". . . Kerry, followed by one member of his crew, jumped ashore and chased a VC behind a hooch--a thatched hut--maybe 15 yards inland from the ambush site. Some who were there that day recall the man being wounded as he ran. Neither I nor Jerry Leeds, our boat's leading petty officer with whom I've checked my recollection of all these events, recalls that, which is no surprise. Recollections of those who go through experiences like that frequently differ.
"With our troops involved in the sweep of the first ambush site, Richard Lamberson, a member of my crew, and I also went ashore to search thr area. I was checking out the inside of the hooch when I heard gunfire nearby.
"Not long after that, Kerry returned, reporting that he had killed the man he chased behind the hooch. He also had picked up a loaded B-40 rocket launcher, which we took back to our base in An Thoi after the operation.
" John O'Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry's Vietnam service, describes the man Kerry chased as a "teenager" in a "loincloth." I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both Leeds and I recall that he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore.
"The man Kerry chased was not the "lone"
attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled.
There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider
holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well. It
was not the work of just one attacker. . .".
Two points might still need to be addressed:
1. Was the "victim" of Kerry just a "teenager dressed in a loincloth" who was trying to escape the fighting--or was he dressed in something else? In other words, is the swiftboat captain here denying this person was dressed in a loincloth, or is he saying that dressing in a loincloth was often "standard VC garb"?
2. Could the captain be trying to rationalize the killing of numerous individuals who had little or nothing on but loincloths? In the aftermath of the war, do memories of such shootings still dog him? Does his conscience still torment him into saying: "maybe this wasn't a VC, since all they had on was a loincloth"? However, rather than face the guilt this induces, he blocks this out by "remembering" things the way he would have them?
I suppose, if I were really concerned, I could say that Vietnam was filled with individual killings, just as Iraq is. Innocent people get killed all the time, in these types of situations. This even happens right here, in the US, during drug busts, etc. Sadly, sometimes someone is in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In a situation where they are unable to make a sound because of threat of death from the "bad guys", they try to "jump and run" in the vain hope they can escape to safer ground-- and that they won't be spotted by the "good guys" and taken for the enemy. I am troubled that this might have been what happened here.
IF SO, Kerry committed a reprehensible act.
But Kerry's fellow swiftboat captain (a Chicago Tribune editor whose recent article is quoted from in the excerpt above) leaves enough of a gray area here, to indicate that he recalls this person had on "black pajamas," with perhaps a rounded-pyramid hat, which is what is seen in video of the war as "standard VC garb".
At the same time, though, he doesn't, in these remarks as quoted, actually say that the loincloth didn't represent, to his mind "standard VC garb." I just hope the latter isn't the case. If it is, he's not a very solid or reliable witness--and not a person one could say was being ethical in his responses.
After all, over that war, a generation--and a nation-- was divided, and for good reason. After years, Vietnam ceased to be about what it was at the start--assuming it was ever a "good" war at all. GIs and officers got awards for small things, just to keep them "doing". That in itself was "no big deal."
What was a "big deal" came to be atrocities by US forces--the increasing mass killings of innocent men, women and children. Civilians were mowed down by units like the elite "Tiger Company" in the central highlands, during a seven-month rampage there. Yet, though 18 of the US soldiers involved were found guilty by subsequent military tribunals for crimes against humanity, none were ever punished.(Toledo Blade"Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths." Toledo, OH. 2003.)
Civilians were also mowed down by "Charlie company," under Lt William Calley and Capt. Ernest Medina at infamous My Lai. My Lai hit the media in the months after I graduated high school, about a year in the wake of the Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. And though My Lai was claimed to be a fluke, we now know--as several asserted at the time--that civilians were repeatedly slaughtered all over Vietnam during numerous actions, including one called "Operation Phoenix".
Designed as a "counter-terrorism" operation to root out "suspected VC" from their hamlets and villages, "Phoenix" was terrorism itself, terrorism personified. A reminiscence of how the US Army had treated Native Americans a hundred years before on the Great Plains of America, it had a similar tragic effect. Even Vietnamese who tried to be friendly to the US came to dread the appearance of the Phoenix and other units. Even as they tried to remain hostile to the enemy forces first established by nationalist hero Ho Chi Minh, their homes were burned down by their US "friends" before their eyes, their cattle obliterated by US and ARVN artillery on the ground and by fire from fiercely-painted helicopter gunships.
And then, in the latter years of the war, it began to be that their covered corpses also were presented, in anonymous body bags, as examples of "dead VC" for the daily "body count" for the upper officers and the news media. Their deaths increasingly became the deaths of the innocent, the inoffensive. First bereft of their homes, they were then deprived of their very lives by soldiers allegedly sent to "save" them.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. And, by the time I was draft-eligible, most people knew of the atrocities, (though, as it turns out, only part of them) thanks, in great part, not only to the close-in media coverage, (to which further reference will be made in a moment), but also to the testimony of returning vets like Kerry. Even Nixon himself, disenchanted from LBJ's huge US ground troop presence in 'Nam, by then was refraining from sending low-morale draftees into ground combat there. Only volunteers were to be sent, said Defense Secretary Laird.
For what it's worth, there is no reason to believe that, as the number of US troops on the ground there dropped, the level of crimes against humanity dropped, on either side. But we had killed too many friends in Indochina to be truly welcome there anymore. Yet, like the wounded man who must remove an arrow from his leg by pulling it on through, the leaving of Vietnam was almost as painful as the staying. But the television set brought the Vietnam war home. In the words of Alexander Kendrick:
"When the war finally broke into the American living room it seemed as unreal as the rest of the television fare... The time came when the actuality of Vietnam painfully asserted itself: when the Marines set fire to native huts with their cigarette lighters; when the severed ears of "Viet cong" dead were proudly displayed for the camera by young Americans; when a Marine major's leg was cuf off between commercials, and the police chief of South Vietnam executed a bound prisoner in open view; when Presidents appeared suddenly in the place of favorite programs, to promise peace while increasing war, and the Secretary of State warned of the Yellow Peril--"a billion Communist Chinese armed with nuclear weapons"'; when the reassurances of generals and ambassadors were no longer believed; when Christmas after Christmas passed without the boys coming home, and the light at the end of the tunnel went out. (Kendrick 5)."
In describing the overall US military activity in the latter days of the war, Kendrick writes:
". . . The United States was imposing upon the Vietnamese a . . . loss in their identification with past and place, by making so many of them refugees and destroying their . . . contact with the earth. The ancestral village . . . was replaced by the refugee camp, made of tin and American packing cases. In 1972 the number of refugees reached 5 million in a population of 18 million....This enforced urbanization was that of an industrial economy, but there was no industry.(Kendrick 8 )."
The ability to "fix" the problem began to disappear more rapidly with each passing day, as rampant corruption multiplied, as he further notes:
"...Corruption has existed in all societies, but not often in the integral way in which it permeated Vietnam, as a mixture of Asian cumshaw, French debrouillage, and American wealth, waste and wild oats. It defiled evrything, including the South Vietnamese presidential election of 1971, when the United States, in its manipulations to contrive a pretense of democracy, offered funds to other candidates to 'oppose' the incumbent, General Thieu, and then dropped even the pretense and sanctioned Thieu's solo candidacy. America. . . surpassed even its own precedent of 1955 and the rigged plebiscite of Ngo Dinh Diem . . . After his election, Thieu also exceeded Diem in the sweeping nature of his rule by decree, his imprisonment of alleged opponents of his regime, and his censorship of the press .(Kendrick 8-9):"
But some of the most devastating effects of Vietnam may be still felt today, here in America: the set up of the apparatus of destruction of democracy. Once our "secret government" had learned how to effectively undermine democratic movements--and hopes of democracy--in nations overseas, was it not only a matter of time before such activity would be attempted in the US? In Kendrick's words:
"In America, as in Vietnam, efforts were made to repress the opposition. In both countries, students, intellectuals, war veterans and religious groups were most prominent among the dissenters, and charges of disloyalty, conspiracy and even treason were freely uttered. (Kendrick 5). . .
"When Thieu received 91.5 percent of the vote in 1971 it was explained in Washington that even some Amercian elections have been dishonest. The presdiential campaign of 1972 proved the point . . .
"Watergate differed from the previous scandals not only in degree but in mind. It couldn 't be called simply campaign skullduggery or 'dirty tricks,' as the President's defenders held. On the surface--when the surface came to be exposed--it involved the use of lavish Republican funds, some secretly contributed, to carry out the burglary and 'bugging' of Dmeocratic national headquarters, and the infiltration and bedevilment of the 1972 Democratic primaries. Beneath the surface lay the accumulation of power, political and personal, which the Nixon administration had extended beyond all precedent and used in the furtherance of a presidential system of government. (Kendrick 9)."
". . . In Watergate, the 'law and order' administration, which used conspiracy charges like a broadax against suspected subversives, was involved in the darkest conspiracy of all, the subversion of the fundamental political processes. (Kendrick 10)."
Have we seen some aspects of this in the Jeb Bush regime's rigged Florida vote in 2000? What does this augur for the current 2004 election? In previous years, as noted elsewhere on this website, throughout the 1950s, '60s, '70s and 1980s, in South America, Asia and the Mideast, the CIA and its allies had for years intervened in election results. And, in 1984, an earlier Bush had surveilled the American Jewish community, supposedly as part of a "national security" action in cooperation with Britain's MI-6--and very conveniently in the midst of a Presidential election--an action that probably helped to ensure or produce the 1984 "Reagan landslide" (in which a whole 21% of registered voters voted for Reagan). Then, in 2000, W., Jeb and the Bush family, a CIA-based family, in Florida, seems to have intervened in a US election. Recounts and media studies after the election confirmed that the "butterfly ballot" was deliberately designed to deny Gore over 20,000 votes in Florida. And Reagan/Bush--and, hauntingly, Nixon--appointees on the United States Supreme Court approved a federal intervention in a state's election activities, to ensure an end to recounts that, media results showed, would have turned the state--and the election--to Gore.
Meanwhile, as Watergate and the April 1975 fall of Saigon wound out, returning GIs were put through the mill. They were drug-and-alchohol-struck and addicted, (one GI even earned a medal while high on drugs--Kendrick 5) and tormented by their consciences, or kept sleepless by their nightmarish memories. Some of their lives were devastated before much government action occurred to alleviate their pain. Unlike perhaps any previous generation of our returning soldiers, they were often spat upon by demonstrators for their--often real-world--crimes against humanity. Many of us sympathized immediately. (But, for what it's worth, I don't sympathize with quite as large a percentage of 'Nam vets as I used to, because, it turns out, there was a larger percentage who were terrorists, indeed, than I had previously thought.)
We, as a nation, also subjected the GIs in 'Nam to a stress level different--in many ways odder-- than any other war. Would they continue to receive air support, or would we "halt the bombing of North Vietnam" in order to achieve a diplomatic settlement? And, if we were going to do the latter, in response to the shouts, demonstrations and signs of many of our children here at home, how much longer would they, our troops on the ground--our own children, too, after all--have to remain in that war-scorched land, under fire? We could take "risks for peace," as our dovish impulses claimed--and as personified in the "Russian roulette" game played in the Vietnam-based movie The Deer Hunter. But each time we took such a "risk", it was a young life, in a different situation to that of his potential civilian victims, that we were risking.
Indochina was a "frivolous" war, compared to wars like World War II. But the young lives of our soldiers were no more "frivolous" to lose.
And so, as we reflect back on that time, our national conscience continues to be seared by Vietnam. Bill Clinton was "damned if he didn't". John Kerry is "damned if he did." Perhaps this reveals our capacity for evil. But our frequent regret upon that reflection and recollection, also reveals the good in us.
Kendrick, Alexander. The Wound Within: America in the Vietnam Years. New York: Little. 1973. 5, 8-10. See also 320: "Calley's conviction [on My Lai charges] . . . made the moral implications of American conduct in Vietnam a more substantive part of the war controversy than ever before. Despite his remarks on the stand, My Lai was a 'big deal'. It stood revealed as just one of the many 'free-fire zones' in which Americans had been given hunting licenses for anything that moved [--emphasis added--mcs] . . . Despite its careful boundaries, therefore, the Calley trial caused many more Americans to face themselves, and even exercise self-judgment. The results may have differed, but beneath them was the rising feeling that not only had the United States to get out of Vietnam, but it had to do so to save itself. . .". If the Swiftboat veterans have touched any nerves, in other words, they have touched them among persons who came to oppose the Vietnam war due to the kinds of behavior discussed in the one ad about whether Kerry killed an innocent civilian. The Swiftboat Veterans' other ads may have fallen on the rocks of contradiction, but this ad fell on our souls. What is sad, is that it is done largely in defense of a President whose own opposition to the Vietnam quagmire consisted of a cynical National Guard membership, and whose answer to our heartbreak on 9/11, was to expose our young people to needless death in another quagmire in Iraq.
"Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths." (Four-part series).Toledo Blade. (www.toledoblade.com/) Joe Mahr, Mitch Weiss and Michael D. Sallah. October 19-22, 2003. The report series, based on military documents, and on interviews of veterans of the Vietnam war and of current citizens in Vietnam, hesitates to give an exact number as to the number of "innocent" civilians killed by the Tiger Unit, but notes that, in a single month, its soldiers killed over 120 villagers, according to one of its medics, Ron Causey. And, Causey and others added, the campaign extended over a seven-month period, in which our troops in the unit came to open up on "anything that moved" in villages through which it patrolled. (The article series can be visited at the paper's website above.)
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