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War Hero or War Criminal?

As character assassination attacks on Sen. Barack Obama have now taken over Sen. John McCain’s campaign, and because McCain cites his military experience as of prime importance, now is the time to focus closer attention on a facet of the Arizona Senator’s own character. This is related to his 23 combat missions for Operation Rolling Thunder – the Pentagon’s name for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.

I will never forget how stunned I was when Gen. Telford Taylor, a chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials after World War Two, told me that he strongly supported the idea of trying the U.S. pilots captured in North Vietnam as war criminals – and that he would be proud to lead in their prosecution.

An ardent opponent of the Vietnam conflict, Taylor spoke with me in the fall of 1966 when I was looking into producing a documentary on this controversy for CBS News, where I was their National Political Editor. While he did not mention any pilot’s name, then U.S. Navy Lieut. Commander John McCain who was captured a year later, would have been among the group Taylor wanted to prosecute.

Why would anyone have wanted to prosecute McCain and the other captured pilots? Taylor’s argument was that their actions were in violation of the Geneva conventions that specifically forbid indiscriminate bombing that could cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects. Adding to the Geneva code, he noted, was the decision at the Nuremberg trials after World War Two: military personnel cannot defend themselves against such a charge with a claim that they were simply following orders.

There were questions raised about whether the Geneva conventions applied to the pilots, since there had been no formal declaration of war by the U.S. against the Hanoi regime – and the Geneva rules presumably are only in force in a “declared” war.

Anti-war critics at the time claimed that despite the Pentagon’s assertion that only military targets were bombed, U.S. pilots also had bombed hospitals and other civilian targets, a charge that turned out to be correct and was confirmed by the New York Times’ chief foreign correspondent, Harrison Salisbury.

In late 1966 Salisbury described the widespread devastation of civilian neighborhoods around Hanoi by American bombs: “Bomb damage…extends over an area of probably a mile or so on both sides of the highway…small villages and hamlets along the route [were] almost obliterated.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara conceded some years later that more than a million deaths and injuries occurred in northern Vietnam each year from 1965 to 1968, as a result of the 800 tons of bombs a day dropped by our pilots.

In one of his autobiographies McCain wrote that he was going to bomb a power station in “a heavily populated part of Hanoi” when he was shot down.

If Gen. Taylor tried McCain, would he have defended himself as “just following orders” despite the Geneva conventions barring that kind of bombing and the Nuremberg principles negating “just following orders?“

The targets McCain and his fellow pilots actually bombed in Vietnam and his justification then or now for the actions that led to his capture, are no longer simply old news. They are part of what must be taken into account today, as voters weigh support for him or Obama to be the next President of the United States.

This is not about the hugely unpopular war in Vietnam. It is about the character of a man who seeks to be U.S. President, who perhaps was not simply a brave warrior, but a warrior who by his own admission, bombed and was ready to bomb targets in violation of the Geneva conventions and Nuremberg principles.
_____
When I passed along Gen. Taylor’s comments to my network superiors the program was scrapped: too hot to handle. Instead Air War Over the North was telecast, about “precision bombing” North Vietnam military targets by U.S. pilots. A few years after that broadcast, a Pentagon public information executive gleefully told Roger Mudd in The Selling of the Pentagon that he, the Pentagon official, not only had persuaded CBS to produce Air War Over the North, he even chose those to be interviewed and coached them about what they should say. This unethical collaboration and intercession by the Pentagon in the news media is sadly all too familiar a tactic repeated in the Bush-Cheney years.

ROBERT RICHTER was political director for CBS News from 1965 to 1968.

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