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Former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey tells Here & Now's Robin Young that the backlash against his appointment as chair of a new American-backed university in Vietnam will not stop him from moving forward to help advance the university.
Kerrey's appointment to Fulbright University Vietnam has angered some Vietnamese who recall his involvement as a Navy SEAL in a 1969 massacre during the Vietnam War in which 20 villagers, including women and children, were killed. Kerrey acknowledged his role in the midnight raid more than 30 years after the incident, just before an investigation between CBS News' "60 Minutes II" and the New York Times was to be published in the newspaper's magazine.
Fulbright University is a project long in the making. It was established by Harvard University and the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and is the first independent private university in Vietnam. Senator Kerrey, Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain have said the project is a symbol of reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Read An Excerpt From Kerrey's Speech
Note: The excerpt below is from Sen. Bob Kerrey's April 18, 2001 speech at the Virginia Military Institute. It was his first public acknowledgement of his involvement in a 1969 massacre during the Vietnam War in which 20 villagers, including women and children, were killed.
"Allow me to tell an unhappy story about myself and a choice I made while serving in Vietnam. In February 1969, I led a squad of 6 other U.S. Navy SEALs on a military operation in an area of Vietnam that was controlled by the Viet Cong. Reliable intelligence told us that a seven-man squad faced considerable danger if we chose to enter the area. I chose to go. We entered two hours after sunset on a dark, moonless night. It was the most risky mission I had led in my short time in country. My greatest fear was that some mistake on my part would end in the death of my men. Following orders I had been given and training I received, we used lethal procedures when there was doubt. When we received fire, we returned fire. But when the firing stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory; it was a tragedy and I had ordered it.
How, I have anguished ever since, could I have made such a mistake? Though it could be justified militarily, I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years. Knowing that the people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers and their missing men had fired upon us, drawing our fire, has not helped. Knowing that I followed what I considered to be the standard operating procedure has not helped.
I tell you this story now because I believe a part of your military training must include how to cope with the horrors of war if you are lucky enough to survive them. Your military training must include ethical examination of what is permissible in war. Ho Chi Minh once said famously that Americans do not have the stomach to do what you have to do to win a guerrilla war. He was right, but it is not an insult for us to believe so. It is what makes American leadership at its best so different and so vital in a world where evil still controls too many innocent lives.
George Catlett Marshall became a paragon of what good a good man can do because he had the courage to pay attention to the ethical detail of life. He knew how important those last six inches could be. He became a hero because he did not try to become one. I urge you to do the same.
In May 1970, I received the Congressional Medal of Honor and have been called a hero ever since. I know better. I received this award on behalf of men whose heroism was never witnessed or was lost in the very imprecise machinery of such awards. Most of all, I received it for the George Marshalls of our world whose ethical, heroic, unselfish behavior was sustained every day of their lives.
Your unconventional decision to serve is a beginning of a life that I pray will be full of good fortune, happiness and love. From the depths of my heart I am grateful for your beginning. I know that America and the world will be your beneficiaries."
- Bob Kerrey, former U.S. Senator (D-Nebraska), former Governor of Nebraska and former president of The New School in New York.