Warriors' Honor and the Ordeal of Survival
Published July/August 2002 by PeaceWork
Bob Kerrey, When I Was A Young Man: A Memoir. Harcourt Brace, June 2002
"...sent me / off to a foreign land / to go and / kill the yellow man / Born in the USA
The publication of a Vietnam memoir, like Bob Kerrey’s When I Was A Young Man, is an occasion for review on several levels: an addition to the literature of war, an American social history in its time and place, and, with this particular exemplar, the painful saga of an individual veteran whose name until a year ago was synonymous with integrity, heroism, and virtual fulfillment of the American Dream. Emblematic of Kerrey’s fall from grace was the question the former Nebraska Senator felt compelled to ask a West Point expert on the Laws of War—“Am I a war criminal?”—just days before The New York Times Magazine ran an article, “On Awful Night in Thanh Phong” (April 29, 2001), exposing a dark secret from Kerrey's Vietnam war record.
At the core of Kerrey's self-indictment was a botched covert operation that—he now says—has haunted his conscience and dreams since that night on February 25, 1969, when a team of Navy SEALs under his command entered Thanh Phong, a peasant hamlet on the southern coast of Vietnam, to kill or capture a Viet Cong official. The mission ended in disaster, and by the time the seven commandos—dubbed Kerrey's Raiders—withdrew, they had killed as many as twenty non-combatants, mostly women and children.
Kerry has accepted full responsibility for the deaths of those unarmed Vietnamese villagers, while maintaining steadily that they resulted from a tragic accident, though he acknowledges his memory of the details is fogged by time and trauma. For another member of Kerrey's team, Gerhard Klann, the mental picture of what took place that night is snap-shot clear. According to the Times story, what Klann remembers is that when the Raiders failed to find their intended quarry, and to ensure the security of their own withdrawal, the women and children were rounded up at Kerrey's command and executed point blank.
This public revelation of what would certainly be a ‘war crime’ if it were true, provoked a wide band of commentators throughout the media to intensely revisit the history and nature of US involvement in the Vietnam War, as Kerry's alleged role in the Thanh Phong atrocities occupied the headlines of print, electronic, and dot.com news outlets for a full two weeks thereafter. While calls for further inquiries and investigations ebbed and flowed in the tide of punditry, few have answered Kerrey's anguished question of criminal culpability in the affirmative.
For one reason, Kerrey's “accident” scenario, though rife with inconsistencies, and widely reported across the political spectrum to lack credibility, was nonetheless endorsed by the other five members of his unit—despite the fact that one of them, Mike Ambrose, modified the recollections he originally provided to the Times. To construct this unified consensus, Kerrey, now president of the New School University in New York, gathered his former combat mates, less Gerhard Klann, at his home on April 28, 2001, where, according to news accounts, the vets discussed Thanh Phong until 2 a.m. Afterwards all but the seventh SEAL were now agreed that the shooting began some distance from the victims, as far as one hundred yards, and only after the commandos were fired upon by an unseen adversary, with the civilians tragically caught in the return fire.
It was this message that Kerrey had already begun to voice publicly a week before the Times disclosure in an apparent effort to head off even discredit, the contradictory memories of Gerhard Klann. And it is this version of Thanh Phong, subject to one or two minor refinements, which Kerrey sticks to in his memoir, while continuing to hedge that “even today I wouldn't swear my memory is 100%.” In one typical spin on an earlier reported detail, where Gregory Vistika, author of the Times article, had designated Gerhard Klann as the “most experienced member of Kerrey's team,” Kerrey pointedly anoints Mike Ambrose in the memoir—without reference to Klann—as “my most trusted enlisted man.” Both Klann and Ambrose had served prior tours in Vietnam.
As memoir of a life in its historical moment, When I Was A Young Man is, at best, a mixed accomplishment. Kerrey's sketch on growing up in the post-WWII heartland lacks nuance, and might apply generically to practically any white middle class American boy born at the dawn of the Cold War. Kerrey had to be one of the best trained junior officers of his generation, getting all the merit badges from Frogman to SEAL schools in the Navy, with cross-training in the Army as an Airborne Ranger. Yet his narrative on these experiences offers the dry read of a field manual. The chapters on Vietnam, adding up to Kerrey's fifty days of in-country service and a Congressional Medal of Honor, which he himself admits is probably undeserved, are essentially a brief in support of his account of Thanh Phong. As for Kerrey's opinions on the Vietnam War, he proves time and again the disclaimer from his Preface, “I am not a historian,” with unexamined endorsements of official US government interpretations of the war 5 most controversial events: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Tet offensive of 1968, and the status of South Vietnam as an independent state—all of which remain mired in unresolved historical controversy. That many of the hawkish commentators on the Thanh Phong tragedy, who continue to promote Vietnam as a noble cause, characterize Kerrey’s views on the war as dovish, even antiwar, is truly astonishing. Like most American politicians, Kerrey comes in one flavor: red, white, and blue.
There are several chapters in When I Was A Young Man, that almost redeem the book, and give evidence of a more solid character behind Kerrey’s somewhat facile public persona. In response to his dad’s dying wish, Kerrey has done some homework on his family’s history, especially in tracing the fate of his uncle John, the senior Kerrey’s older brother who survived the Bataan death march in the Philippines in 1942, but disappeared with no trace toward the end of that war. John, who sometimes visits Kerrey dreams, appears in cameo throughout the memoir as an oddly comforting link to the ageless chain of human warfare, and as emissary of the fallen to those who make it home only to face with paradoxical ambivalence the mysteries of their own survival. Kerrey survived, but lost the lower part of a leg in a fire fight, and the scenes of his recovery in hospital, and his gradual resumption of civilian and family life are original and extremely affecting.
Since memoir is about—actually means—memory, it is not so strange that Kerrey throughout the text expresses his reliance on the powers of memory to compose his work. He describes the football field of his high school playing days as “a place where a man can recall an afternoon or evening of his youth with absolute clarity. Thirty, forty, fifty years later, the memory will still be fresh.” Not so the field of combat where, Kerrey cautions, “memory is always a liar.” Less absolute on this theme, yet generally supportive, is the observation of a fellow Vietnam veteran, the writer Tobias Wolfe for whom memory, if not always false, “is a storyteller” inclined at least toward mixing truth with omission, even fiction. It would seem therefore that we can not look to memory to help us judge which of the vastly divergent accounts of Thanh Phong is truthful and which is not. For that task perhaps motivation is a surer guide. Between the high profile public figure Bob Kerrey and the obscure steel worker Gerhard Klann, reported to have a drinking problem, but who nonetheless came forward with great reluctance, which of the two men has the most to lose by the worst version of the truth?
Should it eventually come out that Kerrey’s, not Klann’s, memory is the liar, what measure of individual responsibility would Kerrey bear for the atrocities at Thanh Phong? Much less, I think, than those who would shift accountability for such horrors, hardly as exceptional as official memory would like us to believe, onto the low ranking individuals who did the fighting over those who led and planned the war. Thanli Phong is repugnant to decent American opinion. Yet, until we can fully face the scope of unwarranted havoc our nation once wrecked upon Indochina and its peoples, one senses we will be doomed to relive this national nightmare, episode by episode, until the last Vietnam veteran goes unquietly to his grave. Isn't the real lesson of Bob Kerrey's personal ordeal that one day all of us will have to face this truth?