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Western Press Review: Bob Kerrey's Admission, Balkans

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The legacy of war is the subject of editorial comment in dailies on both sides of the Atlantic today.

The admission by former U.S. Senator and ex-Governor of Nebraska Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, that he participated in the slaughter of civilians in Vietnam in 1969 is the topic of an editorial in the "New York Times" today.


While there is agreement that as many as 20 unarmed Vietnamese men, women, and children were killed in the operation, Kerrey and two of his fellow soldiers give different accounts of the event. Kerrey, who led the commando unit which sought to capture a Vietcong official, claims his unit returned hostile fire and, when the fighting ceased, noticed that it had killed only women, children, and older men. A senior commando Gerhard Klann says that Kerrey ordered the unit to round up the unarmed Vietnamese and shoot them. A third member of the squad, Mike Ambrose, did not agree with Klann's version of the events and also mentioned that the unit responded to hostile fire.

The "New York Times" comments: "It is a story that with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage, and tragic aftermath sums up the American experience in Vietnam and 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."

The "New York Times" goes on to say "our first reaction was one of compassion rather than condemnation. But there is no avoiding the fact that the episode raises serious questions that must be confronted even if they can never be resolved. The purposeful shooting of noncombatants, such as occurred at My Lai, where Army troops killed hundreds of villagers in 1968, is a violation of American military law. It also raises questions of credibility for Mr. Kerrey, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and has not ruled out a run in 2004." The paper says that Mr. Kerrey once called President Bill Clinton "an unusually good liar," and points out that some Americans will question his long silence and his lack of candor about this episode, for which he received the Bronze Star and a citation for killing 21 Vietcong.

The "New York Times" concludes: "The confusion of war, where very young people operate under unimaginable stress, often leaves conflicts in testimony that can never be resolved. Vietnam, because it involved no mission of national survival, also left young Americans like...Bob Kerrey with a greater burden of guilt and remorse than any other conflict in the nation's history. With the emergence of this story, Mr. Kerrey's career has entered a new phase of public assessment. The nation, for its part, must stick with the ongoing task of remembering the horrible lesson of the physical and psychological damage to people on both sides when a great power undertakes a war without a rationale."


A commentary today in the "Wall Street Journal" by U.S. sociologist Charles Moskos states: "Although the Bush administration has backed off from unilateral withdrawal from the Balkans, concern that peacekeeping operations undermine soldier morale and combat readiness continues to be a persistent theme of the president's national security team, as evidenced by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's talk of withdrawing U.S. troops from [Egypt's] Sinai [peninsula]. Worries that peacekeeping blunts the war-fighting edge are also found in Congress and the military establishment. Strange, then, that our troops themselves don't seem to see things that way."

The commentary goes on to say "what peacekeepers lose in heavy weapons practice and extensive field exercises is more than compensated for by real-life activity in small-unit operations. Soldiers, especially the sergeants and junior officers, gain invaluable experience at the squad, platoon, and company level. To be sure, peacekeeping is no substitute for the maneuver practice combat units get in the vast training ranges found in the U.S. So the germane question is not whether peacekeeping undermines training and readiness, but whether combat soldiers require additional training for peacekeeping missions?"

The "Wall Street Journal" commentary concludes: "whether or not particular peacekeeping missions ought be undertaken is properly a decision for our national leaders and elected representatives. But this decision should not be made with false assumptions about military readiness. Peacekeeping makes for better combat soldiers. Such, at least, is the belief of the soldiers doing the peacekeeping."


The "International Herald Tribune" today publishes a commentary by the head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans: "Last Sunday's election in Montenegro leaves the rump Yugoslavia in limbo. With the electorate so evenly divided for and against independence, the Serbia-Montenegro union will live to limp on a little longer, but the relationship between the two remaining Yugoslav republics stays non-viable and perhaps unreformable.

"Slobodan Milosevic's demise has not solved the underlying structural problem in Yugoslavia. The constitution he imposed in 1992 cannot meet the needs of any modern, democratic state. More starkly, it cannot accommodate the legitimate aspirations of 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which is still part of Serbia although administered now as a United Nations protectorate.

"Resolving the status and interrelationship of Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro is the great unfinished business of Southeastern Europe. Until it happens, politics will remain plagued by extremist nationalism. Ownership and other basic legal rights will remain clouded, and foreign investors will certainly be deterred.

"Nor has life after Mr. Milosevic meant the end of crises elsewhere in the Balkans. With Bosnian Croats in open revolt, and Bosnian Serbs pinning their hopes on new nationalist leaders in Belgrade, the future of Bosnia remains wide open. Even Macedonia, for so long the dog that didn't bark, lurched close to civil war last month, with the army in action against ethnic Albanian rebels."

The "Herald Tribune" commentary concludes: "hopes that Yugoslavia can somehow be reconstituted as a loose federation or confederation, with next to no central authority, are popular in Belgrade and Western capitals but painfully detached from political realities. Both Montenegro and Serbia are reluctant to enter any revised federal arrangement, while Kosovo wants nothing to do with Belgrade at all."


The outcome of the elections in Montenegro on 22 April remains a topic of editorial comment across the European continent. The Dutch daily "De Volkskrant": "it is difficult for [Montenegrin President Milo] Djukanovic to come to terms with the fact that his friends in the West would actually prefer him to remain in Yugoslavia. And only because Milosevic is no longer in power. Djukanovic wants to be president of an independent state and not of an insignificant Yugoslav constituent republic. Milosevic's fall also led to an albeit slow change in public opinion in Montenegro in favor of Yugoslavia. If Milosevic were still in office there, Djukanovic's pro-independence coalition would probably have taken parliament with an overwhelming majority." De Volkskrant concludes: "it is better that the fragmentation of the Balkans within society is nonviolent and has come to an end, rather than had it happened as a result of pressure from outside."


The Danish daily "Berlingske Tidende" notes: "it was not so long ago that the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro was perceived as the next potential scene of war in the Balkans. After the results of the parliamentary elections one can say that risk has significantly diminished. The supporters of President Milo Djukanovic doubtless strove for a clear mandate to realize their plans of independence from Serbia. But they achieved the opposite."


The Swedish daily "Dagens Nyheter" says Djukanovic wants "to form a government that will work for an independent, democratic Montenegro. He wants to achieve this goal through negotiation and not through violence, which the Balkans have all too often experienced. One can imagine that this conciliatory tone will attract support from outside. A corresponding process could serve as an example for drawing borders in the Balkans without having to kill or expel people."


Recent comments by U.S. President George Bush on the U.S.'s policy with respect to China and Taiwan also draw reaction. The "Washington Post" says in an editorial: "[U.S.] President [George] Bush began the day yesterday with a remarkable and unexpected declaration about U.S. policy toward China: If Taiwan were attacked by Chinese Communist forces...the United States would do 'whatever it took,' including using military forces, to defend the island. This appeared to represent a major change in American policy, which since 1979 has deliberately left unclear what the U.S. response would be to such an invasion. But in a muddle of follow-on pronouncements, the State Department and Mr. Bush himself said there was no change in policy, even as numerous experts pointed out that the president had in fact departed from past official statements."

The "Washington Post" says, "A more explicit commitment by the United States to Taiwan's defense would need to be accompanied by clear warnings to Taiwan against provoking China with a precipitous declaration of independence or other action. Mr. Bush cautioned against such a declaration in one of his later, clarifying remarks yesterday. A new commitment to Taiwan should also be coupled with assurances to Beijing that the United States is not seeking to provoke a conflict. And it should be delivered in a clear policy statement by the president -- not in a series of television interviews."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" bemoans the lack of substantial change in eastern Germany more than a decade after unification: "After 10 years it turns out that despite all the upheavals, despite massive unemployment and migration, little has changed in the private lives of...many eastern Germans. Many remain, [to] their own surprise, right where they were 11 years ago. They are in the same profession, often in the same job, living in the same community, in the same flat, [and] having the same friends and acquaintances."

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine" concludes: "the latest east German grumbling concerns the outflow of young people. This is being described as the bleeding to death of the East, which should be barred by the powers that be. But precisely this [migration westward] is a sign of hope. Young people are finding the courage to go where work and success are waiting for them. Their reports describe their amazement for example in Bavaria of how naturally they are accepted and their achievements recognized. In the other direction the situation is the exact opposite. "Wessi" has remained the valid term of abuse in the East. These young people, however, will learn much more than a profession. They will return home with self-confidence and trust in their own abilities. And they will finally be free of all that the GDR once was."


An editorial in London's "Daily Telegraph" berates the upcoming British census, in tones strikingly similar to local criticism of this year's censuses in some Central and East European states: "There has already been an outcry over the intrusive nature of the ethnic question, and the fact that the form fails to make any clear provision for people to call themselves English. Whether or not this is deliberate, it is certainly remarkably insensitive and stupid."

The "Daily Telegraph" continues: "authorities, however, seem to have reckoned on disquiet over the census's racial and ethnic overtones, and had answers -- of a sort -- prepared. What has apparently taken them completely by surprise is the public's bafflement over its sheer complexity. The forms do not have to be completed until Sunday, but already more than 400,000 people have telephoned the census help line. Needless to say, the system has been overwhelmed, with most callers managing to reach only a recorded message. Yet what did the Office of National Statistics expect? This year's census is longer than ever, it is complicated and, in places, repetitive."

The "Daily Telegraph" concludes: "'Count me in' is the exhortation at the top of the form -- misleading, since participation is compulsory. If it were not for the threat of a fine, 'count us out' would be most people's reaction to this shoddy piece of work."