Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias This article by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam POW, appeared in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, April 27.

For a long time many Americans thought the Vietnam War was a bad war. The citizen soldiers who defeated the fascists in Europe and the Pacific were ennobled by their service in a good war. Vietnam veterans fighting communists were not.

In a good war mistakes are seldom made. No one lies. Breakdowns in discipline that lead to atrocities never occur. The righteousness of the cause sanctifies the experience of all who fought in it.

In a bad war everyone lies. Innocents are slaughtered. Villages are destroyed to save them. Combatants are corrupted.

Casualties in a good war are martyrs. In a bad war they are the wages of sin.

But this notion, as a veteran of any war can attest, is simplistic and completely wrong.

All wars occasion much heroism and nobility, but they all have their corruptions, which is what makes war a thing worth avoiding if possible.

I hated my enemies even before they held me captive because hate sustained me in my devotion to their complete destruction and helped me overcome the virtuous human impulse to recoil in disgust from what had to be done by my hand.

I dropped many bombs in Vietnam, and I wish I could say that they only destroyed military targets.

But surely noncombatants were among the casualties.

The combatant, who may be a righteous, God-fearing, lovely human being, must become inhumane day after day if he is to do what his country has asked him to do.

The injunction to love all as we would be loved is the first casualty of war, any war. Wars are that awful, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a fraud.

That does not mean that we should forget our humanity. Our experience does not absolve us of our moral obligations, but they can be very hard to keep, given the extraordinarily difficult and conflicting expectations imposed on us: to kill and to be good.

Good men, heroes, make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes have the most terrible consequences imaginable.

We should not be spared criticism for them, but it is unlikely that the judgments made by others will be as severe as our own regret.

My friend Bob Kerrey made a mistake in Vietnam. He was sent into a free-fire zone to kill for his country, and he helped kill the wrong people.

Those who now judge him must follow the dictates of their conscience.

But unless you too have been to war, please be careful not to form your judgment of him on your understanding of what constitutes a war hero.

They are not the Hollywood copy you might expect.

Bob received a Bronze Star for his action that night. He would be the first to agree that his conduct, no matter how unintentional, did not merit commendation. But his conduct on another night, one month later, won him the decoration our country bestows on only her greatest heroes.

And were you to read the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor, you would know beyond a doubt he earned it.

When he came home from Vietnam, like many others, Bob Kerrey tried to bury his dead. He did not want to remember, much less talk about, a lot of his experiences, especially his mistakes.

But there are ghosts you cannot bury, like our shame over those occasions when circumstances conspired with our own weakness to make an awful experience worse.

If the fact that he recovered his humanity, that he felt remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country, does not strike some as adequate compensation for his mistake, it is enough for his salvation, and a harder task than most can imagine.

That's a war hero, folks, a sinner redeemed by his sacrifice for a cause greater than his self-interest. That's Bob Kerrey, my friend and hero.

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