“Anything processed by memory is fiction.”
—Wright Morris, in a lecture at Princeton, December 2, 1971, as quoted by Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska, in 1910.
In 1851, Thomas Kerry, from the village of Trieshon in Lincolnshire, England, sailed across the Atlantic to Boston, where two years later he married Frances Reynolds, who had also emigrated from Lincolnshire. The new family pushed west, to Galena, Illinois, and it was in Galena that Thomas Kerry added a second “e” to his name, making it “Kerrey,” perhaps because the earlier spelling had the burden of an Irish connotation in a new world where, on the social ladder, the Irish were just a rung above people of color. The family grew to seven children, and succeeding generations struck out to various other points on the American compass—Manistee, Michigan; Chattanooga; Chicago; Duluth. This was an America on the move, a land where boom was followed by bust, and where, when mothers died either young or in childbirth, as was not uncommon, spinster or widowed relatives were enlisted to help raise the motherless children; refusing the enlistment was not an option. James Kerrey, the father of Robert, was born in 1913; his mother died of toxemia less than three months later, his father of a chill a year after that. A widowed aunt in her mid-fifties with grown children of her own was entrusted with the care of the infant James and of his brother John, older by two years.
According to Kerrey family lore, John Kerrey was a road rat who rode the rails during the Depression, moving from hobo jungles to, finally, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The eligibility requirements for the CCC were simple: the applicant had to be a male American citizen, unemployed, free of venereal disease, and to have “three serviceable teeth, top and bottom.” Both John and James Kerrey served as army officers in the Second World War. John was killed in the Philippines; James did not get overseas until hostilities ended. In 1946, James Kerrey, married and with a growing family (there would be seven children), after many intermediate stops in the Midwest and South, settled for good in Bethany, a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska, and opened a lumber, coal, and hardware business. James and Elinor Kerrey’s third child, and third son, was J. Robert, called Bob, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, former Democratic governor of Nebraska, and two-term US senator.
When I Was a Young Man is the first volume of Bob Kerrey’s memoirs. On its smooth, flat surface, it is the story of a thoroughly conventional Midwestern childhood in a thoroughly conventional Midwestern family, with thoroughly conventional Mark Hanna Midwestern Republican politics—limited government and low taxes—and thoroughly conventional Midwestern Protestant beliefs. The family worshiped at the Bethany Christian Church, where Sunday services were preceded by an hour of Bible study, and the young were welcomed into God’s army via a total immersion baptism, as Bob Kerrey was. Kerrey’s book is conventional, however, only in the sense that the literature of the Midwest—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, say, or Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, or Wright Morris’s Ceremony in Lone Tree, or Willa Cather’s My Ántonia—seems always to be about emotions camouflaged under a blanket of the ordinary and the quotidian; duty delayed was a promise unkept. It was a world, said Cather’s narrator in My Ántonia, “bridled by caution.”
Kerrey’s tone is Midwestern laconic—uninflected, cool, distant. A generational wall inhibited family communication; in any case communication seemed a modern fad. He feels close to the epic empty landscape of his native state. Of a dusty prairie town in western Nebraska, he writes: “When the grass is high and green it looks like a raft at sea. Driving northwest on a steady wind, you can be tricked into seeing the hills move like rolling waves.” His relationships with women are treated with restraint and wry understatement: “We skated and sailed an iceboat until we were completely frozen and then sat by the fire talking about the possibility of a future together. The talks ended inconclusively.” The implacable control only wobbles when he wanders into the generalities of geopolitical cause and effect. It is a comment on the quality of public discourse that one is obliged to say this is a memoir that did not have a ghost sitting in front of the computer of its putative author.
Although physically slight, Kerrey played center on his high school football team, and beat up a classmate he suspected of trying to sexually molest his retarded older brother; he was nearly killed when the classmate stuck him with a pair of pruning shears that penetrated to within a half-inch of his cardiac membrane. The police were called, he received a restraining order from the authorities, and he never told anyone the reason for what seemed an unprovoked assault. He graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in pharmacology; training to be a pharmacist seems now to have been an odd choice, as if his, or his family’s, aspiration level was lit by a low flame. In 1964, he voted for Barry Goldwater, and four years later, shortly before his departure for Vietnam, he voted for Richard Nixon. Kerrey’s service as a naval officer in Vietnam concluded with the action that cost him his right leg and for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony presided over by President Nixon.
Over the next dozen years, Kerrey changed his political affiliation to Democrat—his tour in Vietnam was the proximate reason—opened restaurants and health clubs in Lincoln and Omaha that allowed him to accumulate some wealth, married, fathered two children, and then divorced. In 1982, he was elected Democratic governor of Nebraska; the highlight of his governorship (at least in the public memory) was a liaison with a Hollywood actress that was both, improbably, very public and very discreet. Even with a stratospheric approval rating, he declined to run for a second term. He took two years off, then in 1988 ran for and was elected to the US Senate. In 1992, he made a pass at the Democratic nomination for the presidency, running a campaign that can best be described as haphazard and catastrophic, less professional even than Jerry Brown’s.
In the Senate, however, he had established himself as a bright and prickly maverick, not averse to sharp criticism of his own party, its policies, and its leaders, most especially Bill Clinton. In 2000, he chose not to run for a third term to which he was a cinch to be reelected. Instead he moved to New York, became president of the New School University, and remarried. Then, in the spring of 2001, Kerry got shoved back into the public spotlight by claims about a military mission he had commanded in Vietnam. The ensuing uproar confirmed once again that the Vietnam War has permanently insinuated itself into the national imagination, where it resides like a termite, or a virus that periodically becomes virulent.
1965: about the spreading conflict in Southeast Asia, Kerrey was ambivalent. “I had neither a deep-seated moral opposition to the war nor a reasoned opposition to fighting the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese,” he writes. “I just preferred to miss this one if possible.” He had asthma, which could have won him the deferment from military service that most college- educated members of his generation avidly sought, either by licit or illicit means. Amiable family doctors produced medical certificates, and a newfound passion for the word of the Lord filled the nation’s divinity schools; the poor and the underprivileged marched to their draft boards.
With an uneasy sense of obligation, Kerrey volunteered for Navy Officer Candidate School, and after he was commissioned an ensign, volunteered again for UDT training on Coronado Island, across the bay from San Diego. UDT meant Underwater Demolition Team, or the planting of explosives on hostile beaches. Each team consisted of one officer and six enlisted men; there was of course a chain of command, but in such a small unit the seven were interdependent, the officer first among equals. Training was fierce; more than a third of the volunteers dropped out. Miscalculation could result in harrowing death, as it did for two men in Kerrey’s class who drowned during an exercise.
At the conclusion of the UDT course, Kerrey was asked by his superiors to sign up for a SEAL platoon, SEAL being the acronym for Sea, Air, and Land—in other words, the Navy’s Green Berets, with flippers, face masks, wet suits, and scuba tanks. The assignment was his to refuse; the Navy’s extortion, however, was that refusal meant assignment as a deck officer to a ship of the fleet, wasting the months of UDT training. Kerrey’s account of advanced SEAL training at Coronado and the Ranger and Airborne training he received at an army base in Georgia is eerie in its relentlessness. For page after page two words recur: “We learned…” Learned to distinguish between differing caliber rifle sounds. Learned the difference between aimed fire and firing for the effect of noise. Learned how to call in artillery and how not to aim an assault rifle high at night. Learned how to secure and inspect small buildings. Learned how to radio for gunships. Learned why an injured or wounded man could jeopardize the lives of an entire seven-man SEAL squad because it took two men to carry one out. This incantation of “We learned” provided, Kerrey acknowledges, a baffle between what was learned and why it was learned: to kill people automatically and efficiently, without thought, fear, or lenience.
The SEALs were the Navy’s public relations dream team. When Kerrey, now a lieutenant (j.g.), arrived in Vietnam early in 1969, his unit was under the administrative control of an in-country Navy command, but under the operational jurisdiction of SEAL Headquarters in Coronado. This meant that local commanders could not order the SEALs on exercises that might make them appear peripheral, or in a support role. The result was that Kerrey’s SEAL Platoon 1 was essentially a search-and-destroy vigilante unit whose charter was, he writes, “to set ambushes, abduct enemy personnel, and gather intelligence”; ambush is a polite way to say “kill.” The unit was free to wander the Vietnamese coast searching for a war to fight, an enemy to engage. Each fast boat squad was armed with a mortar, a heavy machine gun, explosives, grenades, grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and knives. There was no reliable intelligence beyond that of rumor or what came from Vietnamese military or political officials currying favor with their American patrons; information was currency, a hedge against the future, available to whoever wanted it most, whatever the side. And the question of who was the enemy was never satisfactorily resolved. The Vietnamese, Kerrey says,