It was early May when the Ethiopian kid was murdered. There's no other word for it; isn't it a homicide when a guy with a gun turns it on a helpless, frightened boy and takes his life? That's the way I would have called it when I worked the police beat in Indiana. The Eritrean soldiers who witnessed it were reluctant to talk to me, but even they were hard-pressed to see this as a legitimate act of war. Because it was as if, in the midst of a terrifying and dehumanizing maelstrom, they had somehow managed, if only for a moment, to reclaim a bit of the humanity that years of battle had eroded. But that moment was dispatched with the same contemptuous impunity as the kid.
It happened on the Assab front, a flat, godforsaken expanse of ground that more closely resembles a lunar hell then anything terrestrial. It was a place where the broiling hatred directed across the no-man's-land was trumped only by the mercury's rapid midday rise, a spike of heat so pronounced it forced the Weyanne and Shebya to cool their guns for a few hours. They made up for those hours at night, when sustained artillery salvos lit up the hazy sky like beautiful heat lightning storms.
Things tended to get intense around dusk, and on this particular evening the half-dozen Eritreans were frenetically scurrying back and forth before disgorging their Kalashnikovs towards the Ethiopian lines. They were used to all manner of flying metal raining down on them, but they weren't anywhere near ready for the arrival of a live Ethiopian soldier. This hit a little close to home -- "motherfucker could have killed us!" one of the fighters said. But that was hard to believe; he couldn't have been more than 19, I was told, his eyes wide, body unscathed, his uniform a tattered rag of tears and holes.
Not only had he made it through the horizontal hail of small arms fire, he'd somehow traversed the mine field without setting off a single charge. That anyone could come through all of that was the combat equivalent of Jesus walking on water, and it was a scene that flipped the squad's collective wig. Before the kid even knew what was going on, one Eritrean had, in the blink of an eye, snapped his AK barrel right up against his throat, his finger dancing spastically between triggerguard and trigger while the boy was shouting surrender. He was crying, hollering, saying he just wanted out of the shit. He'd tossed his Kalashnikov at least 20 yards back, didn't have an ounce of ordinance on him, and just wanted to go home.
The sweat was pouring down the Eritrean's forehead, dripping into eyes bugged out with hate and fear. The soldier next to him was just as freaked, but could see that his comrade's conscience was ping-ponging between the righteous killing of the enemy and shooting a bawling kid. The soldier told me he felt like he'd stepped outside of himself, watching the whole scene unfold with him as a participant, the words tumbling out of his mouth, imploring his comrade to lower the gun. The others gently but persistently chimed in as the gunman's sweat mixed with tears, tears of anger, frustration, compassion. And then, suddenly, the time that had elongated snapped back as he dropped the barrel and slumped forward, almost touching the wailing Ethiopian. In seconds he'd gone from primed to wrung-out, as if he'd been hit full force with the pathos of it all, realizing just how much of himself he'd nearly lost.
The Ethiopian kid just kept crying, thanking his saviors in between sobs, slowly taking comfort in their reassurances that he was, in fact, now a prisoner of war, and no longer a soldier.
But within moments, the squad's captain quietly materialized. One of the cadre watched his face contort as his eyes fell upon the kid. "There's no such thing as prisoners right now," he said quietly. Then he smiled, ever-so-slightly, and took the kid by the wrist, leading him towards a dugout bunker. The kid started wailing again, but the ghost of a smile still hovered over the captain's lips, which softly moved, emanating gentle words of reassurance: It was alright, it was alright, they were just going to go get some water. But the kid knew he was doomed, and the soldiers who'd just spent the past 10 minutes holding his life in their hands and reassuring him he was safe also knew, and knew that he knew.
The captain and the kid descended into the earthen bunker, and a second later, the kid's unlikely saviors heard a single shot ring out. The captain ascended. "Someone get this piece of shit out of my trench before it stinks up the place," he said, holstering his sidearm and receding down the line and into the dusk.
Some of the soldiers were stunned. Even though they hated the enemy and had no compunction about killing him, in an oblique way, they felt for the Ethiopian soldiers. For two years, the Ethiopians had simply thrown human waves at the Eritreans, resulting in disastrous human losses; if the Ethiopian high command wanted to make it like shooting fish in a barrel, fine, but there was something still a little unsavory about it. During the last offensive, many Eritrean soldiers felt conflicted as they fired on their counterparts, because they knew the Ethiopians' choice: Either die from an Eritrean round, or die as a war crime victim when your own officers shot you for retreating. (There were PoWs who had survived this fate, including one who had half his nose blown off by his officer in charge.)
Whatever uniform the kid had worn, his act of courage and self-preservation was a transcendent moment. Sure, every day was a massacre. But was this a murder? A few of them felt -- or, at least, they did a year ago -- like they were in the oddest of positions: Maybe it was wrong, maybe it wasn't, but either way, they were witness at least, co-conspirators at most, to something -- and they were confused by the knowledge that there would never be any examination, let alone accounting, of what happened.
* * *
So what to make of Kerrey? Establishment Washington is profoundly disconcerted by the notion that one of its own might, but for a few slight turns of circumstance, more closely resemble My Lai war criminal William Calley than a possible president, and champions the absurd idea that these are personal demons that can be stared down without fear of public censure. The fact remains though, that while the architects of Vietnam and other illicit wars should never be beyond the reach of time, in this case we are, in all likelihood, beyond retributive justice for what may have happened in the field. What's left is the option of restorative justice -- conducting an investigation to get the full and accurate story in the hopes that an earnest encounter with the truth will aid in a thoughtful healing process.
And it's this refusal to confront the past that is so maddening about Kerrey and his defenders. There are scores of veterans haunted by the memories of what Vietnam tweezed out of and then let snap back into them. Many have exorcised their demons by returning to Vietnam to do something -- from simply talking to former enemies to performing redemptive acts of contrition -- and acknowledge that while every grunt was a pawn victimized by the masters of war, one's own dark side can be accepted and properly contextualized in the service of reconnecting with humanity.
One is increasingly hard-pressed to see this in Kerrey. His story goes through subtle shifts and permutations; the old Navy SEAL team is reunited -- minus Gerhard Klann -- to reconcile memories and mete out a consistent exculpatory account that sees no need to acknowledge anyone else's pain or humanity. In a joint statement, members of this group merely said they "regret the results of this night." While Kerrey may not be the "uncommonly good liar" he once characterized Bill Clinton as, it's hard not to see strands of a complicated effort to preserve a certain kind of viability here.
In essence, Kerrey and his defenders -- including Senators Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry -- are self-righteously condescending to us, throwing out the ridiculous claim that an elected official with a prominent military component to his political career, "had the right to keep this memory private." They expect us to back off by invoking the cliché "war is hell," without actually exploring the complicated evidence that so profoundly illustrates that truth.
The coroner's credo states that, "We speak for the dead to protect the living." The Baltimore detectives who became the basis for Homicide: Life on the Street attempted in their job to simply "speak for the dead," whoever they might have been, whenever they might have been killed. Consider this: If a corpse dated to 1969 was discovered in Anycity, USA, or a strong lead on an ancient case materialized, does anyone think investigators wouldn't pounce on it? Lawmakers have concluded that murder is such a heinous crime that it deserves no statute of limitations; to this end, numerous law enforcement agencies actually maintain "cold case squads," whose sole duty is working ancient or dead-end cases.
New York Times Magazine author Gregory Vistica has taken the case as far as he can, but the ongoing efforts of Vistica and 60 Minutes II are by no means the end of the line. While the Kerrey case may be complex and never truly solved, it is a case that deserves the most thorough examination possible, because one should take any opportunity to speak for the dead. As such, it's something that should be left not just to official investigators, but journalists -- who have some acts of contrition to perform on behalf of the trade as well.
When Philip Knightley published The First Casualty, his seminal 1975 investigation of war correspondents, one of his most poignant observations was that My Lai had been exposed "not because it was written by a war correspondent on the spot, but by a reporter back in the United States who was capable of being shocked by it." With the notable exceptions of Esquire's Norman Poirier and The New Yorker's Jonathan Schell and Daniel Lang -- all of whom actually went looking for evidence of crimes against noncombatants in official records -- Knightley discovered that most reporters in the field were so soul-deadened by the "common American practice" of which My Lai was "an unusually pure example," that they had long ceased to regard them as aberrant. Neil Sheehan said it never occurred to him that he was witnessing war crimes; Peter Arnett said even if he had, he wouldn't have characterized them as such, because it would have constituted "making a judgment" as opposed to reporting facts.
And while Schell, Lang, Poirer and others such as Martha Gellhorn, Morley Safer and John Shaw had documented offenses against noncombatants in advance of My Lai, usually the only outrage their stories provoked were from "decent" American citizens who considered them Communist agents or dupes, and subscribed to the view succinctly put forth by Colonel Robert Rheault, the ex-commander of all U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam. "Some people think that the Japanese committed atrocities, that the Germans committed atrocities, that the Russians committed atrocities, but that the Americans don't commit atrocities," he said in a 1970 UPI interview, going on to dissuade those who believed that "American exceptionalism" was a given in combat too. "Well, this just isn't so," he warned. "American troops are as capable as any other of committing atrocities."
* * *
Part of the reason all of this resonates with me is because our job as journalists encompasses speaking for the dead, regardless of who they are. In 1999 and 2000, I reported exclusively from the Eritrean side, and I was troubled by journalists who viewed the human rights component of their reporting mission as one-sided. They were hell-bent on documenting crimes of war by Ethiopians, but never seemed to entertain the notion that it was possible similar offenses might have been committed by Eritreans, and that painting the fullest picture of reality required an effort to at least explore that possibility, too. In going after the Eritreans, some never even mentioned that their opponents had committed a massive human rights violation in 1998 by rounding up, deporting (and, in some cases, jailing) approximately 70,000 ethnic Eritreans and then expropriating their property.
Others tried, only to have their efforts derailed by the constraints of time and space, or editors obsessed with archaic conventions of the news business. Some perhaps committed war crimes themselves, like the correspondent who browbeat the crew of a dormant artillery battery to conduct an attack not for military maneuvers, but for 20 seconds of "action" footage. Though we as correspondents were infrequently in harms' way, the stress of the war brought darker aspects of ourselves to the fore, as it did to average citizens -- previously unmolested Tigrayan Ethiopians, for example, became a regular target for street beatings.
Which is not surprising, but a natural and inevitable outcome of war's intrinsic amorality. Whatever argument can be made for the righteousness of one side versus the other, it still warps and corrupts everyone it touches, and it never really lets go. It's like prison -- the rules of society function in reverse. There are rules and parameters, but they're far from static, subject to change based solely on the situation at hand. Which is why war is not what the insufferable George Will once called, "Direct leadership in the service of clearly defined objectives," but a realm in which the feral and the righteous pirouette between the ego and superego, redefining reality and its rules to fit the time and place. Sometimes, humanity wins out. Other times it doesn't. And most of the time, it isn't all that clear.
And by the time I left -- after having spent many a difficult and wrenching hour interviewing soldiers, NGO workers and reporters about their field experiences -- I felt just like one character from Homicide, a detective who quit because he couldn't stand to hear one more confession -- only to be pulled back to the unit and forced to confront the moral ambiguity of his tortured ex-partner, who confesses to him that he extrajudicially assassinated a serial killer released on a technicality.
And this is, I think, the way we collectively feel about the Kerrey case: Decades past the horrors of Vietnam, we really don't want to hear another confession, or face another complex moral situation. Yet we must, and we must not let our leaders dissuade us from undertaking this task. The senatorial trio tells us that we should take this opportunity to tell our veterans that we are "truly grateful" for their sacrifices. I, for one, do not feel grateful; while I respect the aforementioned sacrifices, I feel angry that the United States government put its own people in an illegal and unnecessary war (much the same way I respected the combatants on the Horn of Africa but despised their leaders for gratuitously starting and continuing a war). I want as deep an examination of what doing that meant as is possible -- not so there can be perpetual parlor talk as to whether a soldier was or was not a war criminal, but to force America to confront her darker, uglier elements, so those elements don't continue to blindside her. This should not be about a choice between throwing a guy in jail or declaring him a national hero. This should be about truth and reconciliation.
But though "government" is different than "country," and our electoral system has its flaws, the fact remains a government of, by, and for the people sent Bob Kerrey into combat, to kill in our name, for no good reason. It's on all of us to deal with this now, precisely because our leaders are telling us not to. Not doing so flies in the face of one of Reinhold Neibur's sagest observations: While man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, man's capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.