Bob Kerrey's American Tragedy

War hero or criminal? His new book provides no easy answers, but it does offer a candid look at a complicated, often pain-filled life

By Thane Peterson

Lots of things are missing from When I Was a Young Man, the new memoir by former Nebraska Democratic Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey, who's now 58. Nothing about his ex-wives, his current wife, his three children, his relationship with movie actress Debra Winger, his successful career as an entrepreneur, his years in government, or the fact that he's now president of the New School University in New York City. This is the story of Kerrey's youth, his family history, his war wounds, and the beginnings of his recovery.

In many ways, it's an extraordinary book. It has no ghostwriter, and there's little indication that anyone but Kerrey decided what would go into it. That leads to some problems. The story is full of loose ends that a professional writer would have tied down: friends and relatives -- some of them unnamed -- pop up and disappear after quick cameos.

Still, the book has undeniable power. Written in short, bluff sentences like the swipes of a scythe through a Nebraska wheat field, it's utterly without posturing, pretense, or braggadocio. You may not like Kerrey after reading this "ineffably sad, tormented, and wonderful book," as John Gregory Dunne described it in The New York Review of Books, but it's hard not to sympathize with him.


  Ostensibly, the book is Kerrey's attempt to honor a pledge he made at his father's deathbed. Jim Kerrey's last wish was for his son to find out what had happened to his Uncle John, the father's beloved older brother, who died under mysterious circumstances in the Philippines during World War II. But it proved impossible to uncover much definitive about Uncle John's fate. A hero who probably survived the Bataan Death March, escaped from a Japanese prison camp, and became a guerrilla jungle fighter, he apparently drowned on his way to the submarine that finally would have rescued him.

Notwithstanding his promise to his father, in the end the book is mainly Bob Kerrey's story, and it's one Americans should be thinking about as the nation sends young troops abroad in the war on terrorism.

It hinges on two terrible events during the 50 days Kerrey spent fighting in the Vietnam War. The first is a night in early 1969, when Kerrey led a team of Navy commandos on an aborted raid that left an unknown number of unarmed Vietnamese women and children dead. The second is a firefight a few weeks later in which Kerrey was badly wounded and lost the lower part of his right leg. For his courage during this second incident, Kerrey won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.


  The litany of misfortune that generations of Kerreys have endured is astonishing. The calamities are too numerous to list, but here are a few of them: Kerrey's hard-of-hearing maternal grandfather was crushed by a train when Kerrey's mother, Elinor, was just 12. Both his paternal grandparents also died prematurely, the grandmother after giving birth to Kerrey's father and the grandfather (the family believed) of a broken heart.

Kerrey's father and Uncle John were raised by an elderly aunt. Kerrey's brother Jim Jr., the oldest of seven children, was left mildly retarded after an inept doctor crushed his skull with forceps during childbirth. As a teenager, Kerrey assaulted a classmate he feared was molesting Jim Jr. The other boy stabbed Kerrey with pruning shears, nearly piercing his heart. Even Rusty, the family cocker spaniel, was accidentally crushed under the garage door.

The Kerrey men also have a long history of volunteering to fight -- and suffer -- in wars. It started with Thomas Kerrey, who twice served under General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. Thomas Kerrey survived (only to be crippled in a sawmill accident), and Kerreys served in every major U.S. war thereafter.


  Here's how a relative describes the sad fate of one Kerrey who fought in World War I: "He was [never] the same. He would not sleep in the house. My mom made a bed of straw for him in the barn. He wouldn't remove his leggings or help with the farm. In the fall he moved to Ann Arbor [Mi.], where he worked for a casket maker and lived alone the rest of his life."

Given his clan's penchant for tragedy, few would have blamed Kerrey if he had used chronic asthma as an excuse to avoid service in Vietnam. On the surface, he enjoyed the blandest of childhoods in post-war Lincoln, Neb., sounding almost Forest Gump-like as he sleepwalks through his youth, ever unquestioning and eager to please.

He was a boy scout, a high school football player despite his asthma, and president of his fraternity in college. He studied to become, of all things, a pharmacist. A maverick Democrat throughout his political career, he started out as a conservative Republican who unthinkingly adopted the views of his elders and cast his first Presidential vote for Barry Goldwater.


  Ultimately, how you feel about Bob Kerrey will probably depend on your view of the events of February 25, 1969. The night raid Kerrey led was supposed to rout Viet Cong irregulars in the village of Thanh Phong. But when Kerrey and his commandos arrived, they found only women and children, which meant the mission had been compromised, and they were in grave danger of being counterattacked. Kerrey says someone fired on the commandos, and the women and children were mowed down in the crossfire when the Americans fired back.

Gerhard Klann, a member of the commando team, remembers it differently. In a New York Times Magazine article and Sixty Minutes II broadcast last year, he was quoted as contending that Kerrey held down an old man (believed to have been a sentry) while Klann slit his throat. Then, he says, Kerrey ordered the commandos to kill the women and children.

Kerrey admits that his memories of the raid are vague, but after meeting with Klann and the other surviving commandos, he now acknowledges considerable responsibility for the deaths. "I did not have to give an order to begin the killing, but I could have stopped it and I didn't," he writes. Based on the events of that night, the government of Vietnam recently accused him of war crimes.

Gregory Vistica, the reporter who wrote The New York Times article, is writing a book that could shed more light on the incident, but exactly what happened will probably remain uncertain. In the meantime, readers can learn much from Kerrey's memoir. The U.S. abused his immature patriotism -- and the patriotism of thousands of others -- when they were sent to fight an ill-advised war. Now, the country is sending young soldiers overseas again. Are we asking them potentially to make the same mistakes?

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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