Senator Kerrey and the War That Still Haunts Us

This piece was part of a round-table discussion I put together when I was a Web Editor at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The rest of the discussion can be found at the site.

As a former Nebraska resident and a graduate student at the New School, I’ve found it hard not to take the recent criticisms of Bob Kerrey personally. For me, the incident raises not simply questions of national history and national guilt but also personal questions of what sort of human being I want to represent me and my university.

Though I’m not a historian, I find it refreshing to approach the Kerrey incident — the story of his Raiders and their actions on that fateful night some 30 years ago — by using an historical analogy. There is a surprising resonance between Kerrey’s story and that of David Nichols, a 19th century Colorado businessman who was instrumental in the founding of the University of Colorado at Boulder and served as its first regent. I learned about Nichols when perusing an edited volume on Indian-white relations,The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance(1991). An essay by M. Annette Jaimes exposes Nichols’s involvement in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which 134 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in their homes, most of them women and children.

At the time of the incident, the village at Sand Creek was officially at peace with the United States — as recognized by the American flag flying over Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s lodge the morning of the attack, a flag he had been given by President Lincoln himself as a token of friendship. Led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington, 700 armed men attacked Sand Creek, where the performance of David Nichols, a captain in the Colorado Volunteers, and his men attracted special praise from Chivington: he called them “especially effective Indian killers.”

Nichols later participated in a propaganda campaign to falsify the circumstances of the Sand Creek Massacre, claiming that there were huge numbers of Indian warriors present when there had been almost none; denying the deaths of women, children, and the elderly; and rejecting the well-documented allegations that the soldiers had mutilated corpses, collected scalps and ears as trophies, and harvested skulls — which, decades later, turned up in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections.

With the passage of time, however, the University of Colorado is facing up to what really happened. After an exhaustive investigation into Nichols’s actions, the university recently renamed what had been Nichols Hall to “Cheyenne-Arapaho Hall” — a simple act but in my view, one of tremendous import. While it clearly can’t change or even redeem the heinous actions of past generations — let alone address the gross economic injustices perpetrated on American Indian nations by our government and its citizens — this gesture is nevertheless a big deal given how educational organizations normally operate. In effacing the memory of one of its founders, the University of Colorado challenged the very core of its own story, recognizing Nichols’s role as “founding father” to be intricately bound up with the lives — and deaths — of the Cheyenne and Arapaho killed at Sand Creek. As Jaimes puts it in her essay, “What is so striking about cases like that of Nichols is precisely that the evil of which they stand accused is bound up, part and parcel, in the good which is attributed to them.”

Like Nichols, Bob Kerrey was involved in an atrocity committed in a war that was unpopular at the time and has grown only more so since. Like Nichols, Kerrey went on to become an important figure in public life, and is now serving as the head of a university. Again, like Nichols, Kerrey has cooperated with his superiors for a long time to prevent the real story of the massacre that took place at Thanh Phong from being made public. Unlike Nichols, though, who went to the grave defending his and his fellows’ actions at Sand Creek, Kerrey seems to have seen the Thanh Phong massacre from the beginning for what it was, an atrocity, and, now that the story is public, he has a chance to make amends during his own lifetime.

Thus far, however, Kerrey has refused to link what he calls a “personal memory” with the larger issues of American foreign policy and Cold War-era criminality. I would like to see him follow the example of the University of Colorado, recognizing that he cannot so easily separate the person he is today — senior statesman and university president — from the “knife-between-his-teeth” warrior that led the massacre at Thanh Phong. Senator Kerrey’s personal story mirrors that of our nation: the things we hold dear about the United States and the American people are bound up “part and parcel” with the terrible things carried out in our name and by our citizens.

Kerrey has said again and again that he is “just trying to make a personal memory public”; what he misses is that it is already public, and that though most of us did not take part directly in the events of that night in Thanh Phong, it did and does involve every one of us. If Kerrey is sincere about wanting to set things right, then this is where he needs to begin. If he is also sincere, as his past and rumored future presidential candidacies suggest, about wanting to be a leader of this nation, I can think of no better place to start than by being a leader in the process of reconciling what is good about America and its history with all that is equally awful.

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