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Urban Rhythms

Battle Scars

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 5/2/2001

It is a cold and blustery morning in November 1990, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is as silent as a tomb.

A middle-aged couple stands before the Wall. The man is heavyset and tough looking. He wears a lumberjack's plaid, woolen jacket and has the lined, leathery face of a man who works outdoors. The woman is dressed as though for church. She is wearing dark clothes and high heels, and she has pinned a corsage to the lapel of her overcoat.

"This is for my eldest boy," the woman explains quietly as she kneels and lays a small wreath at the foot of the Wall. She rises then, and the three of us stand quietly for a few moments. The couple's faces are expressionless.

"Do you know how your son died?" I ask after a while.

The man shifts his feet and looks off into the distance, the muscles in his jaw tightening. The woman looks at him and lays her hand on his arm. "If you don't mind," she says to me, "I guess we'd rather not talk about it."

"I understand," I say quickly and step away, allowing silence and grief to enfold the two, isolating them in this public place.

There are more than 58,000 names inscribed on the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, each representing the death of an individual. I had gone tripping lightly down to the memorial that first time in late 1990 out of clinical curiosity, not expecting to be moved, not expecting to extract any meaningful lesson about war or Vietnam. Instead, I found the silent scream of so many names, each a personality with a family and a history and a lost potential that can never be recovered--I found it all almost too much to bear.

And yes, I learned something there. I learned that we should not, as a nation, require men and women to make such a sacrifice unless it is absolutely necessary.

Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, underlined and attached exclamation points to that moral recently when he confessed that he had been responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen civilians, including women and children, during a midnight raid on a village in the Mekong Delta 32 years ago. Kerrey says the villagers were slaughtered accidentally when his team of Navy SEAL commandos was attacked and returned fire into the darkness. His version of events is supported by five of the other six members of his unit.

But one squad member claims in a story published April 29 in The New York Times Magazine that Kerrey ordered the civilians herded into the village square and then had them executed. This version is supported by some survivors of the village.

Frankly, both stories sound equally plausible. Everyone seems to agree that the women and children and elderly men were found clustered in an unlikely grouping of dead bodies, that they were unarmed and unlikely to have been combatants. It is possible that the Viet Cong used the civilians as a living shield before disappearing into the jungle. It also is possible that the squad was afraid that the villagers would sound the alarm if left alive.

To his credit, Kerrey refuses to hide behind this distinction. "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it," Kerrey reportedly told 60 Minutes II in a story on the incident that was scheduled to air May 1. In an earlier speech before a Virginia military academy, Kerrey said, "I have been haunted by it for 32 years."

All of us have been haunted by Vietnam, and it is important that we remember why. Our leaders may have intervened in that country's civil war for noble reasons, but they quickly stooped to lying, falsifying documents, and illegal domestic surveillance of anti-war activists in order to justify our continued presence there.

They systemically undermined the very foundations of democracy, by denying citizens the information they needed to make informed decisions. They allowed National Guard units to fire upon--and kill--other Americans, even though those protesters were right to demand that we all be told the truth. We now know what they tried so desperately to keep us from knowing back then: Vietnam was not worth the cost.

Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reminds us of what the war cost us in human lives. Kerrey's confession reminds us of its cost in human psyches.

The moral--the single point we must never let ourselves forget about Vietnam, with its lies and protests and massacres--is that we cannot afford to make that kind of mistake again. We cannot blunder into a situation we know little or nothing about. And we cannot suffer leaders who lie to us. The price is just too high.

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