Archive for Sunday, May 27, 2001

The geography of war

Reflections on Bob Kerrey’s travails

May 27, 2001


This Memorial Day I'll be thinking about a little island near Nha Trang, Vietnam. Hon Tre Island was where Special Forces received combat orientation. In 1968, we new guys were sent there to be "acclimated." The instructors loaded 60-pound sandbags into our packs for long runs in the hottest part of the day. This simulated ammunition and other gear our small units would carry to survive far from the Army's regular supply network.

The immediate landscape reflected environmental damage from an endless cycle of intense training in a highly concentrated area. I remembered it as Uglyville. After a week on Hon Tre we greenhorn Green Berets moved to scattered assignments all over Vietnam.

The first dead American soldier I saw was on Hon Tre. We'd been in country two nights. Someone got up, apparently to answer nature's call. As he stepped out of our defensive encampment the sentry shot him dead. Should we blame the man who pulled the trigger? That kid's parents would probably feel angry if they knew the man who wrote the letter home lied a little about how Johnny met his end. Was he sleepwalking? Did he dream he was at Boy Scout camp? Most new guys learned where they were real fast or they did not last long. Geography lessons are ruthless in a war zone.

In the spring of 1969, after being in Vietnam a while, I volunteered as a medical instructor at RECONDO School, a Special Forces-operated training camp for reconnaissance and commando units. These folks also used Hon Tre Island as their main training location. I discovered that this place I had seen as ugly actually was one of the most beautiful spots I had ever visited. I had the opportunity to rediscover Hon Tre because the medic at RECONDO had been killed in the middle of the night as he leaned out of a hovering helicopter trying to hoist up several wounded recon team members as the enemy closed in.

Those five students and their instructor were on a "graduation" mission to gather intelligence in an enemy base camp. On recon and commando missions, it was the norm to be hopelessly outnumbered deep in your adversary's back yard. Obviously there was tremendous emphasis on well-practiced stealth and disciplined silence in our training. But sooner or later they usually spotted you.

These "students" were all combat veterans, drawn from every branch of service and from all the allied countries who deployed troops to South Vietnam: New Zealand, Thailand, Korea. They all sent us their best young recon men to learn the skills needed to lead and train new recon teams.

Dance of do or die

One thing everyone learned in that place, and practiced with the intensity of an impassioned ballerina, was how to perform the dance of do or die. We spent endless hours firing thousands of rounds of ammunition in intensely choreographed drills. The moment you came into contact with the enemy, your point man and his backup would fire simultaneously on full automatic. They'd peel off to the rear as the next pair squeezed off their deadly 40 rounds. You reloaded on the run, but turned to fire again at the precise moment needed to send a continuous barrage of bullets toward the enemy position.

The timing had to be exact. If you reacted instantly and instinctively, if you let this drill become as automatic as breathing, you might, just might, fool the folks on the receiving end into believing that they were in contact with a force much larger than your six- or seven-man unit. If you could startle the hostiles into hunkering down in defensive positions, even for a few moments, launch some grenades, set Claymore mines for them to trip when they did come after you, you could increase the odds of reaching a place where the choppers had some chance of pulling you out alive.

Since few military outfits could spare qualified medics for duty with small recon and commando units, everyone needed to know enough first aid to keep a buddy alive until he could be evacuated. Wounded men often waited for hours before we could pull them out of the jungle. Everyone was told up-front that these teams had an average casualty rate of 86 percent, the highest in Vietnam. Few over 20 years old volunteered for this training. I had no trouble keeping everyone's attention in my medical classes.

Link in arms-smuggling chain

Hon Tre Island also served as a major link in the enemy's coastal arms smuggling chain. The system rivaled the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail as a crucial supply line. On the night of March 14, 1969, Lt. Joseph R. "Bob" Kerrey led his Navy SEAL team up a treacherous 350-foot cliff in the dark. As they descended into the enemy camp, a major firefight erupted. Despite multiple severe wounds, Kerrey managed to coordinate a deadly crossfire that saved his men and brought success to the mission. They surprised and captured several important Viet Cong leaders. Kerrey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The captives he brought out alive provided intelligence that severely disrupted the arms and ammunition flowing from the north to all parts of South Vietnam.

Of course, all of this is leading up to what happened at Thanh Phong. Kerrey's mission on the night of Feb. 25 was almost identical to the one just 17 nights later on Hon Tre Island. The Navy had solid information that key leaders in the same coastal arms smuggling network would be gathering at Thanh Phong. There were no cliffs to climb in that part of the Mekong Delta. Not much about the terrain surrounding this scattered cluster of huts gave Kerrey's raiders any opportunity to surprise the enemy. On the other hand, sentries posted in "spider" holes or using the huts as blinds could spot the SEALs in time to signal a warning.

Not one of the commentators I've heard bashing Bob Kerrey seems to know or care anything about the geography of war. The right and left alike have portrayed him as a baby killer. To uncover the truth in this story requires some close attention to location. Recently the Hanoi government has been promoting tourism in the isolated delta province where the Navy sent Kerrey's SEAL team that fateful February night. Hanoi's official Web site refers to the area as "The Cradle of the People's Concerted Uprising."

Vietnam's government tourist agency describes this backwater as the birthplace of resistance to the American-backed Saigon government. Tour promoters claim it was the landing site of the first arms shipment smuggled by boat from North Vietnam into the Mekong Delta region. The role of this place as a strategic center in the enemy's lines of supply is what Kerrey's critics do not care to grasp.

Kerrey and his six men were not merely trying to stop the flow of weapons; there were major Army and Navy units assigned to that large task. The Navy sent their most elite unit, a highly trained and well disciplined SEAL team, into an area known to be dominated by the enemy at night. Kerrey had orders to eliminate, ideally capture, a major official responsible for the coastal smuggling network. Capturing one of the key strategists in this clandestine network was far more valuable than killing him or her. Such key people were well guarded and difficult to take alive. It was a terrifyingly dangerous mission.

Not many things are certain in war, but you can be sure Kerrey's men did not simply walk into Thanh Phong, round up a bunch of civilians and shoot them for the sake of reporting a body count. Might they kill somebody to keep them from alerting those they were sent to capture? You bet. Kerrey's nightmares would be just as awful if he had allowed his team to be slaughtered because some mother cried out a warning to her Viet Cong son and his compatriots hiding nearby.

When the media reports that Kerrey's team fired "thousands of rounds" into the area where those villagers were gathered, it is probably no exaggeration. That is precisely what they were trained to do. You do not stand in place trying to identify precisely who has fired at you from the dark of night unless insanity has set in. You react as you have been trained to do or you die. Or worse, live with the knowledge that a teammate died because you were slow to pull the trigger. That is a reality of war.

We will never know

The intelligence that brought Kerrey and his men to Thanh Phong may have been wrong; double agents often passed on disinformation. Supposedly "reliable" intelligence got a lot of Americans, as well as many Vietnamese, killed in that war, as it has in all wars. More likely, the target of the operation was tipped off by lookouts. We will never know. What we do know is that a single shot from the enemy would have been sufficient to set off the tragedy that still haunts Bob Kerrey. But is he a war criminal?

In the world press, Hanoi's spokesmen are now declaring this incident the "worst massacre" in Ben Tre province during the entire war. Nobody who knows anything about the horrors of the Tet Offensive would buy this propaganda. Almost exactly one year before Kerrey's men conducted their ill-fated mission, the Viet Cong moved up that dirt road leading from Thanh Phong to Ben Tre City. They gathered together teachers, local officials and anyone they considered dupes of the Saigon administration. Their atrocities are well documented. There were many public executions.

This Memorial Day, many Vietnam veterans will relive the worst moments of their war experience thanks to the media coverage of Kerrey's ordeal. Those of us who knew Hon Tre Island feel a special kinship with his painful memories. He has said that he hopes the current discussion will help the public better understand the tragic reality of war. Perhaps this brief geography lesson will contribute to reducing the ignorance of war that is so blatantly apparent among Kerrey's critics.

Mike Caron, program director at the Douglas County Jail, served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam from fall 1968 to fall 1969.

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