War Crimes in Downtown Phoenix
Rolling through downtown as thousands of glum-faced Phoenix Suns fans trek to their cars is not an especially fun ride. The well-scrubbed faces were as long as the afternoon shadows. The Sacramento Kings had just kicked the Suns' asses in a playoff battle.
A dozen or so blocks to the west, the grizzled faces of Vietnam vets hovered in groups at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. In the shadow of the State Capitol, the few hundred faces showed mirthful expressions, a contentedness divulged in the backslapping, storytelling and sharing of memories.
The vets were taking part in an annual remembrance hosted by the Arizona Vietnam Vets Memorial Committee. There was a formal ceremony that paid tribute to the living, dead and missing, plus a military display and lots of food and drink.
Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that ex-Nebraska senator and onetime presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey murdered civilians in Vietnam. Although Kerrey claimed the killings were an accident, a wartime tragedy, one of the men in his command charged that civilians -- women and children and a single elderly man -- were herded into a circle and deliberately slaughtered. Two survivors, Vietnamese women, have corroborated the atrocity allegation.
The decorated Kerrey expressed his remorse about killing 21 non-combatants in the Times article, but he also agonized at a microphone in a series of pre-emptive media strikes prior to the story's publication in an effort to defuse the bombshell.
But how do you minimize the impact?
American heroes who dream of the White House are not supposed to be war criminals.
I went downtown to find out what some vets thought about this Kerrey spectacle, how it fit into their version of what went on. If it saddened them, gladdened them, or if it disclosed ugliness better left for dead.
The only certainty in war is human extinction. War is a belief system rooted in the idea that we can knock off people who think differently than we do. The dog-and-pony-show hype surrounding the charismatic Bob Kerrey is, in a way, bringing America face to face with its own secrets.
The atrocity allegations once more made Vietnam a pop-culture dartboard with Kerrey as its bull's eye. Until the scandal broke, people cared more about the Suns than the memorial gathering of veterans. And you had to wonder if people would have cared at all if Kerrey hadn't been a celebrity.
Families and tatted biker types mixed with war mongers and professionals; gray beards and wrinkles on faces with stories to tell, sweated in uniforms or jackets with gun club patches. Vets handed out MIA/POW pamphlets. The mood of the afternoon was a heady brew of melancholia and joy, two frames of mind that, when combined, can make for adrenaline-fueled storytelling. The scene was blazing hot for April.
"These accusations [against Kerrey] are really unnecessary," said Joseph Begay, a prim, uniformed Navajo vet somewhere in his 50s. In his mind, the killing of civilians was a common thing, unavoidable.
In a voice softened with regret, he said he empathized with Kerrey.
"You heard of things like that going on. I was involved in it. . . . Normally, the civilians were just there at the wrong time, and yeah, there were kids involved and innocent civilians. They [the North Vietnamese Army] would hide among the civilians. That's how they'd cover themselves. There's not a lot you can do when the civilian is on the side of the VC [Viet Cong] or NVA.
"Especially when you're in VC or NVA area," he continued. "You are behind the lines. You don't know who is civilian and who is not. You have to distinguish that on your own terms. A lot of times there are civilians that enter the line of fire. So afterwards when you sift through all the information that you secure in the area, you'll find that there will be civilians involved. Those will be the ones hiding the VC or NVA. That's how these incidents happen. I believe in the wars that took place, it happened that way. A lot of things are not told as they are."
Down from his home in Chinle, Arizona, where he works for the VA on the Navajo reservation, Begay was an enlisted man. He served as a "K" Ranger and did top-secret recon missions with Special Forces in South Vietnam. He has four grown children.
"People really don't know what was really going on there," he continued. "Survival was the name of the game. If you're not careful about some of these things, you actually do it on reflex out on a mission. You're liable to be a dead motherfucker. You have to be constantly aware that your number might be coming up or you'll be the next one."
Still, the memories do not sit comfortably with him.
"It's not that easy to forget such things."
Another Navajo, Don Bizadi, did a tour with the 75th Rangers, a group that specialized in search and destroy missions, setting up ambushes and guerrilla warfare. He shook his head slowly back and forth when asked about Kerrey.
"There was civilians involved, yeah," he said, "but I believe they were not supposed to be in the area where these people were operating. That's all I can tell you."
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."
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."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.