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THE HORROR THAT WILL NEVER GO AWAY
DAVID H. HACKWORTH
Ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey's admission about a 1969 Vietnam atrocity might have
generated a media feeding frenzy, but it's not news to me.
Nine years ago at Newsweek, I got a call from a man who claimed he was a
"former SEAL" and whispered last week's headline news. But after some picking
and shoveling, editor Maynard Parker and I walked away. Years later, another
Newsweek reporter, Gregory Vistica, came up with the same story, and it, too,
We never ran with my story because:
* The allegation couldn't be backed up. Participants had conflicting recall,
common among warriors even immediately after a fight and especially decades
later. No big surprise. Most eyewitnesses to a traumatic experience --
battle-related or civilian -- remember it differently.
* The whisperer couldn't explain why, since military law was on his side, he
didn't stop the massacre. You know, "Lt. Kerrey, cease/desist or I'll shoot
you." Or why he didn't immediately report the "war crime" per Navy regs. Or
why he then sat on it for so many years.
Another reason was based on my almost five years in Vietnam, where, during
that shameful war, there were thousands of such atrocities. My parachute
battalion's first big "kill" in 1965 was a night ambush at An Khe that
destroyed a tribal family who hadn't gotten the word about the curfew. The
draftee unit I skippered in 1969 -- as I've recently discovered while doing
interviews for a new book -- had at least a dozen such horrors. Most were
reported at the time as "enemy killed." Thirty-two years later, the
participants say: It was the easy way out; we couldn't handle the shame; the
command was constantly pushing the body-count figure.
Everywhere our young men fought in Vietnam, where there were civilians, there
was carnage. Especially in the Mekong Delta -- where Kerrey's commandos were
hunting and being hunted by an armed enemy who was everywhere.
Most of us have heard of William Calley's My Lai massacre, where hundreds of
noncombatants were cut down in a bloodbath led by a madman. But ask anyone
who fought in the Delta, where 35 percent of Vietnam's population lived, if
civilians got caught in the middle of the cross fire -- and the answer has to
Few innocents were killed on purpose. But it was a war with no front, and few
of the enemy in the Delta wore uniforms or fought by the rules of war. Also,
many women, children and old men were "freedom fighters" not unlike Americans
during our War of Independence.
My division in the Delta, the 9th, reported killing more than 20,000 Viet
Cong in 1968 and 1969, yet less than 2,000 weapons were found on the "enemy"
dead. How much of the "body count" consisted of civilians?
John Paul Vann told me in April 1969 when he was in charge of pacification in
the Delta that "at least 30 percent were noncombatants" and that he'd spoken
to President Nixon about having the 9th immediately pulled out of the Delta.
A month later, the division got its marching orders.
Gen. Julian Ewell, who commanded the 9th, never ordered his soldiers to kill
civilians. Nor did I. Nor, in my judgment, did Bob Kerrey. Nor did most of
the scared young men -- lying out in the mud night after night thinking every
sound was an enemy who'd soon take their lives -- purposely kill civilians.
The Vietnam War was a 25-year running sore in which more than 5 million
Southeast Asians died, nearly half a million Americans bled and millions of
others still bear the pain and the shame and the scars.
This week, Vistica finally presents his sensational story of events long ago
in print, followed by Dan Rather on television. But neither was on that op;
neither has been a combat grunt. Vistica never served; Rather did have a go
at becoming a Marine but never completed boot camp. As far as I'm concerned,
neither is qualified to pass judgment on soldiers or sailors.
Matter of fact, neither of these frequent military bashers is fit to shine
Kerrey's one jungle boot -- the other having been left behind in Vietnam with
his foot in it while he bravely answered his country's call.
(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.