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Vistica, a CBS News producer, broke the story of then-Navy SEAL Kerrey’s 1969 raid on the Vietnamese hamlet of Thanh Phong, which resulted in the deaths of at least 21 unarmed women and children. Kerrey, who afterward lost a leg in combat, maintained that the civilians, in the confusion of the raid, had wandered into crossfire; this, at least, is his qualified recollection in his recent memoir, When I Was a Young Man (p. 546). Qualified, indeed, for Kerrey has publicly professed not to remember much of the incident, of a piece with his reputation on Capitol Hill, where he served as senator from Nebraska, as someone whose powers of recall were not to be trusted; "Kerrey’s struggle with the demons of memory," Vistica writes, "made it difficult for him to trust and quick to withhold." Some of the men under his command remember the night differently; they maintain that Kerrey ordered that civilians be fired on. Such an act would not have been out of keeping with what is known of SEAL operations, Vistica offers; secret agents as much as sailors, quick to assassinate political targets under cover of night, the SEALS were something of a law unto themselves, and Kerrey himself once remarked, "I tried to kill [the enemy] according to the general rules, which were not as specific as they should have been. We were given a hell of a lot more latitude than we should have been." Whether Kerrey, now president of the New School, truly was responsible for committing mass murder remains an open question, though Vistica’s evidence and Kerrey’s strange attempts to explain it away are powerfully suggestive. Vistica urges that the question besettled and standards for acceptable military behavior either enforced or revised, if only because "our military model, especially in dealing with terrorism, is going to be closer to the SEAL method of operation than the conventional-forces model"--and because we have been so quick to decry barbaric acts in places such as Bosnia while shielding our own wrongdoers from scrutiny.
Inconclusive but discomfiting--and sure to excite controversy.