- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

By Bob Kerrey
Harcourt, $26, 270 pages. Illus.

Memoirs often as not are acts of exorcism. “When I Was a Young Man” seems to fit in that category. Bob Kerrey was awarded the Medal for Honor and lost a leg in Vietnam. He has been a successful entrepreneur, governor of Nebraska, two-term U.S. senator and sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
His book originated in his dying father’s hope that the author could learn the fate of the senator’s uncle who was missing in World War II in the Philippines (which remains at the end a mystery, with a mystical coda for the senator). But this memoir pivots on a relentlessly haunting episode in his own past.
The fatal events on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong permeate the book.
That night he was leading six Navy SEALs after a Viet Cong cadre, in the course of which perhaps as many as a dozen Vietnamese civilians were killed. The raid on Thanh Phong and the civilian deaths, however, did not become public knowledge until last year, when it again roused the demons of the Vietnam War.A member of then-Lt. Kerrey’s SEAL team recounted his version of the raid to the New York Times: When the SEALs were fired on, he said, Lt. Kerrey ordered civilians rounded up and killed to enable the squad to escape.
Were the civilian deaths a war crime or an awful aberration that can occur in a guerrilla war? So went the volleys of comment. Mr. Kerrey’s response was oddly ambivalent. By this time, he was (as he is now) president of New York’s New School University. In his recollection of the night in Vietnam, the squad returned enemy fire in which civilians may have been caught. There were no executions. The five other SEALs backed Mr. Kerrey’s version.
In “When I Was a Young Man,” Mr. Kerrey recounts that on his first night at home in Lincoln, Neb., after long months of surgery, rehabilitation, and emotional shock, he had a nightmare about Thanh Phong and the nightmare would recur over the years.
Mr. Kerrey notes that he was already writing “When I Was a Young Man” when the Vietnam episode became glaringly public. “In truth, I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way,” he writes which is surely plausible for a first exposure to combat. In an author’s afterword, he returns to the scarring night his Banquo’s ghost.
“The discussion [with the five other SEALs] that followed altered what I did and didn’t remember. Thus, the story told in this book though the most important details remain the same is different than the one I first told and even today I would not swear that my memory is 100% percent accurate. It is merely the best I can remember today.”
The decade of the 1960s, with Vietnam as crescendo, was Mr. Kerrey’s coming of age, as it was for a generation the assassinations of the Kennedys, of Martin Luther King; the urban riots, the turbulent rise of the counterculture, Vietnam and the anti-war movement.
On the placid side of that divide was an “idyllic” boyhood in Lincoln, where he was born in 1943 and where is father operated a lumberyard. Family, church and school were the compass points of Mr. Kerrey’s life. By the time he entered the University of Nebraska to study pharmacy, “I knew or cared little about the world outside of Lincoln.”
During those college years, of course, the wider world was intruding. His draft number came up in 1965. Almost on a whim, he joined the Navy and completed officer training. He was gung-ho, volunteered for the Navy commandos, the SEALs, which shortly led to Southeast Asia. He was there only for some 50 days. After Thanh Phong, he was grievously wounded in a second raid, losing most of his right leg for which action he later would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Mr. Kerrey recalls in grisly detail his months of hospitalization and, with it, a growing disillusion about the war. As he returned to a drastically different society, he labored to come to terms with who he had been and who he now was. “Grief at the loss of my innocence and the death of innocents followed me day and night … During my physical recovery I had learned about the power of the only thing in life in which I completely believe: human kindness,” he writes. And “… worries about my loss ended when I learned that giving kindness was more liberating than receiving it.”
It would be unpardonably arrogant for anyone who has not gone through what Mr. Kerrey has to venture beyond saying that this is an affecting, a painfully affecting, memoir. Still, a soft sentimentality about kindness, decent as it is, seems almost a way to deflect a harder reflection about the young man he was.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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