2001 essay written by S. Brian Willson
Mekong Delta, 1969
My Air Force Combat Security unit was dispatched to Binh Thuy on March 7, 1969, to fortify a Vietnamese controlled airbase a few miles northwest of Can Tho City along the Bassac River. This was in Phong Dinh Province, about 100 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. I was the First Lieutenant in charge of this unit of nearly forty men. Tet 1969, though far less intense than the devastating Tet offensive of 1968, had been launched by the Viet Cong (VC) less than two weeks earlier, on February 23. Everybody was on edge. Two days later, on February 25, then Lieutenant and now ex-U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey and six other Navy Seals (Sea-Air-Land forces) under his command committed an atrocity at Thang Phong where as many as 24 villagers were gunned down, at least half of whom were women and children. Thang Phong rests near the South China Sea in Kien Hoa Province, about 50 miles directly east of Can Tho.
During Tet 1968, the Delta, as most of South Vietnam, had been hit hard. Thirteen of the sixteen provincial capitals had been seriously penetrated by the VC. Binh Thuy airbase had received eighteen different attacks in February and March 1968, far more than the other ten airbases in South Vietnam, with the exception of Tan Son Nhut in Saigon, which was also hit eighteen times. The U.S. response had been furious, especially against VC operations in Can Tho City, and in My Tho and Ben Tre in Kien Hoa Province to the east, not far from Thang Phong. At that time, The New York Times (February 6, 1968) reported infliction of at least 750 civilian casualties in My Tho, 350 in Can Tho, and 2,500 in Ben Tre. Ben Tre had been so pulverized by U.S. firepower that a U.S. Major explained, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Some months later, in December 1968, Operation “Speedy Express,” conducted primarily by the Ninth Infantry Division, had begun sweeping missions designed to finish off VC units in the Delta, especially in the provinces of Kien Hoa and Vinh Binh. This operation was in full swing when I arrived. According to military historian, retired Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr., when Speedy Express had concluded operations in May 1969, there were nearly 11,000 “enemy” casualties.
As a combat security officer I had to quickly acquaint myself with intelligence reports on “enemy” activity, and locations and types of friendly resources. I had not been in Vietnam more than a month or so when it seemed to me that virtually everybody, other than Vietnamese business, political, and military leaders, was at least secretly hostile to the U.S. presence, and alternately sympathetic with the Vietnamese struggle for independence from ANY outside political/military force. Though at first I did not want to believe this “sense,” it became confirmed by a combination of other experiences: discussions with other U.S. Air Force personnel and members of the Vietnamese military, interactions with members of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Infantry Division, conversations with numerous Vietnamese in Can Tho City and various villages in the area, examination of Seventh Air Force bombing reports that conflicted with my own personal knowledge of bombings, and the reading of a history of U.S. intervention written by two Cornell University professors [George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (New York: Dial Press, 1967)].
After Tet 1968, the CIA Phoenix program had begun intense efforts to eliminate perceived political and military leadership in the VC. U.S. air and ground forces had become much more indiscriminate in killing Vietnamese while glibly considering most of them VC. By 1969 I had been briefed that three-quarters of South Vietnam had been designated by the U.S. military command and local Vietnamese officials as a “free fire zone,” meaning that virtually any villager in that vast area could be killed with little question. Nonetheless, in my continued visits to various villages northwest and northeast of Can Tho, there seemed little real support among villagers for the U.S. and our South Vietnamese political/military ally.
Bob Kerrey, as leader of the Navy SEAL team, was likely participating in Operation Speedy Express and/or the Phoenix assassination program. Many Navy SEAL units were identified as “hunter-killer” teams, and were especially skilled at infiltrating areas by sea in small boats or as frogmen. Their rigorous training explicitly prepared them for just such missions.
1954-65: US Thwarts 1954 Geneva Accords, Defies Vietnamese Sovereignty and Conducts Illegal Covert War
- It became obvious that we in the U.S. military knew little or nothing about the Vietnamese people, their history, or their authentic sentiments. I doubt if many of our political leaders in Washington or those in our military chain of command knew much. The Vietnamese had a long history of successfully resisting outside forces, no matter the heaviness of their own losses. They fought the Chinese for nearly a thousand years and then the French for a hundred. Since the end of World War II the French had suffered nearly 175,000 casualties in their effort to restore their pre-war colony, while the the Vietnamese had suffered perhaps more than a million dead in defending their independence.
The unilateral U.S. intervention began in 1954, immediately following the humiliating French defeat. Unfortunately, we military troopers had been tragically duped! Our ignorance as U.S. Americans, along with our intrinsic cultural racism and historic sense of superiority, combined to manifest in a lawless, brutal force that knew virtually no limits in our violent assaults against the humble but proud Vietnamese people and their culture. We troopers had simply been guinea pigs! We did not realize the Vietnamese were prepared to defend their sacred independence at any cost. We did not even believe that the Vietnamese had the right to their independence.
The July 21, 1954 Geneva Agreement concluded the French war against the Vietnamese and promised them a unifying election, mandated to be held in July 1956. The U.S. government knew that fair elections, in effect, meant a genuine democratic victory for revered Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. This was not acceptable! Therefore, in June 1954, prior to the signing of the historic Agreement, the U.S. began CIA-directed internal sabotage operations against the Vietnamese, while setting up puppet Ngo Dinh Diem (brought over to VN from the U.S.) as “our” political leader. No elections were ever held! This set the stage for yet another war for Vietnamese independence–this time of unwanted U.S forces and their S. Vietnamese puppets. The Vietnamese had been betrayed!
The seriousness of the U.S. government to interfere with independence movements in Asia cannot be underestimated. U.S. National Security Council documents from 1956 declared that our “national security…would be endangered by Communist domination of mainland Southeast Asia.” Secret military plans stated that “nuclear weapons will be used in general war and in military operations short of general war.” By March 1961, the Pentagon brass recommended sending 60,000 soldiers to western Laos accompanied by air power that included, if necessary, use of nuclear weapons to assure that the Royal Laotian government would prevail against the popular insurgency being waged against it.
The covert operations intended to destabilize the Vietnamese independence movement were, of course, in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements. They were also in violation of the United Nations Charter and other international laws. This covert war lasted nearly eleven years until the overt invasion by U.S. forces commenced on March 8, 1965. This invasion was also in violation of international laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution, which requires a Declaration of War by Congress prior to initiating acts of war.
1965-75: US Moves to Illegal Overt Intervention
For the next ten years the U.S. continued its lawless behavior, unleashing forces that caused (and continue to cause) an incomprehensible amount of devastation in Vietnam:
- Destruction by bombing of 13,000 of Viet Nam’s 21,000 villages;
- Eight million tons worth of indiscriminate bombing (four times the amount used by the U.S. in all World War II), destroyed an area the size of the State of Maine, if laid crater to crater;
- Utilization of eight million additional tons of other kinds of ordnance;
- Dropping of nearly 400,000 tons of napalm on people targets, a totally indiscriminate incendiary weapon;
- The callous identification of as much as three-fourths of South Vietnam as a “free fire zone” justified the murder of virtually anyone found in thousands of villages in those vast areas;
- A historically unprecedented level of chemical warfare in the indiscriminate spraying of nearly 20 million gallons on one-seventh the area of South Vietnam. The vestigial effects of chemical warfare poisoning continues to plague the health of adult Vietnamese (and ex-GIs) while causing escalated birth defects. Samples of soil, water, food, and body fat of Vietnamese continues to reveal dangerously elevated levels of dioxin to the present day.
- Today Vietnamese officials estimate the continued dangerous presence of 35 million landmines left over from the war, and 300,000 tons of unexploded ordnance. Tragically they continue to explode when farmers and children accidentally detonate them in their work and play activities, and kill or injure several thousand every year. The Vietnamese report 40,000 people killed alone since 1975 by land mines and buried bombs. That means that every day 4 or 5 Vietnamese are continually killed due to U.S. ordnance.
The war against the Vietnamese, thus, goes on and on.
It is now believed that the U.S. and its allies killed as many as 5 million Southeast Asian citizens during the active war years. The numbers of dead in Laos and Cambodia remain uncounted, but as of 1971, a Congressional Research Service report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated that over one million Laotians had been killed, wounded, and refugeed, with the figure for Cambodia being two million. More than a half million “secret” U.S. bombing missions of Laos that began in late 1964 devastated whole populations of ancient cultures there. Estimates indicate that around 230,000 tons of bombs were dropped over northern Laos in 1968 and 1969 alone. Increasing numbers of U.S. military personnel were added on the Laotian ground in 1961. Land invasions of Laos occurred for two months in early 1969, and again for one week in early 1971. “Secret” bombing of Cambodia had begun in March 1969. An outright land invasion of Cambodia had occurred from late April 1970 through the end of June, causing thousands of casualties. And the raging U.S. covert wars in these countries did not finally cease until August 14,1973, inflicting countless additional casualties. When the bombing in Cambodia finally ceased the U.S. Air Force had officially recorded dropping nearly 260,000 tons of bombs there. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Laos over eight-and-a-half years exceeded two million.
The consensus now is that more than 3 million Vietnamese were killed, with 300,000 additional missing in action and presumed dead. In the process the U.S. lost nearly 59,000 of her own men and women, with about 2,000 additional missing, while four of her allies lost over 6,000 more. South Vietnamese military counted nearly 225,000 dead. All this carnage in order to destroy the basic rights and capacity of the Vietnamese to construct their own independent, sovereign society. None of these people deserved to die in war. Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and U.S. military grunts were all victims. All of these corpses had been created because of the perpetuation of an incredible LIE–a “cause” that had been concocted by White male plutocrats in Washington, many of whom possessed PhDs from prestigious universities. These politicians and their appointees, along with their profitable arms makers/dealers, desired, as did most of their predecessors going back in U.S. history, to assure the destruction of peoples’ democratic movements that threatened the virtually unlimited hegemony of the U.S. over markets and resources–in this case those located in East Asia–and the profits to be derived therefrom. But never did a small country suffer so much from an imperial nation, as the Vietnamese did from the United States.
Comparison of Casualties
To grasp the nearly incomprehensible consequences to the Vietnamese society it is instructive to reflect that during the U.S. war against the Vietnamese, nearly one in ten, or 10 percent of her population of approximately 35 million was grievously killed. In addition, vast areas of territory were devastated by bombing and chemical warfare, and Vietnam’s infrastructure was largely destroyed.
This contrasts with one in 3,300, or .03 percent of the U.S. population who needlessly died in the lawless intervention. What would be the effects on the U.S. society if we had suffered losses of twenty million, or 10 percent of our population in a war? Furthermore, how would it have affected us if vast regions of our country had been bombed and chemically defoliated, simply because we insisted on the right to be free from a foreign power intending to dominate and control our political ideology and functioning society?
During the devastating U.S. Civil War, slightly more than 185,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died out of a population of about 32 million, or about .6 percent of the U.S. population. During World War II, with a population of about 135 million, the U.S. lost nearly 300,000 soldiers, or .22 percent. In the latter war, the U.S. suffered no property damage with the exception of the destruction of their military base at Pearl Harbor, but that was located on colonized land taken from Hawaiian natives formally annexed in 1898 against their will. The people of the United States simply have no comprehension of the amount of damage and destruction our policies have caused others, as we have never faced anything closely comparable to what we did in Vietnam. Similarly, in Korea only ten years earlier, though unknown to virtually all Westerners to this day, there was a similar effort on the part of Koreans throughout its Peninsula to be free of U.S. occupation and subsequent military intervention following the Japanese surrender in August 1945. That conflict ultimately culminated in what we call the Korean War, where it is now believed that a shocking 5 million were killed, 4 million of whom were Koreans and one million Chinese. Korea had a total population of about 30 million, meaning that Korea’s population losses were greater per capita than Vietnam’s–greater than one in seven killed, or more than 13 percent!
To repeat: Bob Kerrey and I, along with 3.5 to 4 million other U.S. men and women were thrust into a fundamentally immoral, lawless intervention against the authentic desires of the Vietnamese to build an independent, sovereign nation. (The Pentagon appears to not know a precise number of military personnel assigned to Southeast Asia due to significant numbers assigned temporary, versus permanent, duty, and others participating in classified, unreportable missions. For example my entire unit in Vietnam was considered temporary duty with our official location identified at an airbase in Louisiana.) Most of us simply did not understand the historical context at the time. We believed we were doing our duty for our country to protect Vietnam from the evils of monolithic communism. Of course, our government did not want us to know the authentic history, even if it did know. My job was, in essence, to protect airplanes in between their bombing missions. Since the villages they were bombing had been identified as being in a “free fire zone,” it was easy to rationalize destroying everything. On occasion, through ground observations, I witnessed the horrific aftermath of these bombing missions–villages with bodies of only young women, many children, and a few elderly strewn on the ground. I never saw any weapons in these virtually defenseless villages. The bombing of villages which at first I thought must be the result of mistakes, I later concluded was deliberate and systematic. I was feeling sick about what I was realizing was happening but I had no one to talk to.
Viet Nam Was Not An Aberration
Now we know more about United States history, and that our violent intervention in Vietnam was, unfortunately, not an aberration. The defining and enabling experience of our U.S. civilization was the Holocaust perpetrated against the millions of original inhabitants living on the Hemispheric land base. That experience was followed by the kidnapping and transporting of millions of Africans to the Americas providing “free” labor for building our original agricultural and mercantile system. Two-thirds of those originally apprehended in Africa perished while resisting arrest or during the deplorable conditions of transport across the Atlantic Ocean. “Free ” land at gunpoint. “Free” labor at gunpoint. This is an intrinsic part of our cultural ethos and karma.
It is known that the U.S. has historically intervened militarily exceeding 400 times in more than 100 nations expanding our control over global resources and markets. And it is now believed that the U.S. covertly intervened in a variety of destabilizing actions anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 times in over 100 countries since the end of World War II. No one knows just how many people have been murdered and maimed by these aggressive (and lawless) actions, but the figure is in multiples of millions. This is a tough conclusion, one that is extremely painful, to acknowledge about the nation of our upbringing and citizenship.
The American Way Of Life
Obsessive addiction to our disproportionately privileged American Way Of Life (AWOL) exacts heavy demands upon Mother Earth and her citizens. As a nation we have but 4.6 percent of the world’s population, yet insist on consuming anywhere from 25 percent to nearly half of the world’s resources, depending upon which asset is examined. For example, the U.S. consumes slightly more than 25 percent of the world’s oil production, but higher percentages of other critical resources. The U.S. has nearly 500 passenger cars per one thousand people, nearly six times the rate for the entire world’s population, consuming high percentages of the globe’s steel and rubber resources. People in the U.S. consume paper at seventeen times the rate of those in the “developing” world, and nearly six times the rate of the total world population. We in the United States are carefully insulated from experiencing the incredible pain and suffering that directly results from our ignorance and arrogance.
Healing As An Antidote to Our ‘Forever War’
We veterans who now understand this grotesquely unfair reality can exercise a choice to take courageous responsibility for our actions, especially since our cowardly government which made the intervention decisions is sadly unlikely to do so. Regularly forgotten is that the Paris Peace Accords signed by the United States and Vietnamese governments on January 27, 1973, and subsequent letter signed by President Nixon on February 1, promised more than $4 billion for healing the wounds of war and postwar reconstruction. The U.S. shamelessly reneged on this promise and the aid has never been provided.
In a profound way the entire U.S. American society needs to take responsibility for the crime against Vietnam. The U.S. Constitutional democracy and its political structures representing the people and taxpayers of the United States, made a series of choices, all of them criminal and in violation of both international law and its own Constitution, to invade the nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, devastating the people, their infrastructures and cultures. Nonetheless, veterans who viscerally participated in the tragic war have an opportunity to pursue our own healing and set an example for our society. Bob Kerrey and his men killed for this lie, and participated in this terrible assault on the Vietnamese people. Though Kerrey had been on a mission designed to likely result in the direct killing of villagers, my duties led me to only witnessing the aftermath of bombings that murdered large numbers of Vietnamese. I viewed the sickening sight of dozens of bodies of women, children, and elderly. I was a participant, nonetheless, in the killing machine, even being minimally complicit in the bombing campaigns that murdered far more Vietnamese (and Cambodians and Laotians) than all ground operations combined.
Bob Kerrey’s Admission on 60 Minutes, May 1, 2001
Former Kerrey SEAL squad member Gerhard Klann told 60 Minutes II (May 1, 2001) and the New York Times (April 29, 2001) that the Vietnamese civilians were herded into a group and massacred, an account initially denied by SEAL team leader Kerrey. Klann’s account was virtually the same as a surviving eyewitness. When Kerrey was initially asked by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II why his after-action report asserted that his squad killed 14 Viet Cong, he responded: “We would not have separated out and mentioned them as women and children. We just didn’t — sex, age, nothing would have been reported in that fashion. We considered everyone in that area to be VC. And that’s how we would report it.” [Memories of a Massacre: Part I: Varying Accounts Of a Night in 1969”, CBS 60 Minutes, May 1, 2001 – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/memories-of-a-massacre-part-i/].
However, during a second session interview with Rather on 60 Minutes, Kerrey commented on the February 25, 1969 shootings at Thanh Phong: “To describe it [the attack] as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right. Because that’s how it felt, and that’s why I feel guilt and shame for it.” [“Memories Of A Massacre: Part II: Klann Tells His Version of the Story”, CBS 60 Minutes, May 1, 2001 – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/memories-of-a-massacre-part-ii/; Gregory L. Vistica, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 240; and “What Happened in Thanh Phong”, Gregory Vistica, New York Times, Sunday, April 29, 2001].
Prescription For Mr. Kerrey
I herein offer a healing prescription for Bob Kerrey. Other U.S. souls still haunted by participation in that criminal war might consider something similar:
First, Mr. Kerrey, please publicly return your Bronze Star received for the killing of the civilians at Thang Phong. You need to clearly renounce it as a medal drenched in the blood of the innocent people of that village.
Second, Mr. Kerrey, I urge you to travel to the village of Thang Phong in the Province of Kien Hoa to personally express your sorrow for the consequences of your actions, asking those people for forgiveness.
Third, Mr. Kerrey, create a reparations or atonement fund, in cooperation with the Vietnamese people in that area, as a concrete effort to repair in some way the harm done. This will make saying your sorry possess more meaning.
And fourth, Mr. Kerrey, and perhaps the most important act for your own healing and for the healing of our entire nation, begin publicly speaking and teaching about the authentic history of the Vietnamese people and the U.S. role in sabotaging the 1956 unifying elections as mandated by the 1954 Geneva Agreements, how the U.S. fabricated an alternative puppet government not supported by the vast majority of the Vietnamese people, how the U.S. maintained its posture through a series of incredible lies that put the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and U.S. men and women in harm’s way, causing the needless death and maiming of millions. Thus you can educate the U.S. American society on why so many civilians were murdered in confusion about who was a VC or not, as the vast majority of Vietnamese were simply defending their rights to be free of unwanted outside forces. We would likely do no less if invaded here at home.
Never has there been a more critical time in our nation’s history for there to emerge a dramatic new consciousness rooted in humility and genuine respect for other nations and people, including all of our own citizens. Veterans have a unique standing to initiate courageous leadership in a national healing process. This requires speaking truth to what we know, including that all people and the earth are intrinsically interconnected. It requires recognizing that at a deep level we feel lonely sadness, which we have often defended with anger, but begs to be grieved with voluminous tears. Our souls, and the soul of our country, are at stake. Furthermore, the future of peace in the world may rest on a profound reckoning on the part of U.S. Americans that our historical imperial policies have been wrong, and that we now want to truly make amends for our crimes, for our arrogance. I urge all veterans, especially those from Vietnam, to find the courage to reveal our own, and our country’s, dark role, and disclose the incredible lies that our government perpetuated against us, leading to the murder of millions of innocent human beings. The future of the human condition, not just our souls, may actually be at stake!
My chapter relating to the Bob Kerrey massacre, “Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity, the Crime of Vietnam and the Historic Pattern of US Imperialism”, was published in an anthology, Genocide, War Crimes and the West, edited by Adam Jones (London: Zed Books, 2004), Chapter 8, pp