Re "Killing Civilians Goes With the Duty of War," Commentary, May 8: I agree with Jack Valenti that Bob Kerrey shouldn't be singled out for an investigation of his past wartime conduct. I disagree with the headline. There is no general "duty" to kill civilians; it is a judgment call for combatants to make in their quest for self-preservation and in calculating the costs of accomplishing their missions, a case-by-case analysis that cannot be reduced to absolute right-or-wrong terms. I agree that there are likely to be inevitable civilian casualties during war and that we all should acknowledge that.
Kerrey has had to struggle with his own conscience for his choices made, actions taken. I am not interested in further investigating only this specific evening in the course of the entire Vietnam War.
I must take great issue with Valenti's assertion that our soldiers' duty be limited to "what they were instructed to do." Under his definition, Nazi war criminals should have escaped with impunity.
There is clearly a distinction between following orders and needlessly slaying civilians. Even war has structure. Explicit in this structure is a moral duty to not consciously target innocent bystanders who are often nothing more than the indigent caught in the cross-fire of political hate.
I have personally been through World War II in Europe. Soldiers are soldiers, whether they are Russians, Germans, Italians, French, Japanese, Filipino, British or something else. As Valenti said, "they were commanded" to carry out [orders] as instructed. This is called duty. Benevolence doesn't exist in a war.
I have only one question: Why did Kerrey wait for more than 30 years to publicize this?
Valenti appears to discredit the few who still claim that conventions of war apply to all combatants. Do we need this lecture from Hollywood? His admonishment to leave to those who have been there the matter of judging the actions of soldiers in combat should be read aloud before the gates of Auschwitz and in The Hague.
Day after day since the admission by Kerrey, we have endured a barrage of in-your-face articles and editorials about how wrong we were to act in war. I agree with Valenti. Don't single out Kerrey; investigate us all. War is hell, and we make no excuses for our actions. We did what we were asked to do. If someone is to blame, then go after the government that sent our men and women to Vietnam. Ask yourself what life would have been like if we didn't have those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen defending our nation, or if we had hesitated on the battlefields while our friends were dropping at our sides.
Daniel M. Ortiz, \o7 Chairman
\f7 L.A. County Veterans Advisory Commission