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AL MARTINEZ

The Truth of War That Compels the Lies

April 30, 2001|AL MARTINEZ

A man I knew in the Korean War often boasted about the girl he left back home. She was blond, she was beautiful and she loved him dearly.

He spoke just as frequently about a wealthy father, a mother who doted on him, and brothers and sisters who idolized him.

We didn't notice at the time that he never seemed to receive any mail, and we accepted on faith his reason for refusing to show pictures of his pinup-caliber girlfriend. Their love, he explained, was just too private to share.

Then as we were returning home aboard ship, the pale lights of San Diego in sight, he turned to me.

"That stuff I told you," he began quietly as we stood at the railing. "About my girl? My family? It was all lies. I made it all up."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 3, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect punishment--Lt. William Calley served three days in a stockade and three years under house arrest for the My Lai massacre. His prison term was misstated in a Monday column.

It was evening, but I could see by the lights of the ship that there were tears in his eyes.

"I've got nothing," he said. "I've got no one." He left the railing, and we never spoke again.

As I thought about it later, I realized that his confession was the symbolic abandonment of the enclosed world that had been ours for all the months of war. The surreal community that war creates was in the past. He had to face what was real.

And so it is with Bob Kerrey.

*

Much will be made of Kerrey's admission after 32 years that human conflict contains brutalities that no one cares to confront. In his case, it was leading the slaughter of women, children and old men during the war in Vietnam.

A former Nebraska senator and governor, Kerrey confirmed that he had led the raid--but only after news reports gave him no choice but to admit it. He was a Navy SEAL commanding a seven-man team that attacked a village called Thanh Phong.

They began shooting, Kerrey said, when they thought they were being shot at by Viet Cong soldiers. It was only later they discovered that their "enemies" were unarmed civilians.

Kerrey won the Bronze Star for the engagement. He and his men remained silent about the true nature of the incident. Later he won the Medal of Honor in a battle that cost him part of his right leg.

Relieved that the truth about Thanh Phong has at last been made public, Kerrey says he has been haunted by the incident all these years. He hadn't even told his family about it. Notwithstanding that he "feels better already," more is being revealed. A member of that SEAL team and a Vietnamese woman who claims she was there, talk of throats slashed and a systematic massacre rather than a fire fight.

Kerrey denies their charges and responds in the lofty tone of one forgiving himself. "My highest responsibility," says this once and future presidential candidate, "was to deliver the men back to their mothers, fathers and loved ones."

High responsibilities, first as humans and then as warriors, are often in conflict on the field of battle. The most charitable soldiers are frequently the ones who die first. The wary and the brutal survive.

It is this truth of war that creates lies. Survival is the instinct upon which war spins. Do what you must to stay alive and atone for it when old age comes knocking at your conscience. "Shoot first," is the way a Marine gunnery sergeant put it, "and pray later."

*

Kerrey's confession is significant because of his political standing, and it will likely cloud his future endeavors. Were he less prominent, the heat of controversy his admission created would likely cool in a matter of months.

How quickly we have forgotten, for instance, that less than two years ago, a dozen ex-GIs admitted that they were part of an American army unit that systematically gunned down 300 civilians in the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri just after the start of the war. They were afraid they might have been infiltrators. The Army investigated but did nothing.

Thirty years before that it was the Vietnam War revelation of a massacre at My Lai by American soldiers. A search-and-destroy mission took the lives of 300 innocent villagers. The attack was led by Lt. William Calley, who served five years in prison for murder.

In both cases, the incidents remained terrible secrets until participants and journalists brought them into the open.

Lies are not just falsehoods, but also awful truths never revealed. We hide in dark places those events we don't have the courage to confront. We become as afraid of the memory as we were of the reality.

War is not a parade. It's not flags flying and drums beating and heartbeats quickening to the tempos of martial music. It is composed of both the horrors we conceal and the horrors we reveal. It is fear and pain beyond anyone's ability to describe. That incidents of brutality can occur in the overheated atmosphere of combat is understandable but never forgivable.

So how do we handle the revelation by Bob Kerrey, the war hero, that he made a "mistake" that cost innocent lives? I was thinking about it when I went to bed last night. And I was thinking about it at 2 a.m. and again at 4 when I got up to prowl the house, images of combat clawing at my mind.

We tell lies at war, individually and collectively, to justify our actions and to placate the demons that pursue us thereafter. My lonely friend left his fantasy world behind by telling the truth. Bob Kerrey kept silent until the truth was thrust upon him.

Whether or not he is beyond redemption will probably be for history to decide. But, meanwhile, the least he can do is return the Bronze Star awarded him for the lie that began at Thanh Phong. Mistake or not, there ought to be no medals for savagery.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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