U.S. Massacre at Thanh Phong, Vietnam

The War Crimes of Bob Kerrey

Revolutionary Worker #1103, May 20, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

The killers used darkness to cover their arrival in Thanh Phong, a tiny fishing village of a hundred people in southern Vietnam. Seven U.S. Navy SEALS, who called themselves Kerrey's Raiders, arrived by boat and killed every villager they found. The events of that night, February 25, 1969, are now being discussed worldwide.

Former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey received a high military honor, the Bronze Star medal, for leading that raid. He has been introduced over 30 years at countless bourgeois political rallies as a "genuine war hero."

During Kerrey's recent presidential run, a veteran gave Newsweek reporter Greg Vistica details of the massacre. Editor Mark Whitaker says Newsweek decided to kill the story to protect Kerrey--to avoid "destroying his reputation." In exchange Kerrey promised to talk to their reporter when he was ready, politically and personally, to reveal this story. Now, a year later, Vistica's article has appeared in the New York Times Magazine. And Kerrey, who is preparing a 2004 run for president, is making the media rounds, putting his spin on the events.

As the ugly details tumble out, major figures have rushed to defend Kerrey. Several Senate colleagues oppose any Pentagon investigation of the killings. The media has widely promoted the idea that "such things just happen in war." The system that unleashed this massacre and covered it up is now working to justify it to the world.

Out of the Night

"I thought they would let us go after they saw we were only women and children. But they shot at us like animals."

Bui Thi Luom, eyewitness to the SEAL raid

Thanh Phong is a community along the shoreline of the Mekong River. The peasants and fishermen there supported the struggle to free their country from the U.S. Many of this village's sons and daughters were fighters of the National Liberation Front (NLF)--which the U.S. called "the Vietcong" (or "VC"). The village itself was part of a larger revolutionary base area in a people's war against the U.S. and its domestic allies.

U.S. spies had reported that the local district revolutionary committee would be gathering in Thanh Phong, and Kerrey's Raiders went to assassinate that leadership.

Pham Thi Lanh has now told the world media what she saw that night. She was 30 at the time, sleeping in a bomb shelter outside her home with her four kids. She heard screams and hid behind a banana tree to watch what U.S. soldiers did to her neighbors, 65-year-old Bui Van Vat and 63-year-old Luu Thi Canh. "I saw the troops cut their necks," Lanh said. "They cut almost all the way through." Lanh ran back to her four children and stuffed rags in their mouths to keep them quiet. The elderly couple's three young grandchildren were found stabbed the next morning.

The SEAL squad moved on to a larger cluster of houses. Bui Thi Luom was 12 at the time. She says the Americans ordered her and 15 other people out of their shelter and gathered them together on the ground. Her grandmother pleaded for mercy. But, seconds later, the U.S. soldiers simply started killing them, opening fire from only a few feet away. Luom managed to roll into the shelter and hide in the darkness and confusion. Her grandmother, a pregnant aunt, and three younger siblings were lying dead, in a pile with the others.

Gerhard Klann, a commando in Kerrey's Raiders who is now a steelworker, confirms this account. He says that he and Kerrey worked together to slit Bui Van Vat's throat and that Kerrey gave the order to kill the women and children they found farther into the village.

Bob Kerrey disputes this. He insists that his squad fired in self-defense. He claims that he did not know they were killing women and children until he walked in and saw the dead. In other words, Kerrey's story carefully acknowledges a massacre but denies a deliberate war crime. Kerrey admits they never found any weapons afterwards and never saw men of fighting age. He can't explain why a firefight produced no wounded or why 13 dead civilians fell in one pile.

Tran Van Rung was a member of the village militia that protected the local leadership that night. He says they were sleeping about a quarter of a mile away when they heard the gunfire. He says none of his squad were in the village or could have fired on the SEALs.

The American Way of War

"Now, that theater where we were, there is no such thing as everyone being a civilian. There was no doubt in my mind they were at least VC sympathizers... We weren't trained to pass out leaflets. We weren't going over there to try to persuade people that communism was inferior to democracy. We were sent over there to kill people as brutally and as ruthlessly as we possibly could to persuade them to stop fighting. That's what we were doing."

Bob Kerrey, ABC interview, April 25, 2001

Kerrey insists if he had simply rounded up and massacred the civilians--it would have been according to orders. Kerrey said: "In a free-fire zone we had permission to do it. And we had very aggressive instructions from our commanding officer in 1969 for how to deal with people there. And anybody that wasn't aware that this was going on, in my view, is lying."

Massacres and atrocities were not just "something that frightened young men did in battle"--they were tactics promoted and rewarded by the U.S. military command. The U.S. imperialists were fighting against a people's war, and they responded with a genocidal war on the people. Revolutionary base areas were designated "free fire zones," which meant U.S. soldiers and their ARVN puppet troops had permission to kill anyone there on sight, including children, without prior authorization. Operation Phoenix unleashed assassination and torture squads to identify and kill NLF cadre--complete with quotas. The State Department's Vietnam Information Notes (July 1969) said: "The target for 1969 calls for the elimination of 1800 VCI [cadre of the NLF] per month." In 1971 Newsweek estimated that thousands of civilians had been killed during these operations in the Mekong Delta.

Kerrey had entered Thanh Phong a few weeks before February 25 and knew it only contained women and children. The day of the raid, the local official of the Saigon puppet government threatened the people saying, "You who do not come out, we will consider you to be Vietcong. You are the enemy. You will die."

Kerrey told the New York Times: "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with." He adds: "Let the other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war... I can make a case that it was."

The "after action report" following the raid on Thanh Phong said that commandos engaged Vietnamese guerrillas and fired 1,200 rounds from their M-16s, 12 rocket-propelled grenades and two bazooka shells. The squad was credited with a "BC" (bodycount) of 21 dead "VC." Headquarters praised the raid, saying in a cable, "The Kerrey Raiders not only surprised the enemy in his own sanctuary but struck him a severe and fatal blow." Kerrey received a Bronze Star for the operation.

It was the American Way of War in Vietnam.

The Defense

"Bob Kerrey was a war hero, and he left half a leg in that war. He is in many ways admirable and likable. He is a member-for-life of two powerful establishments, the U.S. military and the U.S. Senate, and he is a darling-for-life of a third, the U.S. media. All of this has informed at least the establishment reaction to the news that Lt. j.g. Bob Kerrey and the six Navy SEALs he led into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, killed--murdered, it has been alleged--at least 13 unarmed women and children. "

Michael Kelly, Washington Post, May 2

"I am reasonably certain that the debate over his conduct as a young Navy lieutenant will make him better known and more popular than he ever was as a governor and U.S. senator. The publicity, the charges and counter-charges, could even make him president."

Richard Reeves, in his syndicated national column, May 8

The defense of Kerrey has been harsh and aggressive. When the New York Times wrote in an editorial that "With the emergence of this story, Mr. Kerrey's career has entered a new phase of public assessment," even this timid suggestion was quickly attacked on the PBS NewsHour by liberal commentator Mark Shields as "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen."

Powerful forces of this system are defending Bob Kerrey--and not just because he is a Democratic White House "hopeful." Defending him is a defense of their system, of their way of war. It is a way of promising their future soldiers that their crimes in future wars will be defended and celebrated, not exposed.

In the official discussion, it is constantly argued that "people who were not there in the rice paddies cannot judge the acts of those who were." But in fact, they can.

Bob Kerrey went to the Mekong Delta to kill the revolutionary leaders of a people who were fighting a just war against imperialism. The people of the world can and do judge that: It was a shameful counterrevolutionary mission within an unjust war.

When Kerrey's Raiders could not find the village leadership, they killed the villagers. The people of world can and do judge that. Such genocidal methods were (and remain) an integral part of the American Way of War--rooted in the capitalist nature of this society and the purposes for which its armed forces fight.

True Heroes and Role Models

"By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious."

"The Collapse of the Armed Forces," Armed Forces Journal, 1971

"The U.S. military machine found itself severely hobbled from within: mutinies broke out in jungle gorges and on board the U.S.'s fighting fortresses; officers were killed by their own troops; hundreds of thousands of soldiers deserted the ranks before their tours were up; antiwar protests, organizations, and newspapers tormented the brass on every major U.S. military installation in the world."

Nick Jackson, from "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus--Revolt in the War Machine", Revolution magazine, Spring 1988 (excerpted online at rwor.org)

"I think that the veterans who deserve to be honored and are honored by the revolutionary proletariat and oppressed people of the world are those who recognized what they were being forced to do, who stared right in the face of what they were doing, recognized it for what it was...and found it totally repulsive; particularly those who rebelled against it and joined in the struggle against those atrocities and against U.S. imperialism and some of whom actually became revolutionaries."

Bob Avakian, chairman of the RCP

Bourgeois commentators argue that Kerrey's military record remains "honorable" (despite the massacre!)--because "he served his country," and later lost part of a leg. But what is "honorable" about killing in an unjust cause?

Kerrey says he was sickened by the massacre. But he continued to lead similar raids.

He now says that he does not think he deserved any medals for bravery. But he stood in the White House and accepted his Medal of Honor--presented personally by Richard Nixon in May 1970, two weeks after Nixon had ordered the invasion of Cambodia, ten days after the Kent State massacre, and on the very day when two Black students were killed and 12 were wounded at Jackson State. In other words, sickened or not, he stood by the system--while many U.S. soldiers were taking courageous and admirable stands against this war. Thousands of GIs refused to fight or patrol. Many courageous veterans exposed the war after they came back. In the historic 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations, Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized vets to testify about U.S. atrocities, to expose what they had been trained and ordered to do.

While Bob Kerrey accepted his medal for genocide, other young veterans went to the U.S. capital and threw their medals back--rejecting what they had done. And there were those among those veterans who stepped forward to join the revolutionary movement--to declare "The next time we fight, it will be to take these steps!"

Bob Kerrey hid his war crimes while he stepped forward to serve the same system in high office. He only discusses this now, 30 years later, because others have exposed it and his ambitions require some damage control. The fact that Bob Kerrey is defended is an outrage--all while he has not even come clean with the truth, or denounced the genocidal nature of that war or the system that sent him to wage it! And the fact that this war criminal can show up every day to act as university head at the New School in New York--and that he even dares claim that his experiences can be a lesson for the next generation--is an outrage that should not be allowed to stand.

All this, and the fact that Kerrey is still considered "presidential material" by powerful forces, says a great deal about them, about their system, and about what they expect young soldiers to do for them in the future.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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