Restless ghosts

It is the season of ghost-dancing. This past week, the ever-restless spirits of the Vietnam War glided across our national consciousness amid revelations that certified war hero and former presidential aspirant Bob Kerrey may not have been quite so heroic after all. Three decades after the only war America has ever lost, the specters of a score of civilians, mostly women and children from the peasant village of Thanh Phong, arose to accuse Kerrey and his Navy SEAL unit of committing atrocity and murder in the name of attempting to win a war that conventional wisdom now maintains should not have been fought in the first place.

We may never know whether Kerrey's Raiders are guilty of the charges leveled against them by the few survivors of that horrible night or by the lone American comrade whose recollections are at odds with Kerrey's argument that his men killed only in self-defense. What's important to remember is that the war, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, was fought in all our names, because, we were told at the time, it was in America's vital interest -- our national security was at stake.

Our national security has other victims as well.

In Puerto Rico, the ghost of David Sanes hovers above the the pearl-white sands of Vieques, a 126-square-mile strip of paradise where, for six decades, the U.S. military has bombed and shelled the western tip of the island for around 190 days per year -- even though the training exercises take place within close range of a significant civilian population.

In April 1999, the Navy temporarily halted its shelling after a pilot mistakenly dropped two 500-pound bombs on an observation tower, killing Sanes, thereby uniting a majority of Puerto Ricans in their desire to throw out the Navy. Amid continued protests, including some where citizens have used their bodies as human shields against the shelling, the Navy continues to conduct its drills.

The Navy argues that Vieques is the only place in the Western hemisphere where air, land and sea forces can train simultaneously with live munitions before deploying abroad and, as such, is vital to our national security.

Out over the Pacific, the ghosts of nine Japanese tourists -- four teen-age students, two teachers and three crew members from the Ehime Maru -- dance ethereally 12 miles off the Hawaii coast. Their bodies drowned in February, when their fishing vessel was sliced open by the nuclear-powered submarine USS Greenville.

Bursting through the ocean's surface in a rapid-surfacing maneuver known as an "emergency blow," the Greenville tore into the smaller vessel's stern, sinking it within minutes and ending nine blameless lives. Ironically, the only reason the Greenville had put out to sea that day was to impress its civilian guests from the Distinguished Visitors' Program -- set up by the Navy to win favor for the submarine service and remind congressmen and other opinion-makers of the service's importance to our national security.

The ghost of Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei capers somewhere near the bottom of the South China Sea. This past April 1, his F-8 interceptor jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane over the waters off China's coast, forcing the damaged U.S. aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island.

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The incident set off a diplomatic tiff, with angry recriminations flying between Washing-ton and Beijing over who was to blame. Pentagon officials said that flights of the EP-3s -- which are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology -- will continue, as the intelligence gathering is so important to our national security.

Finally, the gentle spirit of Christian missionary Roni Bowers, along with her seven-month-old daughter, waltzes with her God, after her unarmed Cessna was shot down by a Peruvian jet somewhere above the Amazonian jungle. Suspected of running drugs, the plane was mistakenly identified by a U.S.-sanctioned CIA Citation jet, its frantic "don't shoot" message coming too late to save the 35-year-old American from instantaneous death by a bullet in the back.

The horrible mix-up was just part of another day in the U.S.'s counter-narcotic efforts in this hemisphere, largely funded by billions of dollars of U.S. aid. Though the shoot-down flights have been suspended, they are expected to continue. After all, it's axiomatic -- the "war on drugs" is crucial to our national security.

It is the season of ghost-dancing. And as the souls of the innocent cavort in realms unknown to us, we thank them for their sacrifices. They have done their jobs. Our nation is secure.

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