When I Was a Young Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Bob Kerrey, who won fame first as Governor of Nebraska, then as a United States Senator and presidential aspirant, has written an elegiac and ultimately tragic memoir. When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir is a book about loss and disillusion. As such it is not what one might at first expect from the pen of a politician. Perhaps significantly, Kerrey has left politics to become president of New School University. He has also been scarred by a media furor about his service in Vietnam. Thus instead of an exercise in patriotic self-congratulation, Kerrey’s book is a probing exploration of the qualities in his environment and character that led him to Vietnam. In this respect, Kerrey’s book is very similar in theme and structure to some of the classic American memoirs of the Vietnam War. Despite winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, Kerrey did not have a good war. It has taken him many years to reach a point where he could come to grips with his memories in print.

Kerrey begins and ends his book reflecting on the experience of an uncle whom he never knew, lost in the Philippines during World War II. The sad fate of his uncle becomes a metaphor for Kerrey as he recounts his own path to a war in Asia. Kerrey describes in detail his very ordinary upbringing in Nebraska. Following his graduation from college, he joined the Navy to avoid the draft. A sense of adventure led him into the Navy Seals. In the first firefight of his brief service in Vietnam, Kerrey’s squad killed women and children caught in the crossfire. In his second, he was badly wounded. Only slowly did Kerrey heal, both physically and spiritually. But in the end, Kerrey survived and returned home. This is the simple moral of Kerrey’s haunting memoir.