Bob Kerrey, former Governor of Nebraska, later Senator, Democratic presidential hopeful in 1992 and now president of New School University in New York City, is one of the handful of pols for whom it's worth interrupting a holiday. Kerrey has always had a slightly mysterious intelligence, as if he were looking for something that he could neither find nor define. For a politician, this was a handicap; watching him run for the Democratic nomination, when he was openly uncomfortable with the necessary idiocies of campaigning, would have been merely painful were it not grimly fascinating.
Now comes confirmation that politics was perhaps not the line of work for which Kerrey was best suited. He could never have been as good a President as he is a writer. Kerrey's memoir of his early life, When I Was a Young Man (Harcourt; 270 pages), covers the period from his birth in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1943 to his return there at the end of 1969. He came home with a prosthesis on his right leg, which had been shattered in a fire fight in Vietnam. When I Was a Young Man is an astonishing, wonderful book. It has a few false notes; there is a bit too much Nebraska boosterism, and at least one inaccuracy—the village of Caythorpe, England, where Kerrey's great-grandfather was born, is 10 miles south of the town of Lincoln, not London. But the book is deeply moving, all the more so because of the spare monochrome of its language. In its simplicity and clear-eyed observation, Kerrey's account of his injury and recovery bears comparison to the famous passage in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia describing the "very interesting" experience of being shot. No higher praise is possible.
Kerrey had a lot to lose. "Lincoln in the 1950s," he writes, "was about as safe and quiet a place as you could find on earth." Kerrey tells the usual tales of going to church, of trying out for the high school football team, of teenage fights and crushes. All of this, to an extent, is predictable. Yet these reminiscences of the Golden Years after World War II are given an unexpected poignancy, not because of how they end—we know they will end in Vietnam, America's ultimate repository of innocence lost—but because of how they began. For Kerrey's family (as for most Americans), the years before World War II were anything but golden; they were a time when mothers died of toxemia after pregnancy, when families drifted across the Midwest in search of a good job—any job—and men thought themselves lucky to get $30 a month from the Civilian Conservation Corps. Kerrey reminds us of something that too many histories of the 1950s overlook: for those who lived through those sunny years, the sense of security was wonderful precisely because it was so novel.
That made its end hard to bear. For Kerrey, like many others, night fell in Southeast Asia. After voting for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election and qualifying as a pharmacist, he signed up as a Navy officer. Two years' training as a frogman and SEAL followed, until he was sent to Vietnam at the beginning of 1969. His war lasted a little over 50 days, just time enough for two terrifying missions. In the second, he lost his leg; in the first, something even more intimate—his sense of who he was.
One version of the first mission has already been told. In 2001 the New York Times Magazine published an article by Gregory Vistica, alleging that a platoon led by Kerrey slaughtered unarmed women and children during a night raid in the Mekong Delta. Kerrey had not spoken publicly about the assault before the Times story and challenged some of the interpretations that were put upon his conduct. Those seeking the definitive account of the attack will not find it here. Kerrey says, quite plainly, "I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way." What he does remember, however, is anything but self-serving; after hearing a shot, he says, he and his men unleashed a "tremendous barrage of fire." He continues: "I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces ... After that night ... I had become someone I did not recognize."
Kerrey lived, of course, and those in the village did not. But it is impossible to read his book without a sense that war can be almost as terrible to those who survive it as to those who do not. Throughout When I Was a Young Man, Kerrey quotes from Wilfred Owen, the greatest poet of World War I. Owen's subject, he once wrote, was "war, and the pity of war." That is Kerrey's subject too, and he has added magnificently to the long canon of literature on it.