WE DON’T KNOW HOW WE WOULD REACT IN A WAR

Where are you reading this? By the kitchen table with a cup of coffee? At the health club, on a treadmill?

Wherever you are, you need to imagine a different world now. You need to picture a dark, dead night in a swampy peasant village. You need to be 25 years old. Imagine gunfire. Imagine screaming.

Imagine a weapon on your shoulder, a helmet on your head, and the choking fear that you might die at any moment. Can you do that? Really? Can anyone on a normal, American morning really imagine that feeling?

If not, then it is hard to say what we would do if we were in Bob Kerrey’s boots back in February 1969.

Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, is under fire for his role in an attack on Than Phong, a Vietnamese village. The raid has long been considered one that killed enemy forces, but a more brutal account is given in today’s New York Times magazine.

Actually, several brutal accounts.

Kerrey’s account is that he and his group of commandos were fired upon. They returned fire, and only after the smoke cleared did they see they had killed 13 to 20 women and children.

Another squad member recalls the raid differently. Gerhard Klann said the group, led by Kerrey, thought its safe escape was threatened. So squad members rounded up the women and children and executed them.

“We did not go on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people,” Kerrey insisted last week.

Years of silence

Nobody argues that war is bloody. Nobody denies innocent people get killed. What seems to upset people as much as Kerrey’s wartime actions are the silent years that followed.

Kerrey did a lot in those silent years. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his role at Than Phong — in a hospital after his leg was blown to bits in another mission.

“The medal meant nothing to me,” he said.

But he still accepted it. He also accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor. He accepted other good things that came his way, at least partly because of his combat record.

He was elected governor. He was elected senator. Although Kerrey has said, “I never asserted I was a hero of war,” he didn’t exactly deny it, either. He made two passes at the Democratic nomination for president. Both times, his military record was cited as perhaps his most appealing attribute. During campaign speeches, he talked with inspiration of his Vietnam days.

He never mentioned shooting women and children.

The question is: Did he have to?

The memory that haunts

It is easy for us to judge Kerrey, to say, “He should have come clean right away.” But this is not about sneaking a cookie from a cookie jar. We are talking about inhumane behavior under inhumane conditions, shame, horror, guilt. We are also talking about a guy in his 20s who had to learn to live without part of his leg.

Many soldiers came back from Vietnam eerily silent, rendered mute over the horror they had seen. Some took their own lives.

Is it that hard to understand why Kerrey, crippled and guilt-stricken, wouldn’t exactly blurt out his story the first chance he got? Sure, he could have refused the medals. But is he really the first military man to get hardware for something that wasn’t earned? And why weren’t the battle reports more closely scrutinized?

Kerrey admits he might never resolve the discrepancy between his account and Klann’s. But in either version, this wasn’t killing for the sick thrill of it. It was done in the belief that American lives would be saved. When you are a U.S. soldier, you are trained to make that your priority.

This doesn’t excuse murdering innocent people. Kerrey knows that.

“I once thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you,” he said. “I don’t think it is. I think killing for your county can be a lot worse. Because that’s the memory that haunts.”

And unless you, too, are haunted by such ghosts, it is hard to say what you’d do in such a horrific moment, not before, during or after.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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