is a sign of his good character. He is, to use philosopher
Karl Jaspers' term, a person with "high rank in being."
Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D. is a staff psychiatrist at the Department of Veteran's Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston and Visiting Scholar-at-Large at the US Naval War College, Newport, RI. He is author of ACHILLES IN VIETNAM: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE UNDOING OF CHARACTER (1994, Atheneum, 1995 Simon & Schuster Touchstone paperback) and of ODYSSEUS IN AMERICA (forthcoming from Scribner, Veterans' Day, 2002).