When I Was a Young Man


By Bob Kerrey (Harcourt, Inc., 2002)


(This column was first published in the July 4, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


In an "Afterward" to his book When I Was a Young Man, Bob Kerrey tells us: "One night of my life as a combatant in the Vietnam War has been previously examined in great detail by the press and the public. I agreed to talk publicly about that night in part because I was trying to write about it for this book. I did not anticipate the intensity of the press interest and the public exposure that occurred to each of the six men I led that night. As a consequence, we gathered for the first time since the war to talk about our individual memories of what happened. The discussion 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% accurate. It is merely the best I can remember today."


It is that terrible episode that will, of course, sell this book. While I am glad for Bob Kerrey whom I admire, I find it sad for the rest of us, because that episode plays such a small role in this book. Yes, it was a defining moment for this Nebraska senator, but it is only a small part of this good book.


You should not read this book to expose the details of that episode. Instead you should read it as a straightforward and graceful account of the formative years of one of those mid-westerners who exemplify high-mindedness to everyone in this nation. It is the story of an attractive young man who worked hard for years to advance in the service, who led troops into two brief battles in Vietnam, who possibly erred in the first and who was seriously injured in the second. In those final few weeks in the service more than his body was injured. His bigger battles, with his body and with his conscience, still lay ahead.


Here is all he has to say about that first battle: "The village and the area around it was described by the South Vietnamese government and by U.S. military as a Free Fire Zone. In essence this meant it was controlled by the enemy at night. In daylight, South Vietnamese forces might enter the area seeking intelligence about the movement of enemy forces, but they rarely went in at night. Thus, we expected to have the advantage of surprise on our side. It was about midnight when I told my point man to head out. The only noises we could hear were a few dogs barking in the distance. The night was quiet and calm.


"My point man led the way. He came to a house he said he believed was occupied by sentries. We had been trained that in such situations it would be too risky to move forward knowing that they would warn the men in the village unless we killed them or aborted the mission. I did not have to give an order to begin the killing but I could have stopped it and I didn't.


"In truth, I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way. The pulse of my own blood was pounding in my ears. I no longer believed we had the element of surprise on our side, but I was still determined to proceed to the main village. At the village we approached the house where the meeting was to take place. Once again, we had been trained to approach a potentially hostile environment and the patrol required no orders from me. One man entered the building while six others remained outside to provide security from all angles of approach. We waited, spread out with one man on point, and from my position I did not see any security. Our point man came out of the house and whispered excitedly that the men were not there. No meeting was taking place and all the men were gone. He said their sleeping places had been recently abandoned. He went into two other houses and reported the same thing. When he came out of the second one he had a look of real fear on his face.


"The women and children in each of the three houses woke, gathered outside, and began to talk loudly in high singsong voices. We knew we were in trouble. The absence of men told us we had been compromised. We were certain there were armed cadre in the village now on full alert. We had two choices: withdraw or continue to search houses in the dark. Before we could make the decision, someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children, trapping them in a cross fire. 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. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal. We radioed the swift boat and moved quickly but carefully toward the canal. The possibility of being pursued or of being caught in an ambush ourselves seemed very real to me.


"We came to the canal and hid in the buffalo grass in a semicircle facing outward for security. We heard the deepthroated boat engines approach and signaled our location with a small, red, handheld light. When the bow of the boat touched shore, we pulled ourselves on board. I could feel the screws turning in reverse and the boat swing out and away from land. In less than an hour, we were back at our base in Cat Lo....


"The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognize. I had been in Vietnam for five weeks and this was my first live firefight. It had not ended in the heroic way I had expected."


Different readers will, of course, come away from that passage with different thoughts but surely none of us who have not been through a nighttime firefight can place ourselves in the roles of Kerry and his squad. None of us can fully appreciate the decisions made by each individual during the split-second timing of that episode. What would I have done is not a reasonable question for those of us who were not there.


This is not a religious book. In fact, Kerrey is left with doubts about his traditional faith. But there is yet a strain of religious determinism that runs through it. The passage that best exemplifies this is: "The writer and scientist Loren Eiseley's story about a catfish is a perfect metaphor for how my choice now appears to me. Eiseley liked to explore the Platte River in all seasons, and one winter as he was walking along the banks between Lincoln and Omaha he came upon a smooth, clear piece of ice and was startled to see a live whiskered catfish staring back up at him. Apparently the fish remained in the shallows too long one night and the water changed form.


"Eiseley chopped an ice block around the fish, hauled it back to his car, and put it in a bucket he had in his trunk. He drove home and put the bucket in his basement planning to transfer the fish to a tank and keep him there until the spring thaw. Then Eiseley would return the catfish to the Platte. Days later he went downstairs and discovered the catfish dead on the concrete floor. When the ice thawed the catfish gambled that one good jump would take him from the prison of the bucket to the freedom of the river. He lost his bet."


I hope that this book reaches a wide audience. It reminds us of this country's suffering through the unwinnable Vietnam War and of our rotten treatment of our servicemen during that period. But it also tells us of a young life almost destroyed and a battle for recovery well fought.


And it's a good time of year to read about a patriot.-- Gerry Rising