SOLOMON: Media and Vietnam -- Apparitions of Innocence

Media commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what happened 32 years ago in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalists seem eager to exonerate the former senator. Others appear inclined to turn him into a lightning rod for national guilt.

Syndicated columnists have been a bit unpredictable. "This is a murder story that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require," liberal Thomas Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive: "The village was a 'free-fire' zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarded as enemies who could be fired on at will. Did that policy amount to a blank check for American troops to commit atrocities? Even at this late date, we need to know the answer."

In some media quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times editorial declared: "It is a story that -- with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic aftermath -- sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides."

The punditry duo on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" condemned the Times as terribly unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was "an act of moral arrogance rarely seen," Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: "Mark stole my thunder beating up the New York Times." Similar noises, on "Fox News Sunday," came from the host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," Juan Williams, who claimed that reporters were giving Kerrey shabby treatment.

Striving to encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of media-as-traitors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so irresistible as commanders in chief. "It's disgraceful," Kerrey complained during an Associated Press interview in late April. "The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort."

New York Times columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar themes these days. While not bothering to note his own specialized war-making services as a top speechwriter in the Nixon administration, he rushed to the defense of Kerrey -- and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried a "humiliating accusation of national arrogance," Safire urged us to "recall a noble motive."

But when motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have been "noble"?

Commonly, in the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war's victims -- including a few million dead people in their home countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- are rendered as little more than props for the anguish of Americans. How much we have suffered as a result of killing those people! Their importance grows only to the extent that they underscore our own.

A year ago, Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concluded: "Was the war worth the effort and sacrifice, or was it a mistake? Everyone touched by it must answer that question for himself. When I came home in 1969 and for many years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain."

Only our own national narcissism, mendacity and denial can preserve the binary myth that the war was either "worth the effort" or "a mistake." The war was wrong not because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was, fundamentally, mass murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces invaded Vietnam -- welcomed by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington installed and propped up.

Kerrey did his deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Brian Willson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security officer, he saw bombing operations up close and witnessed effects on the ground, in villages. "The only difference between Kerrey and myself is that I was never in a position to personally kill while in Vietnam," Willson says. "But I was part of a killing machine, even being complicit in the bombing campaigns, and I saw dozens and dozens of the bodies of women and children."

Willson went on to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied the Pentagon Papers and other official documents clearly showing that -- from the outset -- U.S. leaders knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese wanted the U.S. out of their country. "It was true that we could not determine friend from foe," Willson remembers. "Most, at least secretly, were foe." Vietnamese people "were defending their integrity and sovereignty from us invaders." The entire war was "immoral and illegal."

One day in 1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace activists for civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A train -- carrying munitions on the way to Central America -- ran him over. At the time, Willson was trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined for use in warfare largely aimed at civilians.

Since the early 1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq have killed at least several hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar military aid package from the United States, under the guise of a "war on drugs," is boosting the death toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy business as usual. Rest assured, we have no blood on our hands.

"They have destroyed and are destroying ... and do not know it and do not want to know it," James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added: "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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