In interviews with ‘‘60 Minutes II'' and Gregory L. Vistica (for New York Times Magazine), Kerrey said he had no recollection of killing women and children. Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's unit, says Kerrey gave the order to fire. There is a dispute among the combatants as to whether they were fired on first. Kerrey says they were but has acknowledged that after 32 years, ‘‘my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.''
A Vietnamese woman named Pham Tri Lanh was interviewed about the incident by ‘‘60 Minutes II'' in February. She says she witnessed the killing of 17 unarmed women and children. She was identified as the wife of a Viet Cong fighter.
The truth about this incident, and perhaps many others like it — known and not yet known — may be hard to determine. But there are a number of questions that should be asked.
Why did this take so long to emerge? Newsweek magazine, which had the story two years ago when Gregory Vistica was on staff, sat on it. Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas, who interviewed Kerrey with Vistica, told The Washington Post, ‘‘We could have run the story. We had Kerrey's confirmation. We just didn't want to do it to the guy when he wasn't running for president.''
Did someone do a political hit on Kerrey so he wouldn't run for president?
Newsweek editors demonstrated far less heart when they ran a story in 1996 alleging that Adm. Jeremy ‘‘Mike'' Boorda, chief of naval operations, did not earn two of his many decorations. Vistica was the reporter on that story, too. Less than two hours after he received an interview request from Vistica about the medals, Boorda committed suicide.
On Friday, Kerrey met with five other members of his SEAL commando team (Klann was not invited) to discuss what happened the night of the raid. Each signed a statement that disputed central elements in Klann's story.
While in Thanh Phong, ‘‘Klann says that the squad rounded up women and children from a group of hooches,'' Vestica writes in the New York Times Magazine. Then, according to Klann, Kerrey gave orders to machine-gun the captives, fearing they might alert enemy soldiers.
Kerrey says he and his men fired from 100 yards away. The problem with that version is that the dead were huddled together when it might have been expected that upon hearing gunfire they would have headed for the bunkers that were under many of the huts, or scattered in different directions. It was dark and it seems unlikely that even the best marksmen could hit and kill every human target in such a ‘‘neat'' manner from that distance.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fellow Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, defended Kerrey last week in The Wall Street Journal. McCain is correct when he says that those who have never been in combat should not rush to judgment of those who have.
That's not an excuse for doing nothing. Others, like Calley, have been convicted of actions similar to those of which Kerrey and his men are accused. Other incidents of large numbers of civilian casualties in Vietnam remain uninvestigated or untried.
Is there a cover-up about events at Thanh Phong? If so, who else is involved and how high up the chain of command?
If war crimes have been committed, the United States, which has held other nations responsible for such crimes, has an obligation to credibly investigate its own.