THE BLADE, 2004
In a packed Senate committee room more than three decades ago, a gangly 27-year-old war hero with mop-top hair recounted the horrors of the Vietnam War - unspeakable atrocities to which fellow veterans had admitted.
Rapes. Tortures. Beheadings.
That appearance would help define John Forbes Kerry in 1971 as an overnight celebrity - landing him national TV interviews on the war and putting him at the center of the anti-war movement.
Three decades later, it would also come back to define, in part, attitudes about John Kerry the presidential candidate - as a key debate re-emerges about the Vietnam War: Just how widespread were atrocities by U.S. troops?
Mr. Kerry remains a central part of that controversy.
Supporters of the Democratic front-runner say he spoke the truth in that 1971 Senate hearing - a truth that helped convince Americans that soldiers were caught in a poorly run, no-win war.
The senator s critics, however, have repeatedly attacked the former Navy lieutenant s words, claiming that in the 1971 Senate hearing he painted all U.S. troops in Vietnam as ogres. Republicans are already ramping up the argument that Mr. Kerry maligned the reputation of a generation of soldiers.
The man in the middle is ready for the debate.
He gave historian Douglas Brinkley, a Perrysburg native, full access to his war records and journals. Dr. Brinkley has turned them into a best-selling book, Tour of Duty, chronicling the senator s battles in Vietnam and back in the United States to end the war - including the battle over his anti-war stance.
As Senator Kerry geared up for Tuesday primaries in Ohio and nine other states, he told The Blade last week that he stands by what he said in 1971 - insisting his comments never portrayed all veterans as war criminals.
Any suggestion of such, he said, is just political posturing by his opponents: “They re just trying to muddy the waters here.”
The mission: Ferry a group of South Vietnamese “Nung” mercenaries and their Green Beret adviser into the Mekong Delta.
For Lieutenant John Kerry, it would begin as another day in Vietnam, and end with another grisly confirmation of the brutality of the war.
As told in Tour of Duty, the 50-foot “Swift” boat he commanded had joined four others that day to ferry the mercenaries on a canal deep into communist-controlled territory.
After dropping the mercenaries off, the boats waited, becoming sitting ducks for Viet Cong attacks ranging from mines in the river to automatic weapon fire from the shore.
A fellow lieutenant would be temporarily blinded in the battle.
The adviser and mercenaries eventually returned to Lieutenant Kerry s boat with an elderly prisoner.
Ordered to go back on land for another mission, the mercenaries took the elderly man with them and returned an hour later - without their prisoner.
With a wink, the Green Beret adviser told Lieutenant Kerry that the prisoner had tried to “escape.”
“For a few nights, I wondered about the [elderly] man - not what, but how, they had done it,” Lieutenant Kerry would later write in his war journal. “And then one night we got drunk back at the base and I found out that he had been knifed by one of the Nung and then sliced up and left with a note of warning to the VC.”
It was clearly a war crime.
The Geneva Conventions demand prisoners be evacuated immediately from a battle area - not taken back into a war zone, not harmed, not chopped into pieces.
Recalling the incident last week, Senator Kerry said he is not sure if he reported the elderly man s execution to his commanders. But, he said, he had repeatedly complained to superiors about the brutalities of Vietnam.
“It became common knowledge, and people knew it,” he said. “We were upset about those kinds of things. That s part of what we were arguing about with our commanders.”
And those complaints would fuel sentiments he would later share on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Kerry has said that he has never seen specific atrocities on the scale of the My Lai massacre, where unarmed women and children were knowingly executed.
Still, the Yale University graduate would later say that he and other U.S. troops committed war crimes by following the hazy rules of engagement instituted by U.S. commanders.
The Geneva Convention and Army rules demand - then and now - that troops target only people they know are enemy soldiers. But, in a war where guerrilla soldiers often shed uniforms and weren t averse to using women and children, U.S. commanders often instituted “free-fire” zones - places were anyone was perceived to be the “enemy” so soldiers could open fire at will.
For Navy Swifts, free-fire zones were set by curfew. Any movements on the river or shore after dark were deemed free game for U.S. troops.
So Lieutenant Kerry and his crew - not knowing who was behind movements on shore or in boats floating down the rivers - often opened fire. It led to some haunting memories. On one pitch-black night, a member of his crew shot into a boat and found out he had killed a toddler.
They did not always open fire. In fact, his crew recalled in Tour of Duty that the lieutenant sometimes risked his life and broke Navy rules to save civilians.
But Dr. Brinkley has said the memories of civilians who did die “haunted” the future senator - despite his winning two awards for valor, including the Silver Star, the third-highest award for bravery.
A day after the elderly man was executed, Lieutenant Kerry received his third battle wound of his tour - his ticket to leaving Vietnam early.
He would return to America with memories of that and other incidents - memories that would stoke his desire to share stories of the war s atrocities with the world.
In a shabby Howard Johnson s just north of the heart of Detroit, 150 veterans from across the country gathered to talk about what they saw and did in the war.
John Kerry came too - for a “fact-finding” mission.
He was a relative newcomer to the group that sponsored the gathering - Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He would come away from those three days of the “Winter Soldier Hearings” with ammunition to become a major spokesman against the war.
In the wake of news of the My Lai Massacre, where about 500 unarmed men, women, and children were killed, Mr. Kerry would share the stories of other soldiers atrocities.
In April, 1971, in the middle of a week of veterans protests he helped organize, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His words propelled him into the national spotlight.
He chided the Johnson and Nixon administrations handling of Vietnam, and asked that the country withdraw its troops immediately, uttering the famous line: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Another part of his testimony, however, became nearly as famous, particularly in veterans circles, when he recounted what he had heard from the 150 veterans in Detroit.
He told the senators the soldiers admitted they had “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”
His testimony became a flash point in the debate over the Vietnam War.
Anti-war activists cheered his speech, saying it highlighted to a national audience just how widespread atrocities had become in the war. But some veterans, including some of Mr. Kerry s former crew members, were outraged at what they considered a blanket accusation that atrocities were commonplace in Vietnam.
That debate continues to this day.
Just one day after the end of the Winter Soldier Hearings, on a Kentucky army base, a sergeant told Army investigators about a rumor of a member of an elite paratrooper unit who had beheaded a Vietnamese baby four years earlier.
That statement would launch the longest war crimes investigation of the Vietnam War, substantiate the longest-known series of atrocities by a battle unit in Vietnam, and lead to a case that would be concealed from the public for 36 years.
The case was revealed in an October series in The Blade - Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths - which documented how an Army platoon called Tiger Force went on a seven-month rampage in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967, killing scores of unarmed men, women, and children.
The series sparked another chapter in the long debate about the level of atrocities in Vietnam.
In response to the revelations about Tiger Force war crimes, the man who helped create the unit, retired Col. David Hackworth, told the New York Times late last year that “Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go.”
The decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam, best-selling author, and controversial columnist told the newspaper that “there were hundreds of My Lais.”
That opinion is sharply contested by retired Col. William Eckhardt, who prosecuted Lt. William Calley for his part in the My Lai Massacre in 1968.
“Yes, there were atrocities. No one is disputing that,” Dr. Eckhardt said. “But the vast majority of men in Vietnam knew the difference between civilians and enemy soldiers.”
In fact, according to interviews and records the majority of soldiers at My Lai refused to take part in the slaughter of more than 500 villagers.
What little numbers are available suggest a small percentage of soldiers were known to have committed war crimes. The Army - the branch with the most troops in Vietnam - launched 242 war crimes investigations, substantiating a third of the charges, according to records in the National Archives. It led to 21 convictions of charges ranging from beating prisoners to murdering civilians.
Then there are the unreported war crimes. Just how many is anybody s guess.
“It really depends on who you talk to,” said Steve Maxner, the associate director of the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University. “There are some people who strongly believe that atrocities were committed, if not on a daily basis, then it might as well have been. And there are others who believe Americans conducted themselves in a dignified way.”
George Herring has studied the Vietnam War for years, but the University of Kentucky history professor has no easy answers either.
For sure, most troops were far from combat. At least four-fifths of U.S. troops in Vietnam served as support troops, and even some of the combat troops served in areas of South Vietnam where ethnic groups were allies of U.S. forces, or where the fighting between U.S. troops and communist forces followed more traditional battlefield rules.
But the odds were significantly higher for those combat troops who served in civilian areas with a heavy Viet Cong presence.
U.S. troops often went on “search and destroy” missions - such as the Tiger Force in the northern provinces and the Swifts in the southern delta - where they frequently had to endure booby traps and ambushes, and where their commanders instituted free-fire zones to try to clear areas of the “enemy.”
It was guerrilla warfare, and atrocities followed.
“Guerrilla warfare lends itself to this sort of thing,” Dr. Herring said.
But, that said, he s still not sure just how widespread atrocities were.
Neither is Senator Kerry.
LAWRENCE JACKSON / AP Enlarge
“I don t know. I can t tell you,” he said last week. “I do know there were enough instances of things being screwed up that that s one of the things that people objected to when we came home.”
The Internet sites are already up. The chain e-mails are already being sent. John Kerry is a charlatan and a traitor, they say. He over-hyped the allegations of atrocities to make a political name for himself.
The senator is used to such attacks. He s endured them ever since the Nixon White House began a secret campaign to discredit him.
Mr. Kerry lost his first major bid for Congress in 1972 after such attacks. Opponents have tried them in campaigns since. And now they are trying them again.
Naval War College professor Mackubin Thomas Owens sums up the argument in the latest issue of the conservative magazine National Review. The former Marine platoon commander said the senator “helped to slander a generation of soldiers who had done their duty with honor.”
That view angers Bill Crandell, a Sylvania native who helped organize the Winter Soldier Hearings and cheered Mr. Kerry s 1971 speech before the U.S. Senate.
“What he did not say was that everybody over there was doing this all the time,” said Mr. Crandell, who now lives in suburban Washington. “What he said is it is happening a lot.”
Senator Kerry said last week that he never meant to blame the soldiers.
“I have stood up and consistently defended the soldiers as innocent victims of civilian policy at higher levels,” he told The Blade.
He has few regrets over what he said in 1971.
“I think that occasionally there was language that might have been a little hot here and there,” he said. “But by and large, the facts I laid out and the basic criticism of the war has been documented by countless people.”
He said in this year s campaign for president he would rather talk about the future - from health care to job creation.
But his advisers have repeatedly pointed to his Vietnam service - trying to create an image of a decorated veteran who took bullets for his country and returned to speak out for justice.
They plan to contrast that to President Bush s service during the war, in the Air National Guard, including allegations that he skipped some of his required duty - an allegation the president has denied.
President Bush s supporters, in the meantime, have been gearing up their attacks on the senator s controversial statements on Vietnam.
Mr. Kerry insists he is not worried about debating the issue - again.
“If that s what they want to fight about, then let s have that debate,” he told The Blade. “They re going to try to scare people. In the end, that tactic won t work.”