As former Sen. Bob Kerrey faces accusations of leading a massacre of innocent Vietnamese villagers, so much hinges on the reliability of individual memories.
But psychologists, historians and Vietnam War veterans say even the most vivid battle memories are obscured by time, stress and, sometimes, the guilt of having killed or survived.
The passage of three decades dulls and distorts perceptions. Psychological blocks prevent a stitching together of details. Some veterans embellish or mentally edit their experiences, and then become so trapped in these distortions that they come to believe their own fabrications.
A lot of things you remember clearly just didn't happen that way. Someone else will tell it differently, and you'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's right!' said retired Army Col. Robert Burke, who commanded a missile battalion in Vietnam.
And Vietnam, where the Viet Cong enemy could be indistinguishable from ordinary civilians, was a new kind of battleground.
Vietnam as a counter-guerrilla war was very different from the world wars and even Korea. You never knew where anything might come from. Any moment you could be overwhelmed and 15 seconds later, nothing, says Dr. Chaim Shatan, a professor of psychoanalysis at New York University and a pioneer in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects as many as 100,000 Vietnam veterans.
Shatan said his interviews with hundreds of veterans make clear the difficulties they have in recalling traumatic events.
Most of them have struggled very hard to bring their memories into focus, he said. You can never know the shame and guilt of being alive when others have died whether friend or foe.
According to Kerrey, the night commando raid he led as a 25-year-old Navy SEAL officer on Feb. 25, 1969, resulted in the mistaken killing of 12 to 14 Vietnamese civilians in the village of Thanh Phong.
But one of the seven team members, Gerhard Klann, told CBS News and The New York Times that the civilians were killed on Kerrey's orders some of them herded together and shot at point-blank range. Klann's charges will be aired on 60 Minutes II Tuesday night.
The two accounts are so divergent that there seems no middle ground, no way of melding them into a single, accurate version.
Shatan said it is possible that, despite the wide differences, they are both telling the truth to the best of their ability. It is not easy to bring out all the details.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health and another expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, said there are flashbulb memories details that are never forgotten.
But in the subconscious development of memory, other factors come into play, such as /the desire to try to transform reality to fit a preferred image of oneself, he said.
The trauma of combat, said Ochberg, makes it possible to remember things in a part of the brain that causes you to focus on certain events and completely ignore others. The events relating to the SEALs raid, he said, could have been transformed for all involved, including the Vietnamese witnesses.
Dr. Henry Roediger, an expert in cognitive psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, said it was possible both Kerrey and Klann are speaking the truth as they believe it. But, he said, if these people were rounded up and shot, I find it hard to believe that Kerrey would not remember that.
If that were the case, he added, I would expect one or more of the others to come out and admit that it was true.
In Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement, to be published this week, author Gerald Nicosia argues what happened in Thanh Phong was commonplace and the nation's aversion to hearing such stories caused veterans to bury (them) in the psyche.
Vietnam vets took part in some of the worst things this country ever did, he said in an e-mail interview. Then, he said, they had little chance to talk about their experiences.
To even try speaking of it got them labeled un-American and kicked in the pants by the nation that had sent them to do its dirty work, he said. The question we should ask is not why it took so long for someone like Bob Kerrey to confess to Vietnam atrocities, but why we have made it so hard for these men and women to tell us what they actually experienced.
Written By RICHARD PYLE ©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed