Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking?
“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.
Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if a foreign university in the United States appointed an individual who had killed US civilians – or anyone, for that matter – to serve as chair of its board of trustees?
Or this post-World War II European example from David Marr, a US American historian of modern Viet Nam and Australian National University professor emeritus: “If the post-war West German government had selected a former German army officer who had killed (or ordered the killing of) unarmed French civilians to head the Goethe Institute in Paris, do you think the French government would have accepted this? Going back one step, would Bonn ever have selected such a person in the first place?”
Would the reaction be ‘forgive and forget’, or outrage that the university or government and its supporters could be so blind, so insensitive, so short-sighted as to select someone with such a dark past to assume such a key position?
What about a former Navy SEAL who admitted to being involved in the cold-blooded murder of a score of Vietnamese civilians in early 1969 in the Mekong Delta?
During President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam in May, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chair of the Fulbright University Vietnam, or FUV, board of trustees, igniting an international media firestorm.
There were headlines such as “Ex-US senator’s role in Vietnam university opens wartime wounds” in the Financial Times on 31 May 2016; “Bob Kerrey’s war record fuels debate in Vietnam on his role at new university” in The New York Times on 2 June; “War record of Vietnam university’s US chairman angers some” by Associated Press on 14 June; and “Vietnam’s Kerrey dilemma: Fulbright U appointment is lightning rod for US ties” in Asia Times on 21 June.
Fulbright University Vietnam has been billed by the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, a non-profit organisation based in Massachusetts, as “the first private, non-profit Vietnamese university founded on the principles of accountability, meritocracy, transparency, self-governance, mutual respect and open inquiry”. The trust plays a leadership role in the development of the university.
One of the most outspoken opponents of Bob Kerrey’s appointment has been Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Viet Nam’s former ambassador to the European Union, who has called for his resignation.
Referring to his appointment 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,” Ninh wrote in a statement that has been widely distributed in both Vietnamese and English that:
“If the US 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.”
What Bob Kerrey and his unit did to those civilians with automatic weapons and knives, resulting in the deaths of 21 men, women and children, is between him and his Maker. He has had to live with the psychological and emotional fallout of that long ago night in Thanh Phong, saying he once flirted with the idea of suicide.
This is how Kerrey recalled that tragedy in his memoir, When I Was a Young Man (Harcourt Books 2002):
“I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal.
“… The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognise.”
What most accounts do not mention is that Kerrey and his men were not just on a routine ‘takeout mission’ to assassinate ‘Viet Cong’ leaders in what was classified as a free-fire zone, but were reportedly on a CIA mission under the auspices of the Phoenix Program, which routinely included the murder of civilians.
The objective of Contre Coup – counter terror – as the strategy was known, was to seek out and terrorise not only individual Viet Cong but also their families, friends and neighbours, according to Douglas Valentine, author of The Phoenix Program, the only comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture and assassination operation in Viet Nam.
Shamefully, Kerrey was awarded and accepted a Bronze Star for ‘heroic achievement’ in that raid. The citation, reflecting body count as a metric of success, reads as follows: “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
The record is crystal clear. When Bob Kerrey was confronted in 2001 with declassified documents about his role in the Thanh Phong massacre, he admitted his culpability. That makes him a war criminal, albeit one who has never been charged and tried in a court of law.
According to Section 18 of the US Code 2441, a war crime is “any conduct defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed in Geneva on 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party”.
The consequences of a guilty conviction, according to US law, are as follows: “Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a war crime, in any of the circumstances described in subsection (b), shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.”
Thus, if Bob Kerrey were convicted in a US court of law, he could very well receive the same sentence as his victims with the state as executioner.
Instead, he’s been a free man who has enjoyed success as a businessman, a political leader and a university president while his victims – from the baby, one of his unit’s last victims, to a 65-year-old grandfather whom he reportedly held down as a knife was slid across his throat – have mouldered in their graves for the last 47 years.
Has he apologised directly to the victims’ relatives and the survivors? Has he taken any concrete steps to make amends?
Indeed, one could argue that Kerrey has parlayed his status as a ‘war hero’ into success in the worlds of business and politics.
A glowing 2008 profile on the US government-funded Voice of America, entitled “Bob Kerrey, war hero, politician, educator”, referred to Kerrey’s induction into “the elite Navy SEALs special forces unit” and glossed over his role in the Thanh Phong killings by stating that he “earned the Bronze Star for combat action that would later prove controversial because it involved civilian casualties”.
The Harvard connection
While I understand Kerrey’s motivation to do penance and while I recognise his contributions to US-Viet Nam relations, there are surely better qualified individuals without his deadweight baggage.
So why was he selected? In a phrase, ‘the Harvard connection’. What were they thinking?
One of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Fulbright University Vietnam is Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and, in particular, Tommy Vallely, its senior advisor for Mainland Southeast Asia.
Vallely founded the Harvard Vietnam Program in 1989, which led to the establishment of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in 1994 in Ho Chi Minh City – a partnership between the University of Economics, HCMC, and the Harvard Kennedy School.
Himself a veteran of the American War in Viet Nam, Vallely also happens to be a close friend and confidant of John Kerry, who in turn is a friend of his long-time US Senate colleague, Bob Kerrey.
Perhaps Kerrey’s appointment was in part the result of this perfect storm of friendship and loyalty, in addition to his desire to give back. The distressing fact is that he was viewed as a viable choice for chair of the FUV board of trustees, bloodstained past notwithstanding.
Mark Bowyer, a long-time expat with extensive Viet Nam experience, wrote a spot-on piece about the Kerrey affair in which he expressed doubt that “reminding the world of previously unpunished US atrocities in Viet Nam is a judicious use of the political capital accumulated during Barack Obama’s recent successful visit”.
While the focus should be on the FUV and the challenges ahead, including fundraising, the spotlight is squarely on the controversial selection of Kerrey and that tragic night in Thanh Phong.
That’s really the heart of the matter. Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal, as chair of the board of trustees of a US university in Viet Nam named after Senator J William Fulbright?
What parallel universe do his supporters inhabit? They either do not comprehend the implications of selecting such a polarising figure for such an important position, or do not care. Could it be that sense of superiority and exceptionalism that distinguishes nationalists from patriots, what Fulbright wrote about so eloquently and passionately in The Arrogance of Power?
For his part, Kerrey should have had the good sense to gracefully decline the offer. There are other less visible roles for him to play and still have a positive impact.
Instead of acknowledging the misjudgement of his Harvard friends and following an honourable course of action by resigning, however, Kerrey has chosen to dig in his heels. A case of pride goes before a fall, or ego over prudence with a measure of wartime guilt thrown into the mix?
To say that the reaction to Kerrey’s appointment has been mixed is an understatement. Many in the pro-Kerrey camp have a lack of knowledge about his background and the status of the Fulbright University Vietnam as a private initiative with bi-national support.
I even received a Facebook message from a Vietnamese mid-career professional urging me to support Bob Kerrey, after reading some of my critical comments in the media.
He later posted this simple yet sincere statement on my Facebook page: “I am with Bob”. I countered with this heartfelt reply: “I’m with the victims of Bob’s (Thanh Phong) slaughter and for someone who will not taint the reputation of this fledgling university.”
Dr Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.
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