The Consequence of War, James Web, May 2001

[Mr. Webb was a combat Marine in Vietnam and later secretary of the Navy. His next book, "Lost Soldiers," will be published by Bantam in September.]

The Vietnamese government is happy to trot out witnesses from the supposed atrocity conducted by Bob Kerrey's Navy SEALs at Thanh Phong. It is doubtful that they would be so cooperative if questions were asked about Communist killings in places such as My Loc.

In April 1969, the Marine rifle company to which I was assigned was operating in the An Hoa Basin of Vietnam, west and south of Danang. In addition to our routine of long-range combat patrols and defensive positions along a vital and heavily contested road, it was decided that we would provide security for a "town meeting" hosted by the South Vietnamese government's district chief, who had been criticized for living in the distant and more secure confines of Danang. Over the space of a few days, visits were made to nearby hamlets, where 30 delegates were chosen to attend the meeting. After that, the district chief and his senior aide were brought in on the morning convoy.

A thatch-covered "hooch" at the bottom of our perimeter, about the size of a typical American living room, was chosen as the meeting place. Shortly after the meeting began, a Viet Cong assassination team raced through the thick foliage, hit the hooch, and fled. My rifle platoon was returning from a combat patrol as explosions rang out to our front. In seconds a Viet Cong soldier sprinting down the trail collided with my point man. I can still see his young face, adrenalized and madly grinning, as he was captured. And I remember the sight of the others as we reached the hooch.


The floor inside was covered with an ankle-deep mix of blood, innards, limbs and bodies. I and several others waded into the human mire, emptying bodies from the hooch and finding medical care for those who had survived. Nineteen people were dead, including the district chief and his aide. The aide's right arm was blown off near the elbow, its tendons like slim white feathers, as if he had been reaching to catch a grenade.

Nearby an older woman sat motionless against a wall, her face stunned and her dark eyes piercing, untouched except for a small, square hole in her forehead. I thought she was alive until I grabbed her arm. The wounded squirmed on the floor, reaching past dead bodies as they crawled in the muck, covered thickly with blood and twisting among each other like giant fishing worms.

We cleaned out the hooch, evacuated the wounded, washed at a nearby well, and went back to our war. By the next day this incident was over, a little piece of history in the long and ugly journey of a combat tour. But in the coming months as I reflected on them, the killings at My Loc raised an important distinction, which has become even more relevant with the media firestorm over Bob Kerrey's ill-fated SEAL patrol in the Mekong Delta.

Civilians have a terrible time in any war zone -- fully one-third of the population of Okinawa was killed in 12 weeks of fighting on that island in 1945. But in a guerrilla war, the support or control of the local population, rather than the conquest of territory, is the ultimate objective. Civilians become enmeshed in the actual fighting, inseparable from it.

They fight among themselves for political dominance of a local area. They form an infrastructure and quietly support one side or the other when it moves through their village. They suffer greatly when battles are fought on top of them, and when emotions overcome logic and troops snap, as at My Lai. But the villagers of My Loc and others like them, clearly noncombatants, were killed purely as a matter of political control, for having met with a South Vietnamese government official and given some legitimacy to his authority.

Any American who directed a similar slaughter, or participated in it, would have been court-martialed. This distinction was basic to our policy in Vietnam, and it seems to have been lost by many over the past week. The body language and word choices of many media commentators indicates clearly that a larger issue -- how history will judge our involvement in Vietnam -- is still very much in play, and a big part of that issue is to continue to demean the American sacrifices in that war.

Words like "atrocity" and "massacre" are routinely being thrown about, with some even calling for Nuremberg-like trials for American war crimes in Vietnam. Aggressive reporters have played "gotcha" with every Kerrey statement. How could he say it was a moonless night when the charts say it was a half-moon? (Try clouds. Or canopy. Or vegetation.) Did he take one shot or many shots at the first outpost? Did he kneel on a guy when his throat was getting cut?

For many who went through extensive combat in Vietnam, such parsing brings back an anger caused by memories not of the war but of the condescending arrogance directed at them upon their return, principally by people in their own age group who had risked nothing and yet microscopically judged every action of those who had risked everything and often lost a great deal. Combat in a guerrilla war requires constant moral judgments, in an environment with unending pressure, little sleep, and no second chances for yourself or the people you are leading when you guess wrong. Were we perfect? No. Were we worse than Americans in other wars, or our enemy in this one? Hardly.

Which brings us to the recent attention given the Kerrey patrol. There is much in the New York Times magazine story to make one uneasy. The key "witness" from the village where the incident took place is the wife of a former Viet Cong soldier, who now has told Time magazine that she did not actually see the killings. She and the other Vietnamese witness, who was 12 at the time of the incident, live in a communist state where propaganda regarding America's "evil" war effort is one of the mainsprings of political legitimacy -- not the best conditions to produce honesty in cases with international implications.

The one member of Mr. Kerrey's SEAL team to allege extreme conduct did not pass the credibility test with Newsweek magazine when the story was considered there. CBS's "60 Minutes," which co-sponsored the investigation, seems to have an affinity for stories about Americans committing atrocities, having rehashed My Lai as the best way to remember the 30th anniversary of 1968, the year that brought the worst fighting, and highest American casualties, of the war.

Most important, to one practiced in both combat and journalism, a key and possibly determinative piece of information seems vastly underplayed. According to the Times magazine story, archive records of Army radio transmissions indicate that two days after the incident, "an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC."

Given the tone of the story, this radio transmission was probably included because it refers to the Kerrey patrol as having committed an atrocity. But a closer reading would appear to confirm the position of Mr. Kerrey and the five others on the patrol that they took fire and returned it, with the loss of civilian lives an unfortunate consequence.

This piece of evidence is perhaps the most objective account available of the results of the Kerrey patrol, coming as it does from a time near the incident, from a man who was asking for retribution and thus was hardly trying to cover things up. It also coincides with Mr. Kerrey's recollection of 13 or 14 dead civilians in the village before the team left the scene, as any Viet Cong soldiers would most likely have been on the other side of the villagers who were killed, perhaps even using them as a screen while attempting to escape.

As has often been said over the past week, we will never know the exact details of what occurred. But if a seven-man patrol operating independently at night far inside enemy territory killed 11 Viet Cong soldiers after coming under fire, it would seem they hit their assigned target. And the loss of civilian life that accompanied this brief but brutal firefight adds up not to an atrocity or a massacre, but to a tragic consequence of a war fought in the middle of a civilian population.