The Star-Ledger, Newark, NJ. Sunday, May 6, 2001

Seeing through the 'fog'

In war, there is only human judgment and accountability


You remember things:

It is early morning, and I am on guard at the road post leading out of our compound along the Cam Lo river. I liked that last watch. The enemy never hit us in the early morning, so it was always quiet, cool, almost serene when the sun came up over the tree-tops. I'd sit in that post and let my guard down a bit and drift . . . back to home, of course, to all the life I'd left for war.

I am sitting at my post, longing for home, and suddenly I notice a figure coming down the road, coming toward me, a woman. The woman is holding something - What? What is she holding? A satchel charge? She is far away, and in the half light I can't see her clearly. She is crying, however, that much I can tell, and now as she comes closer, I can see blood, and I can see what she is holding.

She is holding a baby, a baby whose arms and legs are dangling. She is 10 yards away now, and I can see the baby clearly. I can see the baby's viscera, its guts, piled on its chest. And I can hear the deep sobbing of a woman who knows her child is dead but cannot bring herself to believe it.

We had killed that baby, we, the men of Golf company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. We had been guarding the Cam Lo river crossing for many weeks, many bloody weeks. The enemy had attacked our patrols and sent sappers floating down the river with rafts of dynamite to blow the bridge. The night I was on guard, we had ordered artillery to bombard some of the surrounding countryside, particularly the infiltration routes. One of the rounds had dropped on a village and found as a target an innocent child, and now the mother was standing among us, holding her child out to the medical corpsman, begging him to bring her sweet baby back to life.

I was relatively new to the war, and the sight of that baby shook me. What unsettled me more, however, was the reaction of my comrades, Marines who had been in fight after vicious fight, tough men, uncompromising men, warriors. I will always remember looking into their eyes as they huddled around that mother and that baby that terrible day, and seeing many of them cry.

Some of the men felt we were to blame. Some blamed the enemy who was using the villages as a sanctuary and shield. We all knew it did not make any difference to the mother. Either way the baby was gone, another casualty of war.

I have thought of that moment many times across the years - when my own sweet babies were born, when I was a young newspaper reporter covering fires and auto wrecks, when I first started reading about atrocities for a book I am writing about World War II. And, of course, I thought of that mother and baby last week when a former governor and U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Bob Kerrey, came forward and admitted to taking part in the killing of unarmed civilians when he was in Vietnam serving with the Navy as a commando.

Since then I have listened to the news-talk shows and read the opinion pages of the major newspapers and, once more, have heard the litany of self-loathing and misplaced guilt that for the last 26 years has followed in Vietnam's wake.

I cannot say whether Bob Kerrey did anything wrong, because I was not there. He, and all but one member of his six-member team, claimed that during a night mission to capture or kill a Viet Cong leader, they came under fire, and in the course of the action killed a group of women, children and older men. The dissident in their ranks claims they also deliberately murdered other unarmed civilians that night, slitting one man's throat.

Almost everyone, it seems, is willing to write all this off to "the fog of war," an idiom of acquittal and exoneration. The rush to embrace and forgive Kerrey was so frenzied, one pundit on MSNBC went so far as to say that "the whole Vietnam war was an atrocity," one gigantic war crime, so how could we possibly hold anyone accountable for anything.

Even our most thoughtful pundits struggled to find some perspective. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek called me, filled with questions about how such a thing could happen, wondering whether in the dark anyone could tell what they were shooting at.

Here, for Jonathan and everyone else, is the truth: There is no "fog of war." There are only men.

Good men, careful men, moral men, tried hard to make good decisions, even in the dark and rain. They were able to tell the difference between an armed enemy and an unarmed farmer's wife, and when they were unsure, they held their fire. They controlled their emotions, even as they stood in their comrades' blood, and killed only to protect themselves or to advance their mission against a clearly defined target. Once the threat was removed or the mission accomplished, they stopped the killing.

Other men, of course, men who were all too human, sometimes let their fear or anger or natural animus lead them. They shot first and asked no questions later. They convinced themselves that the people of Southeast Asia did not value life the way they valued life, and so it meant nothing for a child to end up with its guts on its chest. A few of these men even came to enjoy killing, to see it as a kind of sport, if you will, a hunting party sponsored by the good folks back home.

And in all this, we were no different than our fathers or grandfathers, no different than any man who has ever shouldered a rifle for any country in any era. And like those men, we, the men of Vietnam, should be held accountable for our actions.

In 1944, when it became clear that the allies would defeat the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, this country began to prepare for war crimes trials for its enemies. Behind these trials were two basic principles of international law: The accused were charged with committing crimes "against peace and humanity" and were being held accountable under the basic doctrine of "individual responsibility." These principles were applied to all who were brought before the bar, from Japanese general and prime minister Hideki Tojo to the lowliest Japanese corporal. There were no "fog of war" arguments at Nuremberg or Tokyo. There was only a prison cell - or the hangman's rope.

The Department of Justice or the U.S. Navy should at least conduct a preliminary investigation of the incident involving Kerrey (to clear his good name, if nothing else), as the government should for any serious charge brought against any Marine, sailor, soldier or airman who fought in Vietnam. Yes, decades have passed. Memories fade. Evidence has disappeared. But to do any less is to devalue the lives we have taken and to squander the moral currency we, as Americans, are so quick to claim.

"Our own past is covered by the currents of action," wrote T.S. Eliot, not the fog of war.