Should we forgive Bob Kerrey for his role in Vietnam war massacre?

June 2, 2016 | 12:51 am PT
Luong Hoai Nam
Something that caught my eye recently was an article about Bob Kerrey, chairman of Vietnam’s first American-style private university in Ho Chi Minh City. He is also a former US senator who took responsibility for a traumatic massacre that took place in 1969 during the American-Vietnam War.

On February 25, 1969, Kerrey led a Swift Boat raid on the small peasant village of Thanh Phong in the southern province of Ben Tre which was home to between 75 and 150 locals, targeting a communist leader whom intelligence suggested would be there. The village was considered part of a free-fire zone by the U.S. military.

However, the brutal operation went horribly wrong and led Kerrey to have fleeting thoughts of suicide. 

Phan Tri Lanh, a survivor of the massacre told Reuters: "They lined them up and they shot them from behind."

While taking responsibility for the killings, Kerrey said he did not specifically order them. 

"The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," Kerrey said in 1998. "I was expecting to find Viet Cong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children," he told The New York Times in 2001.

I am in full support of the non-profit Fulbright University project and I have high expectations of the huge benefits it may bring, but this is the first time I have read such a detailed piece about the massacre, and it has left me in shock.

I was going to share the article and express my disapproval, but just as I was about to click the “post” button, I changed my mind.

I needed a little more time to consider.

I shut down my iPad and went to work, but what I had read about the massacre was still haunting me. Finally, I figured out my decision to “share” or not.

In recent days, I and many other Vietnamese have clicked the “share” button about the historic visit of U.S. President Obama to Hiroshima, where he  placed a wreath before the cenotaph at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

This stood out for me in Obama’s Hiroshima speech:

“We see these stories in the hibakusha. The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.”

This shows that the majority of Japanese have forgiven the American pilot who dropped the atomic bomb in Japan, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese.

It also speaks out that Americans, through Obama, are grateful for that forgiveness.

The pilot only followed an order by late U.S. President Harry Truman and Douglas McAuther, an American general who commanded the Southwest Pacific Fleet in World War II. The pilot was forced to act in the heat of war.

Now we turn back to Bob Kerry. It would be easy to detest him for the massacre and share the story on social networks to call for his resignation as chairman of the Fulbright University.

But I decided to do something more challenging: forgive him.

I forgive him and I hope other Vietnamese will do the same. I hope we can do something more difficult than detesting him by forgiving.

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. I cannot forget the massacre and I'm pretty sure Bob Kerry can't too. But I can learn to forgive as the future helps to close a hostile past.

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