NEW YORK — Gunning down civilians on the ground in war may constitute a war crime, but blasting civilians out of existence from high in the sky does not. Or so the general rule seems to be.

This rule is noted as the publication of Gregory Vistica’s book, “The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey” (St. Martin’s Book), thrusts U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey into the news again.

Vistica is the reporter who grabbed national attention two years ago with a seeming expose about Kerrey in The New York Times Magazine. That article, “One Awful Night in Thanh Phong” — which became the basis for Vistica’s book — began this way:

“Senator Bob Kerrey’s hands trembled slightly as he began to read six pages of documents that had just been handed to him. It was late 1998; the papers were nearly 30 years old. On the face of it, they were routine ‘after action’ combat reports of the sort filed by the thousands during the Vietnam War. But Kerrey knew the pages held a personal secret — of an event so traumatic that he says it once prompted fleeting thoughts of suicide.”

The article created “a firestorm that nearly engulfed Kerrey, and his interview two days later on ’60 Minutes II’ only poured gasoline onto the flames,” wrote John Gregory Dunne in his review of Kerrey’s autobiography, “When I Was a Young Man” (Harcourt, 2002) for the June 13 New York Review of Books.

On May 1, “60 Minutes II,” the CBS television news program to which Dunne referred, had aired a segment called “Bob Kerrey and Thang Phong” in coordination with Vistica’s article. The often prosecutorial CBS anchor Dan Rather was the interviewer. Vistica’s article was a runnerup for a Pulitzer Prize, and Vistica received a $250,000 contract to turn his article into a full-length book, “The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey.”

So what was Kerrey’s “secret”?

One night in February 1969, Lt. Kerrey led a seven-man SEAL team into a hamlet called Thang Phong in a Free Fire Zone on the intelligence that a “high-level” Viet Cong meeting would be taking place that night. A Free Fire Zone, Kerrey explains in his autobiography, meant “it was controlled by the enemy at night.” Dunne calls it “a euphemism for ‘shoot at anything.’ ” Kerrey’s mission was “to set ambushes, abduct enemy personnel, and gather intelligence.” In short, his platoon was “a search-and-destroy vigilante unit,” as Dunne puts it.

The night mission, his “first live firefight,” did not end “in the heroic way I had expected,” Kerrey says in his typical understatement. High-level or otherwise, men were not found in the house in which they were supposed to meet or in the next two houses.

“The women and children in each of the three houses woke, gathered outside, and began to talk loudly in high singsong voices,” Kerrey recollects. “We knew we were in trouble. The absence of men told us we had been compromised. We were certain there were armed cadre in the village now on full alert. We had two choices: withdraw or continue to search houses in the dark.

“Before we could make the decision, someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children, trapping them in a cross fire. We returned a tremendous barrage of fire and began to withdraw, continuing to fire. I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat. . . .”

So, killing women and children on contested terrain was Kerrey’s “secret.” How many of them died remains guesswork. In his next encounter with the enemy, some two weeks later, Kerrey lost his right leg below the knee, and was shipped back to the United States via Tokyo. He went on to become a popular governor of his native state, Nebraska, and to serve in the U.S. Senate for two terms.

Then, about the time Kerrey was planning to run for president, Vistica learned “indirectly” about one member of Kerrey’s platoon who was troubled by what had happened that night and eventually told a former SEAL captain about it “in hopes of getting the killings off his chest.” The man, Gerhard Klann, remembered it not as a terror-driven melee but as “an unjustified, coldblooded massacre.” Hence the firestorm following Vistica’s article and “60 Minutes II.”

Vistica cites an official report stating that 1,200 rounds of ammunition were expended during the incident. According to a U.S. Army friend of mine, that much ammunition is unlikely to be spent to kill a group of a dozen or so unarmed people who have been rounded up, but that is not my point.

I bring up the Kerrey affair because of James Stewart’s discussion of “The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey” in The Jan. 23 New York Times Book Review. Stewart credits Vistica, who believes that Kerrey committed “a war crime,” for “bringing a subject of national significance to public attention.”

And that has reminded me of an observation made a few years earlier by a former combat Marine in Vietnam: “Perhaps the greatest anomaly of recent times is that death delivered by a bomb earns one an air medal, while when it comes at the end of a gun it earns one a trip to jail.”

The Marine, James Webb, who was navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, made this point in his Oct. 6, 1999, article for The Wall Street Journal, “The Bridge at No Gun Ri,” when the long-forgotten massacre of civilians during the Korean War was making headlines. Webb illuminated what I had long thought was the one blind spot in most arguments concerning wartime killings and war crimes.

I remember well Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre, the news of which, Vistica reminds us, broke nine months after Kerrey’s “first live firefight.” But what about those bomber pilots, I wondered at the time, who were killing untold numbers of civilians, blasting, incinerating, and pulverizing them? None of the articles I have read about Kerrey and Thanh Phong points to that “anomaly.”

The anomaly may get even worse. Mark Bowden’s article in the November Atlantic Monthly, “The Kabul-ki Dance,” describes America’s bombing missions over Afghanistan. Although characterizing the one-sided bombings as “the greatest turkey shoot of all time,” Bowden, a great admirer of the technological wonders that keep the aerial bombers far removed from the actual scenes of carnage, doesn’t even once mention any possibility of war crimes.

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