Commentary Magazine


Bob Kerrey, War Criminal?

“Bob Kerrey a baby-killer? Laughing, literate Bob Kerrey?” So wondered Mary McGrory in the pages of the Washington Post. And so have many others wondered as, for the first time in years, the war in Vietnam has erupted once again in newspapers and opinion journals.

The last significant skirmish came in 1995, when former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara drew fire from all sides in declaring he had known early on that the U.S. had been “wrong, terribly wrong” in committing itself in the 1960’s to defend South Vietnam against Communist aggression.1 Now another round of recrimination and reproaches, as well as calls for an inquest and even a war-crimes tribunal, has greeted the revelation that Bob Kerrey, a former Senator from Nebraska who is now the president of the New School for Social Research in New York—and a decorated Vietnam veteran—had led a unit of Navy SEALs in a military operation in which civilians were killed, perhaps wantonly.

The story of Kerrey’s raid was first uncovered in 1998 by Gregory L. Vistica, then a reporter at Newsweek. But Newsweek declined to run Vistica’s scoop at a moment when it might have derailed Kerrey’s fledgling presidential candidacy, and the story lay gathering dust for over two years. In late April, it was finally published in the New York Times Magazine, where it ignited this year’s furious controversy.

Vistica offers a gripping account. On the night of February 25, 1969, a unit led by Kerrey was assigned to find and seize, or kill, a Vietcong leader in Thanh Phong, a remote peasant village in the Mekong Delta. According to what Kerrey himself told Vistica, as he and his group of SEALs approached the hamlet they encountered several men in a hooch (a Vietnamese hut) whom they presumed to be Vietcong watchmen and whom, to avoid betraying their own presence, they swiftly killed. A short time later, Kerrey and his men came under fire from the village itself, and immediately returned fire from a distance of about 100 yards, letting loose a fusillade of approximately 1,200 rounds of ammunition and an armor-piercing rocket. After the shooting stopped, they approached the center of the hamlet and found a scene of horror: no Vietcong guerrillas at all, but fourteen or so women and children all clumped together, all of them unarmed, all of them dead.

That, at least, is Kerrey’s side of the story; it is disturbing enough, raising more than a few questions about whether he had done anything to deserve the Bronze Star he was awarded for his soldiering that night. (The official citation speaks only of 21 Vietcong dead, making no mention of civilian casualties.) But Vistica also found one member of Kerrey’s unit with something even more troubling to recount. Gerhard Klann, a twenty-year SEAL veteran who had been in on the action that night, told Vistica that the first hooch was inhabited not by watchmen but by a Vietnamese family: an elderly man and woman and three children under twelve. Kerrey, according to Klann, gave the order to kill them, which his men then proceeded to do with knives. When Klann had difficulty dispatching the old man, Kerrey himself stepped in, putting his knee on the man’s chest and holding him down while Klann dragged a blade across his throat.

Having finished this grisly task, the SEALs (in Klann’s account) then headed off to the center of the hamlet, where they rounded up all the villagers—only women and children were found—and debated what to do. To facilitate their own escape from the area, and to insure that the villagers did not alert any nearby Vietcong, they finally decided to shoot them all. This, according to Klann, they did, at Kerrey’s order, in two bursts of automatic machine-gun fire of approximately 30 seconds each.

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In short, Kerrey stands accused in Vistica’s article of being at best an active participant in a horrific incident involving innocent civilians and at worst of being an outright war criminal, guilty of murdering women and children in cold blood.

In an effort to take the sting out of both these accusations, and especially the latter, six of the SEALs who had been under Kerrey’s command that night were quickly brought together in the wake of the Times Magazine article to issue a public statement denying there had been an execution and declaring, “We took fire, and we returned fire.” A clearly shaken Kerrey also held a press conference in which he expressed remorse over the “atrocity” and spoke of the need for “healing,” while also offering a half-hearted denial of Klann’s charge: “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.” Speaking at his university, the New School, an institution that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had been heavily engaged in the antiwar movement, Kerrey begged for understanding in language he hoped his colleagues would comprehend: “Look at my [political] record,” he said. “I don’t think you will find that I am yellow-dog imperialist scum.”

In some quarters, Kerrey’s evident anguish and soul-searching earned him sympathy. James Larocca, who as a young Navy officer had patrolled the Mekong Delta the year before Kerrey served, and who today is the dean of Southhampton College in New York, wrote in Newsday that “What we must do now is help this man in his suffering. We should embrace him, tell him it is all right, let him know that we understand.” But to many other observers across the political spectrum, including a number of conservatives, Kerrey’s relative lack of indignation at being accused of heinous deeds, combined with his evident inability to remember or explain a number of pivotal facts, strongly suggested that he might be guilty as charged.

Mary McGrory did more than wonder; she called for Kerrey to be put “in the dock.” And she was hardly alone: with her were a great number of other commentators, including, for example, Daniel J. Goldhagen, the author of the best-selling Hitler’s Willing Executioners, who co-wrote an oped article in the Boston Globe arguing that enough evidence existed in the public record “to suggest that [Kerrey’s] unit might have committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.”

Nor was it only Kerrey himself who was to be put “in the dock.” If he was fit to be tried, what about the ranking officials whose chain of decisions had sent him, and other men like him, into “free-fire zones” on lethal missions? On this point, a swelling chorus agreed that the higher-ups in the Pentagon and the White House were guilty, too. And so, by extension, was America itself. For Vietnam was, in the words of the Rutgers professor and far-Left “peace activist” H. Bruce Franklin, “a war against the Vietnamese people, a people and a nation that had never done anything to us.” It was, added Christopher Hitchens, a “genocidal war, a war of atrocity and aggression.”

A number of liberals and centrists, including some of Kerrey’s closest defenders, seemed to concur with this radical indictment of the United States. But in their hands it was invoked not to underline but to mitigate the degree of his personal culpability. “For our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the worst, and, regrettably, most frequent mistakes we can make,” wrote three of Kerrey’s colleagues in the Senate in the Washington Post, each of them himself a veteran of the Vietnam conflict. “[T]he guilt and shame of which [Kerrey] has spoken in recent days is not his alone,” chimed in Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker. “Kerrey’s shame, like his valor, is his country’s.” According to a headline in Time, the Kerrey revelations embodied “the madness of Vietnam,” while to the editors of the New York Times the raid likewise exemplified “the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.”

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The issues raised by Vistica’s article and the outpouring that followed it range from the most specific—the legal guilt or innocence of Bob Kerrey—to the more general questions of civilian casualties in modern war and the rightness or wrongness of American intervention in Vietnam. But let us start with Kerrey’s alleged crime. Is the “laughing, literate” former Senator a “baby killer”?

Every thoughtful analyst who has examined the available evidence has come to the unsurprising conclusion that the question cannot be definitively answered. The two versions we have been given of the events are irreconcilable, and there are implausible details in each of them.

Thus, to take up just one much-discussed and uncontested fact, heavily counting against Kerrey’s version is the fact that the slaughtered women and children in Thanh Phong were found clustered together in a group; this suggests not casualties sustained in the course of a firefight but an outright execution. But there are also gaping holes in the story told by Kerrey’s principal accuser, Gerhard Klann. If Kerrey and his men were anxious not to alert the Vietcong to their presence in the village, massacring captives with machine-gun fire, heard for miles around in the dead of night, is simply inexplicable. Vistica himself calls this an “inconsistency,” one of several he draws attention to in his reconstruction of the raid.

How to resolve such inconsistencies? One way would be to do what Mary McGrory and others have proposed and hold formal hearings or something resembling a trial. In the abstract, this would seem to have undeniable merit. As the columnist Michael Kelly put it, either Kerrey and his men “are guilty of war crimes or they have been terribly maligned and their names must be cleared.” In either case, “the truth needs to out.”

But whether the truth would “out” in such a judicial setting is, to say the least, unlikely. Is it really necessary to point out that the episode in question happened 32 years ago, in the dead of night, in the jungle, in the fog of a guerrilla war, in a remote village? Nor are these factors, formidable as they are, the only obstacles to discovering the truth.

Daniel J. Goldhagen, who has called for a congressional investigation “under the guidance of an independent, outside counsel with expertise in war crimes,” is particularly insistent that heed be paid to the testimony of witnesses from Vietnam itself. “Disturbingly,” he notes, “in many accounts and discussions of the raid,” the assertions of Vietnamese have been “omitted,” treated as “not worth mentioning” or “delegitimized solely because they are being made by Vietnamese.” Is it really necessary to point out that today, thanks to the defeat of the American effort in Vietnam, the village in question, like the rest of the country, is under Communist control—or to specify what that means?

Painting a picture of unrelenting oppression in contemporary Vietnam, the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights notes that the country’s judicial system is the obedient servant of the ruling Communist oligarchy. “Party officials, including top leaders, instruct courts how to rule on politically important cases.” The Kerrey case certainly qualifies as “politically important,” and the “genocidal” nature of American intervention in Vietnam, a theme into which the Kerrey case can be poured like rice into a bowl, has been a premier feature of Hanoi’s propaganda for three decades running. Under the circumstances, what pearls of mendacity are Vietnamese witnesses likely to contribute to the search for truth? To the contrary, the notion that the U.S. Congress should stage an inquiry prominently featuring Vietnamese witnesses amounts to little more than an invitation to a show trial.

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A far more interesting and important issue than how or whether to place Bob Kerrey before a kangaroo court is whether the raid he engaged in was, in either his own or in Gerhard Klann’s version, characteristic of the American way of waging war in Vietnam. Much of the commentary on the Kerrey affair assumes, as a matter of course, that it was—that “free-fire zones” and the purposeless killing of civilians were not just daily fare but a particular American contribution to the conflict. The truth, however, is far more complex, if not especially comforting to either hawks or doves.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that Operation Speedy Express, the military campaign of which Kerrey’s raid was one small component, was a particularly ugly chapter in an ugly war. The sixmonth operation was designed to “scrub” Vietcong strongholds in the Mekong Delta region south of Saigon. But as Guenter Lewy notes in his authoritative and scrupulously balanced study, America in Vietnam (1978),2 the particular methods being employed were not those of “pacification”—a strategy of securing the countryside by protecting villagers from the depredations of the Vietcong—but those of attrition, in which “the free use of air strikes, artillery, and helicopter gunships” brought about “a great deal of devastation, thousands of new refugees, and much loss of innocent life.”

While the heavy firepower and the insertion of small formations of soldiers like Kerrey’s unit into Vietcong strongholds did manage to tamp down enemy strength, the overall effect was to produce what one contemporaneous military report colorlessly called “a significant negative impact on the population.” In other words, Operation Speedy Express was a limited success in its own narrow terms of disrupting the enemy, but in the larger contest for the loyalty of the rural South Vietnamese populace—which was or should have been the essential objective—it was a nullity at best.

In this light, the inadvertent civilian casualties incurred at Thanh Phong (if we assume, for the moment, that Kerrey is telling the truth) were in some respects typical of this particular theater and phase of the war; and if one judges the whole war by Operation Speedy Express, it would not be especially difficult to frame a harsh indictment of U.S. conduct in Vietnam. For what could be more senseless (and therefore immoral) than killing large numbers of the very civilians we were ostensibly fighting to protect while propelling innocent bystanders into the arms of the Vietcong?

But any such indictment of U.S. policy must be immediately qualified. Operation Speedy Express was also an extreme case, in which a number of different Pentagon pathologies came simultaneously into play. One of these was the chronically technocratic mindset both of McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, and General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, who aimed at reaching a “crossover point” at which the Vietcong and North Vietnamese would suffer casualties greater than they could sustain. From this there sprang in turn the heavy emphasis on increasing the enemy “body count,” a count with which the officer in charge of Speedy Express, Major General Julian J. Ewell, was reputed to be, as Lewy puts it, “obsessed.”

A second pathology had to do with the inability of officers in the field to break away from the training and preparation they had received for fighting a conventional war against a massed enemy on the plains of Europe. Ewell believed that (in his own words) “the only way to overcome VC [Vietcong] control and terror is by brute force.” This mode of operation did have the undeniable virtue of helping to husband the lives of American soldiers, hardly a trivial concern in a war that depended on ever more tenuous support from a home front where the dying could be seen in living color on TV. But it also led to a strikingly high ratio of enemy soldiers killed to weapons actually found on them—14.6 to 1 as opposed to the norm of 3 to 1 in the war as a whole. As Lewy explains, this was a revealing indicator “that many of those killed were not really combatants.”

Operation Speedy Express was hardly the only instance in which the U.S. military failed to comprehend the political and psychological requirements of waging war in Vietnam. But if it was typical of what may be called the liberal phase of the war under Lyndon Johnson, it was also a strategy to which both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took deep exception. When Nixon took office in January 1969, he accelerated a shift away from “big unit” collisions and the undiscriminating use of firepower and toward what General Creighton Abrams, who succeeded Westmoreland as commander in the field, characterized as an effort “to provide meaningful, continuing security for the Vietnamese people in expanding areas of increasingly effective civil authority.”

Although this new approach was resisted, and in part subverted, by the U.S. military machine, it did, in conjunction with far more controversial steps like the bombing of Communist strongholds in adjacent Cambodia, yield dividends on the ground. By 1971, much of the contested territory of the South had been brought under government control. Indeed, it was the very success of this campaign of “pacification” that partly prompted Hanoi to jettison its own strategy of guerrilla warfare, which was no longer paying off, and to opt instead for the direct approach of conventional invasion, a course ironically made feasible by the steady removal of American forces from the theater and the dramatic erosion of support for the war back in the U.S.

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American management of the war has been subjected to intense critical scrutiny. But there has been far less interest in, let alone public discussion of, Communist behavior. And yet one highly relevant backdrop against which to view the Kerrey raid is the conduct of the Vietcong guerrilla forces under the control of Hanoi.

Throughout the entire war, these forces engaged in massive intimidation, abduction, and assassination both of South Vietnamese government officials and of ordinary civilians. When, for example, the Vietcong managed to seize control of the provincial capital of Hue in 1968, thousands of Vietnamese were slaughtered within weeks; as autopsies of bodies found in mass graves subsequently revealed, many of the victims had been buried alive. Some lucky survivors of the 26-day occupation of Hue had their hands cut off. At other places and times, disembowelment of exemplary victims in front of assembled villagers was the normal practice.

If such gruesome events are less familiar to Americans than images of children burned by napalm, or the My Lai massacre, that is because, as Lewy notes, they typically “took place well hidden from the eyes and cameras of journalists who had a free run in the part of South Vietnam under GVN [Government of South Vietnam] control, and whose reports on wartime atrocities therefore inevitably lacked an element of balance.” Of course, even extreme Vietcong brutality cannot excuse deliberate atrocities committed by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. But in the effort to counter Vietcong-style guerrilla tactics, the potential for sliding into a moral gray zone expanded exponentially.

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The characteristic methods of guerrilla warfare—blending into and becoming indistinguishable from the civilian population—“challenge the most fundamental principle of the rule of war,” namely, the necessity of treating combatants differently from non-combatants. Thus states the political theorist Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars (1977), a book in which he identifies himself on the very first page as an “activist and a partisan” of the antiwar movement. Given the circumstances in which they fight, guerrillas, Walzer continues, forfeit “the war rights of soldiers.” So too, inevitably, do the civilians among whom they circulate and who willingly or unwillingly give them succor. This has special implications for regular soldiers confronting a typical guerrilla-warfare situation:

A soldier who, once he is engaged, simply fires at every male villager between the ages of fifteen and fifty (say) is probably justified in doing so, as he would not be in an ordinary firefight. The innocent deaths that result from this kind of fight are the responsibility of the guerrillas and their civilian supporters [emphasis added].

Those words, written more than two decades ago, are of startling relevance in considering the Kerrey affair (if we once again assume, for the sake of argument, that Kerrey has been telling the truth). More frequently than not, the scenario Walzer hypothesizes closely matched the actual circumstance that greeted American soldiers on the ground. The Vietcong, embedding themselves in the South’s villages, and cloaking themselves in ordinary peasant garb, actually welcomed and provoked U.S. attacks that generated civilian casualties, as these inevitably caused an outcry both in Vietnam and in the U.S. that played directly into their hands. No doubt U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were extremely shortsighted in fighting so destructively on the guerrillas’ chosen turf and thus falling in with their aims, but the moral onus for the consequences rests largely with the Communists themselves.

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But what if Kerrey has been lying, and there was a deliberate massacre at Thanh Phong? Was that typical of the war? Some of Bob Kerrey’s fellow veterans, ostensibly in a position to know, insist that massacres were indeed common. One of them is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a founder back in the early 1970’s of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. At a 1971 congressional hearing, Kerry told of an unofficial investigation conducted by his organization in which over “150 honorably discharged veterans testified to war crimes” committed in Southeast Asia:

They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned foodstocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war.

Undeniably, serious crimes were committed against civilians by American soldiers. But as Guenter Lewy shows, the court-martial record from the period of January 1965 through March 1973 reveals that incidents of this kind were relatively rare and relatively small-scale. Over the course of eight years, 122 Army and Marine personnel were convicted of murder or manslaughter; of the total number of incidents, only a quarter “represented killings during the course of combat not justified by military necessity.” The most infamous was the massacre at My Lai in 1968 in which more than 400 Vietnamese villagers were murdered.

As is the case today with Thanh Phong, some antiwar activists have long insisted that “My Lai epitomizes the Vietnam war,” in the words of the Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. But in fact, as Norman Podhoretz writes persuasively in Why We Were in Vietnam (1982), a book that also anticipates and answers many of the questions raised by the Kerrey affair, no other outrages on anything close to the scale of My Lai have ever been uncovered; “given the number of antiwar journalists reporting on Vietnam,” Podhoretz adds, it is highly unlikely that “if other such atrocities had occurred, they could have been kept secret.” Thus, if Thanh Phong is indeed a new addition to the list of crimes committed by Americans in Vietnam, it would darken but not significantly alter the overall picture.

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In the final analysis, civilian deaths in large numbers, whether incurred deliberately or accidentally, are one of the central and inevitable features of modern war. Nor are those now loudly questioning American conduct in Vietnam always so fastidious about such casualties, as the case of Daniel J. Goldhagen illustrates. Only a few years ago, during the war in Yugoslavia, this same scholar, whose conscience is now deeply exercised by the fate of Vietnamese villagers in the Mekong Delta, was calling for a military campaign that would have caused civilian blood to flow in quantities sufficient to turn the Danube red.

NATO’s strategy of merely hurling “ineffectual bombs,” Goldhagen wrote then in the pages of the New Republic, was grossly insufficient. Instead of NATO’s limited aim of forcing Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, he favored the conquering of Belgrade and the “remaking of Serbia” in the same way the occupying Allies remade Germany and Japan after World War II. After subduing the Serbs and punishing their rulers, it was imperative, Goldhagen argued, that NATO reckon with the nationalist feelings of the “vast majority” of the Serbian people who needed to be compelled “to comprehend their errors and rehabilitated” through the imposition of “Enlightenment values.” All this, he concluded, “would be a much smaller and less costly task, in both material and human terms, than it was in Germany and in Japan.”

True, smashing little Serbia into submission would probably not have required dropping an atomic bomb on Belgrade, or even firebombing it with incendiaries. But it would certainly have required forcing an unconditional surrender on Milosevic, whose army had spent several decades preparing to fend off Soviet invasion, and the task would have been an exceptionally bloody one. Fortunately for the innocent civilians of Serbia, many more of whom would have been pulverized in Goldhagen’s fantastic scenario than actually did die under NATO’s hail of “ineffectual” but highly accurate bombs, they today live in a democracy that they have created by their own hands. And fortunately for us all, Daniel J. Goldhagen is today merely an academic and not a latter-day version of the whiz-kids who populated the Kennedy administration and who four decades ago, with not quite so breathtakingly uninhibited a display of hubris, brought us into Vietnam.3

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A final question is raised by the idea that Vietnam was, as the New York Times now proclaims it, “a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.” Today, it has indeed become a piece of conventional wisdom that the Vietnam war lacked any meaningful rationale. But that is hardly how the war looked to most people when the conflict was at its zenith. It is assuredly not how the war looked to the editors of the New York Times.

In 1961, as the U.S. was just beginning to wade into the fray, the words “Free World,” always capitalized, still meant something to the Times. The paper’s view then was that “Free World forces . . . still have a chance in South Vietnam, and every effort should be made to save the situation.” Four years later, when the U.S. was already in deep and heading deeper, a Times editorial reiterated that America had gone into Vietnam with the laudable purpose of containing the advance of Communism—“The motives are exemplary and every American can be proud of them”—while another editorial in the same year stated that “virtually all Americans understand that we must stay in South Vietnam for the near future.”

By the early 1970’s, however, the Times had begun to pedal in reverse, calling for the same “precipitate withdrawal” it had earlier denounced as the counsel of only “a few pacifists here and the North Vietnamese and Chinese Communists.” Soon enough, the U.S. Congress actually followed the Times‘s recommendation and cut off all military assistance to South Vietnam; soon enough, the U.S. departed and the North Vietnamese swept victoriously to Saigon. What followed were massive flows of refugees and “boat people,” while hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who did not manage to escape endured mental and physical torture in reeducation camps and millions more would shortly suffer in Hanoi’s wars against neighboring China and Cambodia. As for the hapless Cambodians, they were to undergo full-scale genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Today, our national newspaper of record crudely rewrites the past, even to the point of erasing its own published words from its official memory. Next to such exercises in armchair falsification, the conduct of a man like Bob Kerrey (assuming once again that he is telling the truth, as my intuition tells me he probably is) is a model of rectitude. Despite his latter-day descent into self-pity, and despite his mysteriously uncertain memory of one of the more memorable days of his life, Kerrey did go on after that night in Thanh Phong to serve heroically in combat, suffering grievous injury and winning a Congressional Medal of Honor in addition to his dubious Bronze Star. If his own rather bewildered and bewildering demeanor today reflects some of the profound ambiguities of the war, in this he is by no means alone.

In 1971, John Kerry, today Bob Kerrey’s defender but back then a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, won wide acclaim on the Left when he threw away his medals at a demonstration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. But acclaim turned to dismay when it subsequently emerged that the medals Kerry had hurled into the air did not belong to him, but to someone else; he had kept his own collection of Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver Stars, and displayed them proudly in his home. For this Kerry was called a hypocrite. But surely there is a deeper meaning to be extracted from his behavior on the Capitol steps. What it suggests is that in some hidden compartment of their hearts, even some who publicly repudiated the American role in Vietnam may have held a more complicated if not contrary view. In that compartment one might find an understanding that the Vietnam war, despite the irresponsibly blithe way we entered it, despite the sometimes criminal stupidity of the way we waged it, and despite the civilian casualties it entailed like the massacre at Thanh Phong, was fought against an unrelenting human evil and on behalf of a good and a just cause.

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Footnotes

1 See McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, which I reviewed in the June 1995 COMMENTARY.

2 I have drawn on this indispensable volume throughout what follows.

3 In contrast to Goldhagen, Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars at least has the virtue of consistency across historical time-frames. As an antiwar “activist,” he condemns not only the U.S. effort to protect South Vietnam but also some of the more significant military measures taken to conquer Germany and Japan. He especially reviles as “savage” the bombing of Dresden in the spring of 1945, “in which something like 100,000 were killed,” as well as previous Allied attacks on Hamburg and Berlin in the period after it had become clear that Germany would be defeated. “[T]he deliberate slaughter of innocent men and women,” he writes, “cannot be justified simply because it saves the lives of other men and women.”

Putting aside the fact that the figure of 100,000 dead in Dresden is a fabrication of the pseudo-historian David Irving (whom Walzer cites uncritically), the bombardment of German cities did not merely shorten the war but, by forcing Hitler to invest heavily in air defense rather than in offensive weaponry, made a major contribution to winning it. Moreover, only in retrospect can we say that Germany was heading for certain defeat at any given moment. In the heat of the struggle, there was the constant and entirely justified fear that Hitler would unveil a weapon like the A-bomb he was known to be working on, thus changing the tide of war and wreaking unimaginable destruction of human life.

True, many of the Germans who perished in the cellars of their firebombed cities were indeed innocent of any crime. But so were the many Jews and others who were rescued from annihilation by the early end of the war brought about in part by the progressive destruction of transportation and industry wrought by the bombing campaign. Walzer writes that “to kill 278,966 civilians (the number is made up) in order to avoid the deaths of an unknown but probably larger number of civilians and soldiers is surely a fantastic, godlike, frightening, and horrendous act.” But Walzer’s own choice—to forgo bombing and not to try to save the lives of Nazism’s most desperate victims, not to mention those of so many Allied soldiers—is no less fantastic and horrendous. The world can be thankful that Walzer, too, is merely a professor and was not, during World War II, a participant in the councils of power.

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About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.




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