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CNN Talkback Live
Kerry Bares Soul About Vietnam Mission
Aired April 26, 2001 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey is baring his soul about a 32-year-old mission in Vietnam.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB KERREY (D), FORMER NEBRASKA SENATOR: Then we returned very lethal fire. And when the firing was all over, all we have is women and children that are dead.
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BATTISTA: Kerrey calls it an atrocity, but one done in self- defense.
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KERREY: I mean, I do feel anguish and guilt about it.
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BATTISTA: Yet a member of Kerrey's Navy SEAL time tells a different story to "60 Minutes II" of civilians being rounded up and massacred. Kerrey's version is backed up by another member of the commando team. And Vietnam vet Senator John Kerry observes...
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SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: War is brutal and tough, and people who weren't there and people who don't remember, I think, ought to think twice before they start second guessing this 30 years later.
KERREY: Human beings do things that afterwards we regret, and we'd like to run the clock back and wish we could do them differently.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BATTISTA: But why tell all now? Is Kerrey opening an old national wound or just healing his own?
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. Former senator Bob Kerrey is expected to hold a news conference anytime now, so of course, we will be bringing that to you live. He will be answering questions about revelations that civilians were killed during a raid he led in Vietnam. It is a memory, he says, that has been weighing heavily on his conscience for more than 30 years. Kerrey talked about it on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports" last night, and Wolf joins us now.
Wolf, what did he tell you about what happened on that night back in 1969?
WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS": He said that they were going into a free-fire zone, an area that was obviously very, very dangerous. They went into this little village. There was gunfire coming toward his squad of seven men, Navy SEALS, and they returned fire. To his horror, when they eventually late into the night, around midnight, went into that little village, they discovered that all of the dead people were either elderly men, women or young children. And it was a horrifying experience in his life, one, he says that has haunted him every single day since then.
BATTISTA: Let's listen briefly to the former senator in his own words here.
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KERREY: I had done a fly over the area in a fixed-wing aircraft to make sure there weren't civilians in the area. The district chief that we were working with told us that anybody in there as a result of it being a free-fire zone was the enemy. We expected it to be a very difficult mission. And we met some people that we believe were the outpost, and we killed them and then went on and took fire from the area where we expected this meeting to occur, and we returned very lethal fire. And when the firing was all over, all we have is women and children that are dead.
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BATTISTA: And what about the other guys in his unit, Wolf? Did they back up his story or was there disagreement?
BLITZER: One of them, a man named Gerhard Klann, who was interviewed by "60 Minutes II" has a different version saying that Kerrey was the commander of the small Navy SEAL squad, ordered the women and children in effect, to be rounded up and executed. That version is disputed by another individual named Michael Ambrose (ph), who's a Houston, Texas business executive now. He told "The Washington Post" this morning that Gerhard Klann's version simply is ridiculous, it's not true, that what happened was much closer to Senator Kerrey's version.
BATTISTA: All right, and we have Gerhard Klann in his own words here. Let's roll that.
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BLITZER: One of your comrades has come out and said that -- has a different recollection of that mission that you had, insisting that you and the rest of the squad knew you were killing civilians.
KERREY: That isn't true. I love Gerhardt. He's a -- I recruited him to my platoon as a result of his having made a tour previously. We've talked to one another over the last 32 years. He's never expressed anything of the kind to me over that period of time. But that is not the way it happened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BATTISTA: Now also, there are some discrepancies, Wolf, between the print version of Senator Kerrey's story and some of the television versions that we're going to be seeing soon in his story. Is there anything significant to that?
BLITZER: Well, a lot of people have been playing to what they call some of the problems, the consistency in Senator Kerrey's story. Over the years, including when he was running for the presidency in 1992, he never brought any of this out. Everyone knew, of course, about his Medal of Honor that he won as a result of an incident about a month after this particular incident.
But they're suggesting because the "New York Times" Sunday magazine and "60 Minutes II" had this story in the works, he has now belatedly 32 years later in effect come out and tried to bring out his story for what some are suggesting would be political damage control because he's not ruling out necessarily another run for the presidency in 2004. He totally denies that.
He's not ruling out another run for the presidency but he told me last night that this is something that has haunted him; he wanted to speak out. He totally disagrees with Gerhard Klann's version of what happened, and he feels that it's important just to spell out his side of the story right now.
BATTISTA: It's haunted him for 32 years, but did he tell you anymore about why now, why this particular moment?
BLITZER: He said he's been writing a book. He's in the process of writing a book. As you know, he's now the president of the New School University in New York City. He's recently remarried. He has a child, his wife is pregnant, on the way in the fall. Obviously, what has happened is that there have been some reporters over the years who have been looking into this incident, including "Newsweek" magazine, which never printed any of this. But now the "New York Times" and "60 Minutes II" are coming out with their stories.
And last week, he gave a speech little notice at Virginia Military Institute and he began to speak publicly for the first time about what happened then. And his version, of course, is totally different than the version that Gerhard Klann has.
BATTISTA: Did anybody report this episode to military superiors at the time? Was there any investigation?
BLITZER: There was a complete report and about more than a thousand rounds were fired, an after action report. But at the time it was reported, as you go into this free-fire zone into a village that presumably is occupied by the Viet Cong, you go and it's the middle of the night. You feel that you're being attacked and in self- defense you go in and you return fire. And as a result of that, they did report that civilians were killed in the process. But it doesn't look like this was like My Lai or any kind of incident of that nature, which caused a big stir at the time.
BATTISTA: So is anyone talking about any current investigations or undertaking any?
BLITZER: I haven't heard of any kind of formal investigations either in the U.S. military or congressional investigations. These are mostly journalistic enterprise investigations by the "New York Times," by "60 Minutes." A newspaper in Omaha has been looking into this, his home state of Nebraska, but no formal inquiries that I know of.
BATTISTA: And one last question, Wolf. What were your personal impressions after you spent this time talking with him about this episode?
BLITZER: Well, you know, at one point in my career, I was a military affairs correspondent at the Pentagon, so I got to speak to a lot of Vietnam War veterans. And I can tell you when they talk about the fog of war, it's absolutely true. Individuals in the same unit, the same squad go into a battle and come out with totally different recollections.
And with time, memory has a way of playing on the minds of these individuals, and things that did occur, you don't remember, you block it out. And things that never occurred, you begin to think that, well, maybe they did occur. This is not all that unusual that you have an incident of this kind of passion and spectacular nature and people will have different recollections.
BATTISTA: Wolf, let me interrupt you because the former senator is at the podium at the Sheraton in New York, so let's listen in.
QUESTION: Sir, could you put the microphone on first, please? Thank you.
KERREY: First of all, I have a prepared statement I'll make, and then I'll take whatever questions you've got. Every person who has gone into war has struggled with the question: Did I do it right? And I've struggled with that question privately since February of 1969 when I led a squad of U.S. Navy SEALs on an operation in which we received fire, returned it, and then found that only apparently innocent civilians had been killed.
For more than three decades, I have carried this deeply private memory with a sense of anguish that words cannot adequately convey. But I also will not let the shame I feel prevent me from seeing these sets of facts. The operation I led in February 1969 was in a free- fire zone where there was high probability of our making contact with enemy soldiers. We had reliable, intelligence both at a significant military meeting was taking place in the village that was our destination and that there not civilians in the area.
And when we fired, we fired because we were fired upon. In short, we did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people. I feel guilty because of what happened not because of what we intended to do. My guilt is connected to the nature of the Vietnam War.
In 1969 when I entered military service, I was 22 years of age and the war had not yet become unpopular at home. By the time I arrived in country in 1969, the American people had had enough. The moral sanction that is so necessary to conduct just wars had been removed. Americans no longer supported the sustained lethal violence needed to win any war. I do not offer this as a rationalization. I offer it as fact for anyone trying to understand what I did and why I am now publicly talking about it.
I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me to heal, and because I hope my words today can convey something useful and that some good might, therefore, come of that night. Perhaps my experiences will help Americans to make better decisions about when to use military force, because we will more fully understand its cost. That in addition to asking young men and women to risk their own lives, we are asking them to take the lives of others.
Perhaps this memory will provide and provoke a discussion of how combat troops might be better prepared for situations like the one we faced that night. And perhaps there are other ways I don't know at the moment in which this process of reevaluation will make the United States a better country.
To be clear, I am proud to have served the United States Navy, privileged to have fought alongside my teammates, and more patriotic today because I have seen the generosity of my country in fighting for the freedom of others, especially over the last 10 years during which we've reconciled our differences with Vietnam and normalized our relations with that country.
I, like most men who have done something they regret in war, have not discussed this tragedy before. Not even my children knew. Well, now they do. I told them what I did and they told me that they still love me. Their love heals and makes me glad that I have begun to tell this story.
QUESTION: Senator, was there any moment over the last 30 years that you felt that you should return the Bronze Star, and especially when you were running for president in 1992? Did you ever feel the need to return the it?
KERREY: No. I mean, I didn't campaign either on the Bronze Star or the Medal of Honor. I mean, I have never asserted that I was a hero in the war. I've always told the story I accept the Medal of Honor in 1970 as a consequence of returning to my teammates in San Diego and them telling me, "Though I don't feel like I deserve it, I take it for others." I came back and put the war behind me as most people did.
QUESTION: But not your Medal of Honor, but the Bronze Star was given to this specific event. Now are you going to return it now that it is for an event where women and children were killed? KERREY: It's not my intent to do so. I've been asked the question. I'm only trying to say to you that the medal has meant nothing to me. I came back in 1969. I was in a hospital in Philadelphia when I received notice of this award. I put it along with other memories as far behind me as I possibly could and went back to try to live a private life. And so you're asking a question that I cannot answer any further than what I've done.
QUESTION: But when you -- at the time of the event, what did you tell your superior officer?
KERREY: We filed an operational report. There was other details that every commanding officer uses, including intelligence evaluations at the time, and intercepts at the time, what was going on in the area. I'm afraid it's a question that you've got to put to my superior officers not to me.
QUESTION: Mr. Kerrey...
QUESTION: Women and children were not mentioned then?
KERREY: Women and children were unquestionably mentioned in the debriefings that we provided. We're not...
QUESTION: At the time?
QUESTION: Senator Kerry, did you make any attempt to contact any of the people (OFF-MIKE) family members of the victims in this case?
KERREY: No, I have not.
QUESTION: Do you have any intention to do that?
KERREY: I don't know. I mean, I've contacted my squad members and told them that this is going to mean that their private memory is going to be public, and try to prepare them for what I understand from my own experience that these press accounts do. But I however not -- as I said in my statement, I will try to do something constructive with this memory. And I don't know exactly what it's going to be but as soon as the intensity of the early stories is over, I'll have to decide all the things that I'm going to do, including questions asked earlier.
QUESTION: Sir, what would you say about -- suggest that it might be disingenuous for you to say that you've chosen to speak out about this because you think it can heal, when in fact media accounts were about to come out that you were aware of? And what would you say to people who suggest that it says something about your character that over the last 30 years, you didn't come out to heal, but now you are?
KERREY: Well, I don't think that's fair. One of my dearest, sweetest friends in the world, Bob Spire (ph), was in the second battle of the Philippines. It's the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war, 25 percent of all the casualties. He took every single memory of that battle to his grave, and I don't think it's fair to say that I've kept a secret for 32 years.
It's not uncommon for men that are holding any kind of memory of war to not want to talk about it. In this case, I have made a decision. Indeed, the story that's about to come out is about to come out because I cooperated with the reporter. He came and said, "Do you want to tell this story?," and I answered, yes. So it's coming out as a consequence of a decision that I made. I understand and fully appreciate that all kinds of suppositions will be made. All I can do is tell you what I'm trying to accomplish.
QUESTION: How can we reconcile the two different versions of what happened?
KERREY: Well, I don't know that you ever can. I mean, I'm telling you that I know what happened that night and I believe all members of the squad other than Gerhard will say the very same thing. I don't know that for certain but I've talked subsequently, and some of them have almost no memory at all of the evening.
But there are a number of things, by the way, that Klann and I agree on that's not divergent. This was a free-fire zone. This was a hostile area. We did expect to find military men. In fact, we had reliable intelligence that there was going to be a meeting there that evening, and I have every reason to believe that there were soldiers in that area, and every reason to believe the fire we took came from them, and every reason to believe that our lives were in danger. And that's -- as the officer in charge, that's my highest motivation is to get my guys out alive, so...
QUESTION: Given all those factors that you've enumerated, what did you do wrong? You opened fire because you were fired on. It was a free-fire zone. You didn't think civilians were going to be there. This is a classic Vietnam story. What did you do wrong?
KERREY: I don't know. I mean, it may be that I did nothing wrong. But I feel like I did something wrong. I have not been able to justify it even militarily or morally. And part of the reason I want to talk about it is to tell that story, to be able to say: Here's what happened, and I cannot justify it. And so I want to be able to, you know, at least engage in that discussion. But you're quite right. I mean, I've had members not only in my squad but other people I was on the SEAL team with that said I've gone a bit soft in the head worrying about this at all.
QUESTION: Is there anything that you would like to say to the families of the people of Vietnam (OFF-MIKE)?
KERREY: Well, look, what I would like to say is we've worked very -- I've participated and worked very hard to try to reconcile the differences not just with ourselves in Vietnam but with Cambodia as well, and went back in 1990 and '91 and worked with the Bush administration first, and the Clinton administration second to get a peace agreement in Cambodia that brought the refugees back in country. Ended the trading with the enemy act restrictions and normalized relations with Vietnam. And I want peace to Vietnam and I want to be able to say to the people of Vietnam that I ask for your mercy as well, and hope that...
QUESTION: Senator Kerrey, as a father with children, do you have anything to say to the victims?
KERREY: No, I don't at this point. I'm sorry. I mean, nothing more than what I have already said. No, nothing more than what I've already said.
QUESTION: Senator Kerrey, do you think that either returning the Bronze medal or meeting with some of the survivors of that incident would help you to start to heal?
KERREY: It may be, but look, you're asking too much of me. With great respect of the questions, you're just asking too much of me right now. This is in the early stages of me telling the story, and I'm trying to deal with it. And it's too much to expect that I'm going to be able to answer either one of those two questions here this afternoon.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you been thinking about it as you said in the last day...
KERREY: But perhaps it's something that you could have done differently. I'm just telling you it's too much. I have not reached a decision on the questions that you're asking me. And I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do. All I'm dealing with right now is trying to get the memory public, and you're not...
KERREY: Say it again.
QUESTION: Have you heard from your former colleagues in the Senate, from President Clinton?
KERREY: I have not heard from President Clinton. I have heard from former colleagues.
QUESTION: Who (OFF-MIKE).
KERREY: I would prefer that they tell you who they are.
QUESTION: Senator, Mr. Klann (OFF-MIKE) different version of what happened that night?
KERREY: I don't know what Gerhard's motivations are. This is the guy that held me in his arms the night that I was injured before I was Medivaced out of country, so I know that he's got a memory, and he believes it's true. I just happen to believe it's not true. And I think there's also significant -- as I said before, there are significant areas where Gerhard and I are in absolute agreement.
QUESTION: Senator Kerrey, according to international law, it's not just people like you who pull the trigger and kill civilians who bear different levels of responsibility. But it's the architects of a war like in Vietnam who set up a policy where in large areas of a country or free-fire zone that lead to the deaths of in the case of the Vietnam War, two million Vietnamese, largely civilian.
The media is making a lot of this question of whether it was an atrocity or a war crime. What do you think of setting up a war crimes tribunal that would bring people perhaps like you, but more importantly the architects like Henry Kissinger before it and then a decision could be mad as to whether a person (OFF-MIKE)?
KERREY: Again, I'm not prepared to talk about where I'm going to go or where this ought to go. I really am not.
QUESTION: You've had more than 30 years to think about it.
KERREY: Well, I'm sorry. You know, for the first 10 years of my life, I was just trying to figure out how to get healthy again.
QUESTION: What about the whole country getting healthy?
KERREY: Well, at some point, I hope to help the whole country get beyond the Vietnam War. But right now, I'm just trying to get a private memory public. And I've not gone as far as you are suggesting in trying to figure out where else...
QUESTION: One follow-up question. Called Father Dan Barrigan (ph) and ask him if he had a question for you. He's the Jesuit priest...
KERREY: I know who Dan Barrigan is.
QUESTION: That spent much of his life opposing war.
QUESTION: And he said he did have a question for you. And he asked: Do you think that if you had taken a different path and refused to kill in that, quote, "filthy war" like he and his brother, Phil Barrigan, did, that if you had chosen to be a refusenik from the beginning, that you wouldn't have any regrets as he doesn't, as he turns 80 years old next month?
KERREY: God bless him for not having any regrets. I mean, I love any 80-year-old man that doesn't have any regrets. I do. This one included.
QUESTION: But you wish you had taken a different path?
KERREY: No, I don't. No, I do not. I'm proud of my service. I came home and protested the war myself. So, no, I'm proud of my service. I'm proud that I volunteered, and I don't -- I can't wish -- I don't wish that I had chosen a different course other than I replay the tape that evening and would like to have that one back.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Ex-commander and chief. We have a situation here that for three decades has been accusing and reported of a situation in which noncombatant civilians may have been killed. Now as a potential commander in chief...
KERREY: Sir, I am not a potential commander in chief.
QUESTION: As an adviser, perhaps.
KERREY: I would not at the moment give...
QUESTION: As an adviser, what would you do to alter the rules of engagement of the (OFF-MIKE) reported for so long?
KERREY: I think it's an important and it's a lovely question but I don't have an answer for it this afternoon.
QUESTION: I just want to go back to 1969. I just want to make sure, in 1969 you said after the fire fight, to your superior officer that indeed women and children were accidentally...
KERREY: We filed an operational report that indicated civilian casualties had been taken. I don't know...
QUESTION: I mean, so they awarded you the Bronze Star for killing women and children. (OFF-MIKE) democratic mistake.
KERREY: No. Again, you're going to have to talk to the person who writes and makes decisions about the war. I neither sought it nor did I write it.
QUESTION: The report you filed...
QUESTION: Is this a verbal report?
KERREY: Well, we file an operational report.
QUESTION: Which is a verbal or a written?
KERREY: No, it's a written report.
QUESTION: It was a written report.
QUESTION: And in it says women and children?
KERREY: I don't know that it says exactly women and children but it was not a secret to our commanding officer what had happened that night.
QUESTION: Sir, are you ruling out a run in 2004 for president?
KERREY: Sweetheart, are we ruling out -- yes.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to tell your story to the "Wall Street Journal" and Omaha paper?
KERREY: Well, it came as a consequence of a series of events. I mean, one is I knew the story was coming out and so I wanted to call and talk to friends, which is what I was doing. And I had begun to talk about it a little bit publicly including a speech I gave last down at Lexington, Virginia. And two of the gentlemen who accompanied me to Vietnam in 1990 happened to be reporters for the "Omaha World Herald," and the "Wall Street Journal."
So I may have made a bit of a mistake by sending it to them. I was not trying to preempt the story. But once it's done, the reporter lights go on and they've got to ask questions. So I'm not bothered that it came, but that's how it came about.
QUESTION: Senator, I just want to clarify. So you're positive that you took fire first?
KERREY: Absolutely. Before that, though, it is a free-fire zone, it's a dangerous area. There's Viet Cong operating in the area. That is absolutely I believe shared by everybody, everybody (OFF-MIKE) that night. That's not disputable.
QUESTION: Is that going to...
QUESTION: And then -- could you just walk us through it from then?
KERREY: No, look -- all that story is going to be recorded. It's a part of the "New York Times." You all have that detail already. And the problem we've had all the way through -- I've had all the way through this thing is that I really -- I don't want to go at this stage in the game publicly back to all the grizzly details that evening. I reported it to Greg Vistica (ph). He's got it. He will write it in his story that's coming out this Sunday in the "New York Times." And we'll just go from there. So I'm not...
QUESTION: Did you ever encounter a situation in the Mekong Delta where Viet Cong soldiers were dressed differently from the civilians so that you could identify (OFF-MIKE)?
KERREY: No, no.
QUESTION: Is this incident the primary reason that you're withdrawing your candidacy?
KERREY: No, what I said (OFF-MIKE) I'm trying to say today it may not have sounded quite like what I said at the (OFF-MIKE). What I said (OFF-MIKE) though others have justified it militarily to me, I've not been able to do so, nor have I been able to justify it morally.
QUESTION: Senator you also said the (OFF-MIKE) has haunted you for 32 years and you haven't been pleased with it. I'm curious whether at this point you feel like you have made peace with it.
KERREY: Well, I'm getting there. I mean, I certainly feel better having talked to my son and daughter and to some of my friends. So I feel better today than I did before it was known. I think I'll feel a bit better a week from now than today. QUESTION: Senator, one of the key I guess contradictions that you raised (OFF-MIKE) in the story is that you and others in the unit say you were fired upon, you returned fire. But they point out that the people who died in the village were all clumped together in one area which would have been contrary to standard operating procedure even for villagers. And when they're attacked, they typically go into bunkers or whatever, but they certainly would not have clumped themselves together in one part of the town. And I'm interested in sort of how do you explain what at least raises a contradiction.
KERREY: I cannot explain it. I don't have an explanation for that fact.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) news story in the newspaper (OFF-MIKE).
KERREY: It's the same as with any group of people. I mean, it's a troubling and difficult story, so I don't know.
QUESTION: It's so progressed, so progressive in the New School and (OFF-MIKE). Students were always against the Vietnam War.
KERREY: Yeah, and well -- these students weren't against the Vietnam War that are there now. I think we can stipulate that fact.
QUESTION: Senator, a lot of these questions today seem to reflect a long...
BATTISTA: Former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, Vietnam War hero, commenting on that night 32 years ago when, as a Navy SEAL, he led his unit into combat. And in the subsequent battle, women and children were killed in Vietnam.
Wolf, again, you spoke with the former senator last night. Your observations during this news conference? Some interesting questions, although I know it was hard for the audience to hear them.
BLITZER: Well, they were good questions, I think the senator -- the former senator is now trying to engage in full-scale news conference, answer as many questions as he possibly can to make it clear that from his standpoint, he has nothing to hide as painful and as difficult as these issues are 32 years after the fact. He wants his life to move on. He'd like the rest of the country to move on.
But one of the answers I thought was pretty interesting when he said that he's not sure he did anything wrong even though he's been haunted by this incident for 32 years. The fact that he says there was fire coming towards his men, they returned fire in this free-fire zone. And when they checked, a lot of women and children and elderly men were dead. He's haunted by that even though he's not sure that under the ground rules of that war he did anything wrong.
BATTISTA: Yeah, he was asked a couple of interesting questions, one about whether the architects of that war including, say, Henry Kissinger, should be pulled in front of a war crimes tribunal. And also a question about him being a potential commander in chief, or you know, as a potential commander in chief, which was obviously a reference to his former run for the presidency and speculation that he might run in 2004 which he denied.
BLITZER: Right. And he's sort of leaving that door open a little bit, but I'm not so sure it's all that serious. Right now, he's president of the New School University in New York. He's got a new life that he's trying to deal with. I don't think there's any stomach right now to refight the Vietnam War in the United States with some sort of war crimes tribunals or anything like that. That war is now part of American history, a painful part of American history. And unfortunately for Senator Kerrey and the men of his Navy SEAL squad, they're being forced to relive it once again right now.
BATTISTA: All right, Wolf Blitzer, thank you very much for joining us. See you tonight on "Wolf Blitzer Reports" at 8:00 Eastern.
BLITZER: Thank you, Bobbie.
BATTISTA: Were going to take a break here. When we come back, we will talk to another Vietnam veteran and a war crimes expert as well. Stay with us.
BATTISTA: All right, some e-mails here. Frank from New York says, "While I honor Senator Kerrey's service to the country, I can't help but think he's clearing away any obstacles to run for president. If he felt so strongly about it and was haunted by this matter, why didn't he disclose it before he ran for the Senate? Be honest with us, senator."
Tom in Alamogordo, New Mexico, "Vietnam was a terrible time for our country. War sometimes brings out the worst in us. All the atrocities committed will never be told. I'm sorry for all the vets who lived in this hell."
Joining us on the phone now is Captain David Christian, the youngest and most decorated officer in the Vietnam War. He was a Green Beret and commander of a reconnaissance team. He is also author of "Victor 6, The Saga of America's Youngest Most Decorated Officer in Vietnam."
Captain, thank you, for joining us.
CAPT. DAVID CHRISTIAN, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Thank you.
BATTISTA: One of the comments that we heard during that news conference, I heard one of the reporters say this is a classic Vietnam story. Was there anything that surprised you about the episode in Bob Kerrey's military experience over there or was it pretty typical of what went on during an armed conflict such as Vietnam?
CHRISTIAN: You have to realize free-kill zone and free-fire zone. Many people have commented on this. I heard my good friend John Kerry comment on this, Senator John Kerry on behalf of Bob Kerrey, who I commend. When you go into free-fire zone, it's also known as a free-kill zone. The senator talked about it for a few seconds. You're told by your superiors in intelligence that this area is clear. The only people that are going to be in this area are people that are going to hurt you or harm you or maim you or kill you. So you have to look at the darkness of night. He said this operation had taken place, dense jungles. Oftentimes, people reported from Vietnam they could not see the enemy, you know, a foot -- 10 feet in front of them.
So all the variables you're looking at here -- and I think that many of questions were ill thought out. They were painful questions for Vietnam veterans to hear when I heard the members of media questioning, you know, war hero versus war criminal. Some of the people were calling it a Bronze medal versus a Bronze Star. I could tell the lack of understanding by some of the media who may not have been born when the Vietnam War was being fought. And so they don't know the pain that this gentleman is going through.
He served his country in terms of the military. He served his country as a senator. I happen to have been the national commander of what was called the Legion of Valor. It's people that held the Medal of Honor or the nation's second highest medal, the Navy Cross or Distinguished Service Cross. And most people that happened to belong to that organization, there are reflections traditionally happened -- they're overachievers in the military, and when they come out in civilian life, they're over achievers just like Senator Bob Kerrey, who went on to be a great senator and he went on to be the president of the New School up here in Manhattan, New York.
So I just can't see, you know -- he happens to have some pain in his soul, and I can't see him doing this premeditative. That's the question in people's mind: Did he premeditate it? Did he knowingly kill civilians? After the fact, he went in and he did an after action report. You have sometimes bomb damage assessments. You do all these different things that are after the fact.
The Viet Cong during those days policed up their own wounded. Many of the men, they would not stay there to be captured. They would leave. So you're coming in and you're finding, unfortunately -- he may have called in artillery. And artillery is indiscriminate. And so is it Senator Kerrey, you know, Bob Kerrey who happens to be at fault for indiscriminate bombings and indiscriminate bullets falling and killing people?
BATTISTA: Let me ask you this. I just got an e-mail from Claude in Virginia who says, "I'm a Vietnam vet who spent two years in country. Bob Kerrey's first job was to complete his mission. His second was to bring his men back alive. His third was to bring himself back alive. He was eminently successful in all three."
CHRISTIAN: Well, I agree with Claude, and I agree anyone who has been through the sting of battle and suffered. I was in the same hospital.
BATTISTA: What I guess I want to ask is: When does the collateral lost of life, if you will, play into that equation?
CHRISTIAN: The collateral lost of life in reference to the Air Force, in reference to the Navy, is antiseptic. The ships are offshore. They can fire a weapon that carries around the weight of a Volkswagen or a Cadillac. That's how heavy this round is and explodes. That's considered collateral loss because they're not -- if they hit someone that's a civilian, they don't really see a civilian. If they drop a bomb from 40,000 feet and it falls onto a village, that's collateral loss of life, as they did in Cologne, Germany in World War II. They bombed the cathedrals and they bombed most of the streets and mostly civilian there's.
So in Vietnam, the difference what people are putting on is the ground soldier or the ground sailor that happened to be on the ground, walking on the ground. And they do not give you as much flexibility for collateral loss of life, because they feel you're much closer to the battlefield, you're much closer to the individuals. So you should know.
And unfortunately, when you're told by higher ups that, you know, this is a free-kill zone, it doesn't make you feel any better if in this free-kill zone, you've killed a child, even if you've killed a dog. I have to tell you there's pain in your heart, because that was not the enemy. You're out after the enemy. So in that situation, it's an individual situation. I think the individuals have to weigh it on their heart.
Sure, they can blame the highers up, sure they can blame the commanders, but each and every person -- that's why we have this post- traumatic stress syndrome. That's we have a lot of people in pain today. After World War II, they called it different names, but today, we have an actual name for this psychological trauma of war and it affects everyone differently.
BATTISTA: Yeah, shell shock I think is what they called it in World War II. Captain, hang on with us, if you will.
BATTISTA: Bob Greene is joining us. He's a columnist for the "Chicago Tribune" and "Life" magazine. He's the author of "Duty, A Father, His Son and the Men Who Won the War."
Bob, thanks for joining us.
BOB GREENE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE" COLUMNIST: Thanks, Bobbie.
BATTISTA: That book, as a matter of fact, is about your dad and his relationship with Paul Tibbets, the man who dropped the atom bomb and what you learned about your dad from Paul Tibbets and his experience during a war. What did you discover about your father?
GREENE: Well, Paul Tibbets and my dad did not know each other. They lived in the same town. And my dad would always tell me that he'd see Mr. Tibbets around town. My dad was an anonymous infantry soldier in World War II and Mr. Tibbets was asked by our country to carry out the single most violent act in the history of mankind: dropping the first atomic bomb. And he did it. And no one else was asked to do it. No one else has had to live it. I happened to have been with Paul all this last weekend. Paul is 86 years old now, and you talk about carrying around a burden for your entire life. Paul Tibbets was asked by our government to end World War II. And he did it. And there has never been an exact number of people killed on the ground in Hiroshima, but a hundred-thousand is not unreasonable. Think about going through your entire life knowing that a hundred-thousand people have died because what your country, starting with the president, asked you to do.
Mr. Tibbets was and is a very proud soldier. He feels that so many more American lives were saved, so many more Japanese lives were saved because the carnage finally ended and the ground invasion of Japan -- I'll tell you one thing. My father would have been on his way to Japan for the ground invasion. So had Paul Tibbets not done his is duty, I might not be sitting here talking to you because my dad was headed to Japan.
BATTISTA: Let me ask you this. Why do you think that a Paul Tibbets does not appear to suffer through any moral anguish from what he did and so many of our Vietnam vets do?
GREENE: That's a very good question. We've talked about it a lot. Paul tells me he has never lost a night's sleep in his life and I believe him. The enormity of what he was asked to do is one part of it. He accepted it. He said, "If I thought about the people on the ground below, I might have flinched. And if I'd flinched, I might not have done the job right." But the thing that really keeps him going -- and I've seen it time and again -- is men and women in their 70s and 80s come up to them with tears in their eyes and they say, "Thank you for letting us live our lives," because these were the men -- old men now, old women, these were the men and women who were kids back then.
You know, we hear about the soldiers of World War II and you think about the dog faces on the cover of "Life" magazine or you think about the videos now of the old soldiers at reunions. But these were boys. They were asked by -- it's are you in love? Put it on hold. You got a new job? Put it on hold. Going to school? Put it on hold. We have to send you halfway around the world to try to save the world, and we can't promise you you'll ever come back. And then they came back. And it was as if they were asked to forget what they had done.
BATTISTA: And a lot of Vietnam vets are coming up now to Senator Kerrey and saying, "Thank you for bringing your story out, because now I can bring mine out." I want to ask the same question I asked you of Captain Christian. I've got to take a break, though. We'll be back in just a moment.
BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience quickly to try to get them in here in the short time we have left.
Bill, go ahead. Your comment.
BILL: Yeah, I didn't serve in Vietnam, but I have friends who did. And they told me that one of the tactics the Viet Cong used were to use women and children as shields. And they would fire upon unsuspecting troops. And when the troops fired back, instead of killing the Viet Cong, they'd kill the woman and children. Then they'd evacuate the area quickly when they moved in to check for casualties.
BATTISTA: And Tom in Seattle, Washington says, "I have Kerrey's Medal of Honor citation in front of me right now, and I find it hard to believe that he's almost apologizing for fighting in the war and winning the medal."
Captain Christian, these two generations -- World War II and Vietnam -- I think are both coming to terms with the experiences that they had. The World War II generation is finally talking about it in the last decade or so. Do you think the Vietnam vets will ever get to that point?
CHRISTIAN: Yes. And I think Bob Kerrey reflected on it. And Bob Greene and also Paul Tibbets reflected on it through your questions. And that is Bob Kerrey stated that the Vietnam people lost will, or the American people lost the will to win the Vietnam War I should say. And most people don't understand that.
During World War II when you dropped that bomb, we still had the will to win. When you were fighting those Germans, we still had the will to win. When our fathers came back and we were the baby boom generation, it was a glorious war, believe it or not. It was a romantic war. So they had to a will to win. We did not have it, Bobbie. In terms of our country, lost the will to win.
So that's why many Americans when they came back, they found it difficult not only to talk -- Bob Kerrey had this difficult to talk publicly about this but privately. You didn't talk about the war in Vietnam because even if you told people you were in Vietnam, sometimes you were shunned by your peers on a college campus. They didn't go out and beat the drums because they got a war hero on campus. They may have done the opposite, protested a war hero who came to campus. That did not happen in any other war that I can remember in the history of America. And that's the difference.
BATTISTA: Although, Bob Greene, you know, World War II vets didn't talk about it easily for a long time, too. They were the silent generation.
GREENE: The reason I didn't really know why the war was so important to my father was because -- it was a central event of his life. He never talked to us about it. And that's why I had to go to Paul Tibbets, who is exactly the same age as my dad, as my dad was dying and asked Paul Tibbets: What was it that made the war so important?
And the haunting thing to me is that Paul now tells me -- and again, he's 86 years old -- Paul tells me that he told me things about his time in the war that he had never told his own boys. He had never told his own sons. So here I am not being able to get from my dad why the war was so important to him, and here is Paul Tibbets, you know, the ultimate combat pilot, who never told his own children what he'd gone through in the war.
BATTISTA: Let me take a phone call from Claude in Virginia.
Claude, go ahead.
CALLER: Well, yes, Bobbie. I think because of what the men went through, they went through in combat both before and after, you cannot question what they did. It was night. It was a free-fire zone, and they were trying to stay alive. And that was the most important thing other than completing their mission.
BATTISTA: Well, let me -- Captain Christian, there are rules to war. When does it get to the point where it justifies investigation?
CHRISTIAN: If -- we had a situation like the Cally (ph) situation which appalled many, many people in the field, because we were all blanketed with that situation. Most people thought that everyone in Vietnam indiscriminately set people up in front of a ditch and pulled a trigger of a weapon. It's like a premeditated murder of civilians, old people, women and children. They lost their stomach for the war.
BATTISTA: I'm sorry, Captain, forgive me for interrupting. I have to toss to Joie Chen on the news desk for some breaking news. I'm sorry.
(INTERRUPTED BY CNN COVERAGE OF BREAKING NEWS)
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