Books: Bob Kerrey's When I Was a Young Man

Culture Watch

Mr. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate and the editor of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War lies like an angry scar across America. The political and cultural divisions of the time echo and reverberate constantly. Certainly, the young men who fought in that war, distinguished for its length and futility, never again were the same. If they survived, they were changed; the war was their defining experience. And they are special, for they were part of a terrible national failure.

Few stories more eloquently testify to such change than that of former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). But his loss is accompanied with a parable of his fall from grace. Much of his story is familiar, even commonplace. In"When I Was a Young Man," he offers the narrative of a young boy, happy and safe in the homogeneous environs of Lincoln, Neb., son of a World War II veteran, with a solidly Republican family. He was only vaguely aware of the"Red Menace," whether from communists who might poison the drinking water or from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's endorsement of the domino theory and the specter of a communist army on the shores of La Jolla, Calif.

Kerrey was 16 when the civil rights struggle erupted and when the first Americans died in Vietnam, but, secure in Lincoln, he remained relatively oblivious to it all. Neither the Geneva Accords of 1954, ending the French imperial presence in Vietnam, nor the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision that same year would attract his attention for another decade. He remembered being told in 1964 that if Barry Goldwater were elected, the United States' involvement in Vietnam would expand. Goldwater lost, but the war expanded anyway, an older, more cynical Kerrey writes.

Kerrey's memoir is confined to his youth and the events that irrevocably altered his life. He quickly glosses over his conversion to the Democratic Party, his successful business career, his service as governor and senator and his brief 1992 presidential campaign. The center of"When I Was a Young Man" is one brief chapter relating his memory of his two engagements in Vietnam: one that killed only Vietnamese civilians and may have involved a terrible crime, and one that cost him part of his right leg and resulted in the Medal of Honor. The first came to public attention in 2001, with statements by Kerrey's unit members and by two female survivors who recounted varying versions of the incident.

Kerry appends a one-page author's note, mentioning the discussion he and his fellow combatants had 32 years after the event, relating their individual memories. Kerrey's final words are that he cannot swear that his memory is 100% accurate, but"it is merely the best I can remember today."

A year before the incident, Kerrey entered the military when he reported for Naval Officer Candidate School in February 1967. Once commissioned, he trained as a frogman, slated to serve with an underwater demolition team. The program was demanding, but"it was too exciting to pass up," he remembered and, along with a few others, he survived the rigorous training. When he completed the course, Kerrey volunteered for the Navy's new SEAL program. The recruits, similar to the Army's Special Operations Group, would have special assignments in Vietnam, vastly different from what he and his classmates had been led to expect. Told they could"volunteer" for the new program--or be sent to sea--one frogman refused. He was immediately ushered from the room, and Kerrey never saw him again."His act was the bravest I had ever witnessed," Kerrey remembered.

Kerrey's classmate, we now know, balked at being part of a kidnapping and assassination team. The SEALs were trained to operate behind enemy lines, collect intelligence and"take out" Viet Cong leaders, suspected or otherwise. The 25-year-old inexperienced Lt. Kerrey spent about 50 days in Vietnam and took part in only two combat engagements. In the second, Kerrey suffered his terrible wound and loss of right foot when a grenade hit him, and he received the nation's highest military honor. During his first mission, a search for Viet Cong units in the village of Thanh Phong, Kerrey and his men encountered the women of the village. We"tried to do our duty as we had been trained to do it," he laconically writes.

Conflicting stories of that horrible night have emerged. One of Kerrey's men, haunted with dreadful memories for decades, claims the Americans rounded up the Vietnamese civilians and simply executed them. No other members of the squad corroborate this account. Kerrey says that shots were fired at his unit and that it returned the fire. Whichever is true, an"atrocity" was born. One thing is clear: Civilians were killed. Kerrey's own account is searing:"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 to the canal."

Kerrey first received a Bronze Star in 1969, with a citation giving a fictitious account of the event. His superiors knew that civilians had been killed but, nevertheless, they commended the SEALs' operation. For his part, Kerrey has said,"I don't feel like I did anything heroic that evening. Quite the contrary."

However cloudy his memory, Kerrey knows he was never the same afterward."The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night.... I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I became someone I did not recognize." He had been in country for five weeks, and this was his first combat."It had not ended in the heroic way I had expected." Still, he accepted his medal, with its falsified citation of the event, and mentions no misgivings at the moment. But we must remember that we did not share the circumstances of Kerrey and his men. Our judgments, too, must be restrained and conflicted.

Kerrey painfully and candidly discusses his long medical recovery. He remembers his ambivalence at accepting the Medal of Honor, knowing that President Richard M. Nixon used such occasions for political gain and having serious doubts about the merit of it. In this account, Kerrey offers no other details of his commendation. His men had supported him for the Silver Star because he continued to lead their squad despite his serious wound, but the recommendation had been upgraded. He does not tell us by whom, or why--if he knows. He was"stunned and embarrassed"; he"did not believe the action deserved the highest honor." But his men urged him to accept the award"for everyone who should have been recognized but was not." Thanh Phong's unwanted notoriety as an atrocity was more than three decades in the future.

The atrocity at My Lai and the role of Lt. William Calley occurred nine months before Thanh Phong. The melancholy tale of My Lai now has been known for more than three decades, but not until Gregory Vistica's story appeared in the New York Times in 2001 did we learn of Kerrey's incident. Kerrey's service record was distinguished with medals. Calley was a nondescript soldier. He was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life at hard labor but served only three years of house arrest at Ft. Benning. What if Calley could or would speak? Only Kerrey's public prominence has made the events at Thanh Phong a national story. Certainly, what happened there must not be minimized. But we must bear in mind that we have had more than 120 convictions for war crimes in Vietnam. And are there other Thanh Phongs yet to be revealed?

Though we knew nothing of Thanh Phong during Kerrey's years on the national political scene, his public postures often seemed laced with a trace of cynicism, even bitterness. His well-known skepticism toward President Bill Clinton somehow seemed rooted in a feeling that he had seen and done so much more and thus was more deserving of the presidency. The revelation of what happened in Vietnam and even his cursory explanation help explain more of this enigmatic man; it certainly makes him more interesting, if not likable.

Kerrey is eager now to tell his story"because of the powerful needs that oppose remembering the bad along with the good when we Americans rev up our patriotic engines." Recalling the Democratic politician who bragged in 1992 that we had won the Cold War without firing a shot, Kerrey wonders what people thought we were firing in Korea and Vietnam and what our proxies were firing in Central America, South America and Africa. Wars are not, he knows,"what our slogans, propaganda, and childhood fantasies have taught us to believe." Kerrey was trained and expected to be a lethal weapon against anyone in a"free fire zone." And so he served. The cynical public man remains very much with us; maybe now, we can better understand why. We can share what he calls a"sickness in my heart for what we had done." We cannot envy his burdens.

This review first appeared in the Los Angeles Times and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus