Bob Kerrey Recalls His Idyllic Youth, and Fatal Events of the Vietnam War.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt


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. …