War Crimes in Downtown Phoenix

Vietnam vets discuss the allegations of atrocities leveled at Bob Kerrey

The two Native American vets believe that civilians must die in war, that it is merely part of the essence of combat, though they are obviously troubled by the thought.

Larry J. O'Daniel sees it differently.

"We had absolute orders," he said emphatically. "Thou shall not assassinate. If you assassinate, you will be court-martialed."

Larry O'Daniel in Vietnam circa 1969.
Larry O'Daniel in Vietnam circa 1969.

The surly, snow-haired O'Daniel was an officer during Vietnam serving as a member of the Phoenix Program, a notorious CIA-run covert group whose purpose was to infiltrate, identify and destroy the VC infrastructure in South Vietnam.

Though O'Daniel disputes it, the Phoenix Program was, by most accounts, particularly brutal, said to have been responsible for the death, torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands of civilians.

The 55-year-old said his Phoenix Program duties included putting together rap sheet dossiers of captured prisoners for court convictions. He supervised two "free-fire" zones. "I would give the orders to fire, cross my fingers, and wait to find out the next day what the reports were. They were all VC. Thank God. I was only 22."

O'Daniel has taken a special interest in the Kerrey debacle, going so far as to link the former senator with the infamous Phoenix Program.

"We could bring in people [to the Phoenix Program] to do special jobs and they would be with us to do their special job and then move on to something else. That's where Kerrey's people came in; they were attached for a short while. But given the reputation of the Phoenix Program, he [Kerrey] obviously does not want to be a part of it."

For O'Daniel, who has written his own benign opus on the Phoenix Program, the war will never be over, the theories, the charges and countercharges all blurring together until the truth is less important than the experience.

"I don't believe Kerrey's story," O'Daniel continued, lowering his voice to a level that suggests certain serious-mindedness. "But if the charge is that they lined up the civilians and he ordered the shooting of them, then there is no doubt about it, that is a war crime . . . period.

"That is what the battle of Thanh Phong is all about," O'Daniel said, shaking his head and biting into a hot dog. "It is about whether or not a war crime took place. A war crime has no time limits on it. We have asked for war crime investigations from everyone from Pol Pot to Kosovo. Unless we do our own investigations, we lack the credibility of asking that of others. The charges are not light. Had they arisen in wartime -- and it appears that they did but were not investigated -- a conviction could have carried a heavy severe penalty of incarceration, loss of rank and dishonorable discharges. The passage of time does not lessen the severity of the charges."

O'Daniel doesn't know what went on that night when Kerrey and his men landed behind the lines deep in enemy territory. But he's got an opinion.

"Either the intelligence was faulty," he said, "which is possible, or they panicked. Certain aspects of this just don't make sense.

"Kerrey's going to have to answer a whole lot of questions."

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