Midway through his memoir, When I Was a Young Man, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey writes, "When I graduated from college in the spring of 1965, I was very much the sleepwalker." After stumbling into the living nightmare of Vietnam a few years later, Kerrey, like the rest of America, would be rudely awakened.
Like America after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kerrey then seems to have hit the snooze button. Though the narrative ends in 1970 with the beginnings of Kerrey's recovery from the physical and spiritual wounds of war, there's a kind of denial in this book that its author (and by extension the powers that be) has yet to face. A survivor, Kerrey subsequently succeeded in business, then in politics; he is now making his mark on academia as president of New School University in Manhattan. Likewise, America has slipped back into place as top carnivore in the global political food chain.
Kerrey writes in a voice as spare and even as the prairie where the first half of his story unfolds. The syntax is Middle American vernacular, and the childhood it describes a microcosm of the Eisenhower Era. Kerrey's youth on the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1950s and early 1960s is pure white-bread: high school varsity football, the college frat, a job as a small-town pharmacist, and a few minor scrapes with authority along the way. Like most Americans in the isolationism after the Korean War, Kerrey's connection to the outside world was the flickering of images across the screen of the nightly TV news.
His decision to join the Navy in October 1966, in anticipation of the draft, ostensibly changed that. Chosen to lead a team of Navy SEALs, Kerrey found himself in early 1969 in Vietnam with "barely a clue" about the war's purpose or direction. His tour of duty lasted less than two months; his unit took part in only two firefights. The second, at Nha Trang, cost him his right foot and gained him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The first, at Thanh Phong, has been a skeleton in the closet for three decades, and it recently put him on the Human Rights Watch suspected war criminal list.
The attack on Thanh Phong occurred at midnight on February 25, 1969. Official records show 21 Viet Cong killed. Early last year, a subordinate, Gerhard Klann, backed by Vietnamese eyewitnesses, alleged what really happened is that more than a dozen women and children were executed after the patrol's mission had been compromised. Initially, Kerrey said he didn't know unarmed civilians were in danger. The memoir's version is that they were unavoidably caught in the crossfire with unseen combatants.
While professing feelings of guilt, Kerrey writes that soldiers must "learn to fight well and honorably without necessarily believing in the cause for which they put themselves into terrifying danger." That sounds like rationalizing. But for many Americans after 9/11, it works. Thank God for the snooze button.
When I Was a Young Man
By Bob Kerrey
$26.00, 352 pages