In truth, Kerrey could never have been elected president. Not in 1992 when he ran a diffident and unfocused primary campaign against Bill Clinton, not in 2000 when he yielded to the realities of political fund-raising, and not in 2004 had he stayed in the Senate. For Kerrey, who had lost part of a leg and gained a Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, was haunted by a secret that would likely have destroyed his political career. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in April of last year, Gregory Vistica accused Kerrey and his Navy Seal team of participating in a 1969 massacre of women and children at Thanh Phong. At the time, Kerrey, while acknowledging that horrible night, denied any recollection of the specific charges of deliberate slaughter leveled by one of the Seals under his command.
Advance knowledge of that back story is a precondition for reading When I Was a Young Man. For the uninitiated, Kerrey’s uninflected memoir of his life until 1970 makes for a curious book. With its large type and generous margins, this chronicle seems to be mostly prelude with little payoff. Do we really need an entire chapter on Kerrey’s struggles to make the first-string high school football squad? Yes, there are the occasional nice bits such as his description of the football field as “a place where a man can recall an afternoon or evening of his youth with absolute clarity.” But we must also endure, with our fingers pinching our nostrils, Kerrey likening “the acrid smell of the locker room” to “my uncle Ronnie’s turkey coops on my mother’s family farm near Ripley, Iowa.” The uplifting moral that Kerrey derives from this gridiron experience should be familiar to readers of standard artless political autobiographies: A small nose-guard scar would permanently remind him “how close I had once come to quitting and how much of a payoff there was for perseverance.”
The first two-thirds of the book can be easily summarized as a young man comes of age in the 1960s in Nebraska, trains to be a pharmacist, enlists in the Navy to avoid the draft and displays enough military mettle to be recruited for the Seals. Until Kerrey arrives in Vietnam, it is hard to regard When I Was a Young Man as anything more than the pedestrian recollections of a bankable author who later became famous. That is, unless we have been nervously waiting for Kerrey’s account of what happened on his first mission in Vietnam, a raid on a purported Vietcong meeting in a Mekong Delta village called Thanh Phong.
As Kerrey admits, he made the fateful decision to go forward with the attack even though he was told that “there were innocent noncombatants in the village.” Just to be careful, the young officer arranged for a daylight surveillance flight that “confirmed that there were no women and children in the area.” But when Kerrey and his team arrived at night, they discovered that the Vietcong meeting site had been hastily abandoned. And unfortunately, a group of women and children, awakened from nearby homes, had gathered outside. What follows in just four sentences is the event that has haunted Kerrey for 33 years. The Seals were suddenly shot at from the direction of the women and children, “trapping them in the cross fire.” In response, the Americans unleashed a barrage of fire. Kerrey recalls, “I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces.”
So what are we to make of this story? More precisely, what moral do I, an anti-Vietnam War crusader who reveled in my 4-F deferment, draw from Kerrey’s confessional? Three decades removed from the passions of Vietnam, I am willing to cut Kerrey slack. A terrible war forced good people to participate in terrible events. I believe Kerrey when he writes, “In truth, I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way.” I accept his judgment –and the nightmares that went with it–that “the young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night . . . I had become someone I did not recognize.”
But it is a mistake to view When I Was a Young Man solely through the prism of Vietnam. In a preface, presumably written after September 11, Kerrey explains that he wanted to tell his story “because of the powerful needs that oppose remembering the bad with the good when we Americans rev up our patriotic engines.” At a time when many liberals (neo- and otherwise) have been seduced by the notion of a preventative war against Iraq, it is worth recalling that sending young soldiers into combat is not always as risk free as the Gulf War or Afghanistan. That reality cannot simply be dismissed as an unfortunate residue of the Vietnam Syndrome. War can foster heroes, even ambivalent ones like Kerrey who almost refused his Congressional Medal of Honor. But it can also create burning flesh and ghastly wounds, as Kerrey underlines in a moving account of his convalescence after losing part of his right leg on his second and last mission in Vietnam. When I Was a Young Man tells the story of a patriotic era when Americans grew up believing that they could do no wrong because their hearts were pure. A patriotic era dangerously similar to today.