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(This commentary piece also appears in THE VETERAN, 2001 (Volume 31, Number 1).)

VVAW Statement on Robert Kerrey

By Clarence Fitch Chapter of VVAW

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Recent news reports and the admissions of former US Senator and Medal of Honor recipient Robert Kerrey that in 1969, he led a six man SEAL team that killed 21 women, children and old men in the village of Thanh Phong has once again focused public attention on the ugly realities of the US war in Vietnam.

Knowledge of atrocities is not news to many Vietnam veterans. When returning GIs began telling people what was happening, many Americans didnt want to believe it. In January 1971 the Winter Soldier Investigation was organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and held in
Detroit. Over 100 combat vets testified there about atrocities they had been involved in or witnessed as a direct result of the US military policy of free fire zones, search and destroy missions and body count as the measure of success.

The governments response was denial. They tried to discredit the Winter Soldier hearings, calling the veterans who testified imposters and liars. In those cases they couldnt cover up, like the notorious My Lai massacre, they put the blame on a few "bad apples" while protecting those higher up the chain of command and in Washington.

The hard truth is that what happened that night in Thanh Phong was approved in advance by US militarys rules of engagement. Much of the Mekong Delta had been designated as a free fire zone. The peasants who lived there were considered the enemy and dead Vietnamese became "VC killed" whether they were armed guerillas or unarmed civilians. Although Kerreys Raiders failed in their mission to "take out" a village leader, the Pentagon considered it successful. He was even awarded a Bronze Star and whatever he may think of that medal, he got it according to standard operating procedure in Vietnam.

Kerrey?s admissions challenge attempts to rewrite the history and distort peoples memories of that time. After the war ended, right wing forces began a long term effort to convince the American people that despite a few mistakes that were made, they were for the right reasons. The unjust and criminal nature of the war was being transformed into what Ronald Reagan called a "noble cause".

The purpose of this revisionism was to confuse people and weaken opposition to new military interventions. Strategies were developed to manipulate public opinion, duck accountability and minimize US casualties while waging war in Latin America and the Middle East.

Now a small portion of the brutal facts are again before the American public. Some have responded to Kerreys revelations by painting him as the victim, ignoring the Vietnamese dead. Others have pointed fingers at him, a bad soldier in a good war. In some quarters, the differing versions of events have even been used to justify the killings.

There can be no justification for what happened but the culpability lies primarily with the politicians and generals who initiated, planned and ran the war, not those who were sent to fight it. Until we honestly face up to what happened in Vietnam and those who are responsible, especially Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, Laird, Rusk, Kissinger, Westmoreland and Abrams, are held accountable, the past will continue to haunt us.

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