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Book Forum: Autobiography   |    
When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by Bob Kerrey
ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2129-2130. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2129
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By J. Robert Kerrey. New York, Harcourt Books, 2002, 352 pp., $26.00.

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Bob Kerrey, 59, is President of New School University in New York. Before that he was governor of and then senator from Nebraska. When I Was a Young Man is his story of the first half of his life, starting with his family background and his birth in Lincoln, Nebraska, in August 1943 and ending with his receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon in Washington in May 1970. The crisis that redefined his life occurred in the first 2 months of 1969, when he served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. He led two missions. On the first, troops under his command killed Vietnamese civilians, women and children, and Kerrey lost his innocence. On the second, his right leg was shot off, and his war ended. Kerrey’s story is a parable for the history of the nation during those years. He was in turn a perpetrator, a victim, a hero, a survivor, and, above all, a leader. He led his SEAL group and has since led a state, a university, and, with others, the nation.

The book’s title comes from the words of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a song by Eric Bogle:

Now when I was a young man I carried me pack

And I lived the free life of the rover.…

Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,

It’s time to stop ramblin’, there’s work to be done."

So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,

And they marched me away to the war.…

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me ass over head,

And when I awoke in me hospital bed

And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead—

Never knew there was worse things than dying.…

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,

And they shipped us all back to Australia.

The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane,

Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.

Kerrey writes rather simply: "Understanding the lives of our parents helps us understand who we are" (p. 51). Thirty pages are devoted to his family background. We learn, for instance, that his great-grandfather Thomas Kerry (he later added the extra "e"), a Civil War veteran, operated a lumber mill until an accident shattered his right leg; he never regained his health. The author, his great-grandson, was wounded in the same leg, although at an earlier age, but survived and thrived.

Kerrey describes an idyllic Midwestern childhood, with family values and little conflict. He tells us that his heroes came from Bible stories on Sunday, cowboy movies on Saturday, and his father and older brother. He was vaguely aware of Korea, the Red scare, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement but was much more involved with popular culture—pop singers, movies, high school football, and coming of age in Middle America. In 1961 he entered the University of Nebraska (he considered no other) planning to become a pharmacist. He failed one course—Air Force ROTC! "The instructor judged me to be incorrigible and undisciplined during close-order drill and inspections." The course was required; Kerrey led a successful campaign to change the requirements. Kerrey was president of his fraternity (one that blackballed minorities) and vice-president of the student council (he had lost the election for president). Life was going well. He voted for Goldwater, and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He barely noticed, but, as he puts it, "With the passage of this resolution, life as I knew it was over" (p. 45).

In 1966, knowing he would otherwise be drafted, and inspired by reading The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, he enlisted in the Navy. In 1967 he started Officer Candidate School and, in quick succession, volunteered for underwater demolition training and then SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) training that included Army Airborne and Ranger schools. He survived, thrived, excelled, and loved it. ("I never felt more proud or confident in my life," p. 115.) He watched two of his buddies die in training and a third decide not to complete the SEAL program: "The instant he stood he was ushered from the room, and I never saw him again. His act was the bravest I had ever witnessed" (p. 136).

There has been public controversy over what happened to Kerrey in Vietnam. There are multiple and, at times, inconsistent versions. Kerrey says, "The story told in this book…is different from the one I first told, and even today I would not swear that my memory is 100% accurate. It is merely the best I can remember today" (p. 271). Kerrey’s version—"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" (p. 184). Others, both his fellow SEALs and Vietnamese, claim that women and children were rounded up and shot in cold blood. Kerrey doesn’t remember it that way. Should 25-year-old Kerrey have held his fire, taken prisoners, risked his men’s lives, or, some months earlier, should he have joined his brave buddy and refused to volunteer? He is certain of one thing—the choices seemed different in 1969 than they do today.

On Kerrey’s second mission he had just fired a short burst when "the crack of an explosion ripped the air…I knew immediately I had been seriously wounded. I smelled burning flesh…I reached my hands down…the foot was detached from the calf" (pp. 187–188). He was evacuated to Cam Ranh Bay, Japan, then to Philadelphia, surgery, rehabilitation, and a new life. He learned a lot, about life and about himself— "It takes a brave man to let someone they love see them as they are. It takes a brave man to allow himself to be loved. And it takes a brave man to ask for help. All three of these are blood relatives, and my reluctance about each was a child of the same fear" (p. 215).

Kerrey describes misgivings about later accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor, fearing that in doing so he might be lending support to further combat. He doesn’t mention the Bronze Star, which was awarded for his first engagement. And he ends the story there—no longer a young man. Thirteen years later he was elected Governor of Nebraska.

I look forward to volume two, the story of Kerrey as governor, senator, and university president. He started out as a classic American hero—courageous, unconflicted, and two-dimensional. He came into contact with a reality of which he had been only dimly aware and became darker, more complex, and far more interesting. He then approached the very center of power and drew back from it. His story is compelling. He tells us what he has seen and conceals from us only what he has concealed from himself.

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