“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.”
– J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power
More than 48 years after mortal damage was inflicted with a vengeance on both human beings and human values in a quiet village in Bến Tre province in the Mekong Delta, justice, fairness, and common decency won a minor victory when Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator, New School president, decorated veteran, and self-confessed war criminal, quietly resigned from his high-profile position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees, according to reliable sources.
Kerrey, whose appointment was announced one year ago at the iconic Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by then Secretary of State, John Kerry during President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam, has stepped down behind closed doors. He was reportedly replaced by Đàm Bích Thủy, a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman who is the current FUV president.
It was Bob Kerrey himself who said in an interview last June, as all rhetorical hell was breaking loose, that he would not step down. This about-face came after first saying, in response to questions emailed to him by a New York Times reporter, that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the U.S.-Vietnamese joint education venture. I’m not a diplomat and therefore have no need to play the quiet game. Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.
Never Say Never
Never say never and never forget this timeless wisdom from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was Kerrey’s arrogance that made him dig in his heels and delay the inevitable. It was a firestorm of controversy and, most importantly, steely and steadfast official Vietnamese opposition, that forced him to do the right thing. It wasn’t only about Bob Kerrey. Jeopardize FUV he did, at the end of the day, as some predicted.
Kerrey’s long overdue resignation is a cause for celebration and a sense of vindication for many. It is, however, a bitter disappointment for his supporters, both Vietnamese and U.S., who probably still cluelessly wonder why a man who led a U.S. Navy SEALS unit that murdered 21 men, women, and children in the village of Thạnh Phong in February 1969 would not be considered morally fit to assume such a leadership position.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has the dishonor and disgrace of having his very own war crimes exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, one of many such incidents in the bloodbath and industrial-scale slaughter that was the American War in Viet Nam.
Whose Past Demons Need to be Confronted?
The full throttle public relations battle to defend Bob Kerrey’s appointment included a July 2016 blog post entitled In Debate over Bob Kerrey’s Wartime Role, Vietnam Confronts its Past Demons that appeared on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an influential and well-heeled Washington, D.C. think tank. Written by a young U.S.-educated Vietnamese woman with close ties to FUV, it was an attempt to turn the tables on Viet Nam and a textbook example of chutzpah in the interconnected realms of politics and educational exchange.
She wrote about Kerrey’s appointment and the resulting controversy as a kind of blessing in disguise because it sparked a debate that “transcends the ethical merits of having a soldier who ordered the killing of civilians during the Vietnam War to reveal two crucial developments in Vietnam” related to U.S.-Viet Nam relations.
Following the author’s twisted logic, I guess we should be grateful to Bob Kerrey and those who tapped him to lead the FUV board of trustees for giving us this golden opportunity to “reaffirm Vietnam’s aspiration to become a U.S. strategic partner” and “prompt individuals to voice their candid opinions about the Vietnam War.” Think of it as the ultimate version of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, or making lemonade out of lemons. The hope of audacity?
Here are the key points of the post followed by my counterpoints.
First, it reaffirms Vietnam’s aspiration to become a U.S. strategic partner.
Why? Because some Vietnamese, for various reasons, having nothing to do with the innocents who were murdered, the survivors, or national pride, chose to support Kerrey in his new incarnation with FUV? Because some Vietnamese care more about the goodies they think will be theirs in the context of an ever-expanding U.S.-Viet Nam relationship without regard to the sacred memory of the victims of Kerrey’s Thạnh Phong slaughter and the millions of other Vietnamese who died under similar circumstances? Follow the U.S. lead, regardless of how morally odious, and swallow their national pride, as they’ve done in the past.
Second, by prompting individuals to voice their candid opinions about the Vietnam War, the debate shows an increasingly serious attempt by the Vietnamese public to openly question a narrative imposed by the ruling Communist Party.
A double thanks to Bob, the Harvard folks, and company for inspiring and encouraging Vietnamese to speak their minds about the “Vietnam War” and to challenge a top-down narrative. The irony of this statement is beyond the pale and the statement itself, along with the whole tone of the post, is beyond perverse.
It was an obvious attempt to reshape and redirect the narrative about the controversial appointment of Kerrey and move it away from a focus on the “ethical merits of having a soldier who ordered the killing of civilians during the Vietnam War” in order to minimize its disastrous public relations impact.
Ultimately, the Kerrey dilemma is not one about Vietnam’s future. Rather, it shows Vietnam’s complicated relationship with the past and, more strikingly, the nation’s first open attempt to critically examine it.
That’s rich coming from the proxy mouthpiece of a country that has chosen not to walk the difficult, soul-searching and gut-wrenching path of overcoming its blood-spattered past, but instead has forged ahead with a 13-year United States of America War Commemoration historical whitewash.
In one interview conducted in response to calls for his resignation, Kerrey said that “We’ve got to put this war behind us”. Reflecting the view of his country’s government and most of his fellow citizens, I have the nagging feeling that what Bob Kerrey meant by this statement is glossing over the war, revising history, and generally sweeping a whole lot of nastiness under the rug.
Let’s move on because we sure as hell aren’t going to come to terms with any of this in any meaningful way. Let’s move on because “we’re an empire and we create our own reality” and, besides, as the CSIS post infers, Viet Nam needs “U.S.” Act like a political bull(y) in a diplomatic China shop? No problem; we’re exceptional.
The obvious rhetorical question is: who has yet to confront whose “past demons”?
More than many military and economic initiatives, FUV stands in the eyes of Vietnamese people as a powerful metaphor for U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation, and Kerrey is one of its chief American architects.
Another exaggeration by someone who either doesn’t have a good grasp of the facts or doesn’t care because they might get in the way of a politically expedient story. While Kerrey was involved in a number of initiatives related to Vietnam-U.S. relations, he was not as active, nor did he play as prominent a role as his fellow senators who were also veterans such as Max Cleland, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, John McCain, and Chuck Robb.
Đinh La Thăng, described as “the progressive, outspoken secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City party committee and member of the powerful Politburo,” spoke out of turn but in total agreement with the Kerrey crowd, hence his useful cameo appearance in this blog post. His passionate words of support for Bob Kerrey represented only his opinion and did not reflect the view of the government and people he serves. (Thăng was recently removed from his position as party secretary and from the powerful 19-member Politburo.)
The arguments made by critics and supporters reflect that the majority on both sides share the same desire: to see Vietnam emerge as a strategic partner of the United States. The difference rests in their proposed means – critics want to close off the past; supporters want to confront it.
Nonsense, to put it very mildly. While both may be in favor of a solid bilateral relationship, the former want one based on equality, respect and mutual benefits while the latter see the U.S. as the senior partner whose agenda and goals take precedence. (If you doubt this assertion, please have a look at all of the education-related Wikileaks cables.) Supporters would rather talk about trade agreements and weapons deals than confront the past.
Last summer, with the controversy swirling around FUV and its board chairman, I drafted a letter that was sent to Kerrey in September asking him to resign immediately and reminding him of something he said in early June before stubbornness and arrogance overpowered flexibility and a modicum of humility and prudence. Below are some excerpts:
It is our firm belief that you should never have been offered this appointment and, having been offered it, should have declined the offer. We strongly believe that there are other more appropriate roles for you to play in support of FUV, and that there are better qualified people without your historical baggage.
Mark Bowyer, an expat in Viet Nam, expressed doubt in an early June 2016 blog post that “reminding the world of previously unpunished U.S. atrocities in Viet Nam is a judicious use of the political capital accumulated during Barack Obama’s recent successful visit.”
Shawn McHale, a professor of history and international affairs at The George Washington University, wrote the following comment in response to your interview with WBUR’s “Here & Now” program:
Bob Kerrey is letting his ego get in the way of U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement. The man has done a lot of good — but killing civilians, a war crime, makes him unfit to be head of the Fulbright University Vietnam Board of Trustees. For the good of the university, he should recognize that he is not the person for the job.
Your appointment is a politically- and emotionally-charged issue that is not going to go away, least of all in Viet Nam. In early June, you told the New York Times via email that you would resign, if you felt your role were jeopardizing FUV. That time is now.
We also offered some heartfelt personal advice:
There are many U.S. veterans who have returned to Viet Nam to do penance, so to speak, some on short trips and others for the long haul. They are each making a modest contribution, trying to find a way to give back, to make amends… On a personal level, as you can imagine, they also find this experience to be therapeutic and even cathartic.
We’d like to take the liberty of offering you some advice. Travel to Thạnh Phong. Arrange to meet with the victims’ family members and the survivors. Ask for their forgiveness. Burn incense and pray at the graves of the people you and your unit killed. And do all of this with the greatest sincerity, contrition, and humility.
Offer to meet a local need, to build something of lasting value that will benefit the community. We believe that these acts will be greatly appreciated and may help you find a measure of peace. You could even invite the other members of your unit to join you.
The letter was signed by 46 other signatories, including Daniel Ellsberg, Robert Chenoweth, Linh Đinh, W.D. Ehrhart, C.J. Hopkins, Ann Hibner Koblitz, Neal Koblitz, Shawn McHale, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Andrew Pearson, Deryle Perryman, John Stauber, Jeffrey St. Clair, David Swanson, Michael Uhl, Douglas Valentine, Peter Van Buren, and Brian Willson.
The Beginning of the End
The stark reality is that the Vietnamese do have their limits and they do have their pride. Push too hard and they will push back. Last December, Trương Minh Tuấn, Viet Nam’s Minister of Information and Communications, published a review of Viet Nam’s major media stories from 2016 in which Kerrey’s appointment loomed large.
[One indication of the level of interest in this issue in Viet Nam is the fact that my July 2016 article Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking? was translated into Vietnamese within hours of publication.]
Mr. Tuấn spoke of “an unusual campaign for the appointment of Mr. Kerrey at Fulbright University” and described it as an effort to distort history. “Kerrey was a war veteran who directed and participated in a barbaric massacre of innocent civilians in Bến Tre Province during the American invasion of our country,” he wrote. Mr. Tuấn characterized the media campaign instigated by his supporters in Viet Nam and the U.S. as “extremely upsetting” because it had “hurt the spirit of innocent people who died because of such crimes.” Mr. Tuấn also reminded his readers that Kerrey had confessed to the crimes, which were initially exposed by U.S. media in 2001.
In this case, Kerrey’s appointment was not only a public relations disaster for FUV; it became a bloody thorn deeply embedded in the side of U.S.-Viet Nam relations. His presence became a liability and a bilateral issue discussed at the highest levels. As Linh Đinh, a Vietnamese-American writer and poet, wrote to me “This sick and vain spectacle is hurting not just him but the university. By hanging on, he’s focusing the spotlight on his war crime.” The silver lining was what educators refer to as a “teachable moment”.
If Bob Kerrey had stayed on, FUV would have remained a project and the red light would not have changed. By leaving, the red light quickly changed to green. John Kerry’s January trip to Viet Nam, his last as U.S. Secretary of State, and the March visit of Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, were a clarion call that that times were a changin’ and that it would be full steam ahead for Fulbright University Vietnam sans Bob Kerrey as chairman of its board of trustees.
Now that Kerrey the Chairman is out of the picture, FUV can rest assured that its application to the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) for an operating license will actually be approved this time. It can then forge ahead with staffing decisions, fundraising, student recruitment, etc.
The timing of his resignation is also propitious with Viet Nam playing host to this year’s APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings culminating in the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in November in Danang.
The End Game
The very same people who offered Kerrey the position are probably the ones who broke the bad news and convinced him that his resignation was in the best interests of FUV, no doubt with some urgent prodding from their official friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C. Perhaps their friend could play a behind-the-scenes role doing fundraising for FUV. His profile remains in the “founding team” section of the university website – without of any mention of the board of trustees.
The strategy to keep Kerrey’s resignation on the down-low was shrewd, if misguided, at least from the perspective of those of us who have followed this case with no intention of letting bygones be bygones. We had been waiting since the 2016 summer of outrage for the other shoe to drop and it finally, thankfully, mercifully did, albeit like a pin. No muss, no fuss. Clean up the mess and move on, as if nothing happened.
Not necessarily an admission that “a mistake was made” just the glaringly obvious and practical realization that the magical disappearing of Joseph Robert “Bob” Kerrey was the logical next step in this sad saga. Out of sight, out of mind, end of story? So they mistakenly thought and fervently hoped.
The silent treatment may help Bob Kerrey, FUV, and the U.S. government save face but it certainly doesn’t lend itself to what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a struggle to overcome one’s past, which has never been one of the strong suits of the United States and most of its citizens.
Nor does it absolve those members of the old boy club who appointed him, or excuse Kerrey himself from accepting the offer in the first place. What were they thinking, indeed? Collectively, deaf, dumb, and blind to the consequences of human suffering and the living link between past and present.
What Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh, Viet Nam’s former ambassador to the European Union and an outspoken opponent of Kerrey’s appointment, said last summer has aged well like fine wine. She referred to his appointment in a widely distributed and quoted statement as an act that “shows insensitivity to the feelings of the Vietnamese and, may I say, disregard for our opinions, our sense of self-respect and our dignity,” concluding that
“If the U.S. side insists on holding to its decision, then, in my view, FUV can no longer be considered a joint education project as averred by the founding team. A happy marriage is one where both parties listen to each other, have consideration for one another’s opinions and respect each other’s emotions. Otherwise, Fulbright University will be an American university project in Viet Nam conceived and decided upon by Americans, in which the opinions and contributions of the Vietnamese are secondary.”
The Victims and Other “Collateral Damage”
The missing, and arguably most important, pieces of this bizarre and tragic puzzle are the victims themselves, their family members, and survivors of the attack, forgotten by most.
Last summer, a number of pundits wrote that it was time to move on and forgive Mr. Kerrey for his war crimes. His appointment as chairman of the FUV board of trustees was yet another path to redemption, they opined. “The past is the past, or leave the past in the past.” The problem is these commentators are neither God nor are they Kerrey’s victims, both the living and the dead. Who the hell are they to dispense forgiveness and offer redemption?
In an interview published earlier this year in an article by HCMC-based U.S. investigative journalist, Calvin Godfrey, Thạnh Phong’s retired village chief, Trần Văn “Sáu” Rừng, a former National Liberation Front (NLF) fighter, said that Kerrey had an open invitation to come drink tea with him. He added, “Of course, I’d accept his apology. But why ask me? I think it would be better for him to come and talk to the surviving relatives and, perhaps, offer some money to take care of the tombs of the dead.”
It is my sincere hope that Mr. Kerrey makes a journey to Thạnh Phong, the scene of the (war) crime and a three and half hour drive from HCMC. In addition to drinking tea and chatting with Mr. Rừng, he should meet with and apologize to Bùi Thị Lượm, whose grandmother, four aunts, and ten cousins, were murdered by Kerrey’s Raiders, as his unit was known.
As Mrs. Lượm mentioned in the same interview, no U.S. American had ever come to say sorry to her, the all-too-common story of a nation too narcissistic and nationalistic to come to terms with the dark and squalid recesses of its past, including the American War in Viet Nam.
Dr Mark Ashwill is a Hanoi-based international educator who has lived and worked in Viet Nam for over a decade. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.