Kerrey Incident Brings Back Echoes of Deir Yassin, Nuremberg

The disclosure that Bob Kerrey was involved in the killing of old men, women and children during a military operation in Vietnam has opened up old wounds related to that war and raised new questions about the behavior of American soldiers, even acknowledged heroes like Kerrey, during that conflict. Reading the accounts and the defense offered for what happened, I can’t help but be reminded of the most notorious incident in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war crimes trial that was supposed to establish the standards for evaluating incidents such as the one Kerrey was involved in.

According to Kerrey, his unit acted in self-defense while approaching a suspected Viet Cong post “on a dark and moonless night.” “We returned fire," Kerrey said. "But when the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men.” He admitted, however, he could not be absolutely sure that he and his men were fired upon first, and that it could have been "noise." Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey’s unit, said the former senator ordered his men to round up and kill unarmed women and children, and that a "baby was the last one alive.”

Now consider the basic defense. Kerrey was in the middle of a war. They were in a “free fire zone” where they were in serious danger and permitted to kill anything that moved. They believed that they had to kill whomever they found to make sure they would not alert the enemy to their presence.

For more than 50 years, Israel has been pilloried because women and children were killed in an Arab village. It is interesting to compare some of the elements of that story to the Kerrey incident.

On April 8, 1948, members of the LEHI and Irgun Jewish paramilitary organizations attacked Deir Yassin. Jews and Arabs were by that time engaged in a war and the village was near the crucial highway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Some questions have been raised as to whether the town needed to be attacked when it was, but there is no question that hostile forces had been there and that the attackers were fired upon.

Even today, a debate rages over the number of casualties, but Palestinian sources now put the dead at approximately 100 (rather than 250, the number used for decades). Women and children were definitely among the dead. The Irgun and LEHI claimed they were not massacred in cold blood but killed in crossfire, when houses were blown up where soldiers feared armed Arab men were hiding and after men were found disguised as women. Arab “fighters” were also among the dead (according to Palestinian sources) as were four members of the Irgun (which suffered 37 other casualties), so there is no question that a battle took place. Nevertheless, most of the villagers were not harmed; in fact, the Irgun evacuated many of them. In the Kerrey case, even he isn’t sure his men were fired upon, none of his men were injured, no prisoners were taken and the men, women and children were killed, perhaps even executed.

Though it is important to put the events at Deir Yassin in context and to describe them accurately, no effort has been made to sweep the incident under the rug. In fact, immediately after it occurred the Jewish Agency expressed its “horror and disgust” and sent a letter expressing the Agency's shock and disapproval to Transjordan's King Abdullah. Though we are just now learning of the incident in Vietnam, it can’t be ignored simply because so much time has elapsed.

This is where the Nuremberg precedent comes in. Nazis continue to be hunted because there is no statute of limitations for war crimes. From what we know now, the Kerrey incident certainly merits investigation, but we are a long way from establishing that he or the men under his command committed any crimes. Still, I was struck by the statement his former senate colleagues and Vietnam comrades made in his defense. Writing in the Washington Post, Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel and John Kerrey wrote, “...for our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the worst, and regrettably, most frequent mistakes we as a country can make.”

It is true that war is hell and horrible things happen during battle, but the Nuremberg Trial established that actions can’t be excused simply because they occur during a war. The trial charter specifically assigned individual responsibility to violations of the laws or customs of war, which included murder and ill-treatment of civilians and wanton destruction of villages not justified by military necessity.

After World War II, we won and made the rules, so Allied violations mostly went unpunished. Still, the precedent was to establish a legal code for the future by which soldiers and their leaders could be judged. That code holds that warriors are accountable. You cannot blame an abstract – war – for that is only a word describing the actions of humans.

Kerrey and his comrades may be guilty of nothing, but the allegations certainly merit investigation if the lessons of Nuremberg are to have any enduring value.