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When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by Bob Kerrey Hardcover – June 6, 2002

3.3 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"This is not the story I intended to tell." So writes Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, whose youthful innocence died in the Mekong Delta one midnight in 1969.

Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, touched off controversy when, in 2001, he admitted to having taken part in a Vietnam War incident in which women and children had been killed. That terrible event stands at the center of this book, which, among other things, offers a sharp critique of the conduct of the war; Kerrey writes that it "could not be won because we focused too much on stopping communism and too little on building a free and independent nation." But Kerrey's absorbing memoir, written at a distance of four decades, touches on much more: the lost virtues of 1950s America, small-town life in the heartland, the nature of heroism and patriotism, the camaraderie and sorrow born of combat, and the need to remember the past.

Joining the work of Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, and other eyewitnesses, Kerrey's account presents grim proof that war is "not what our slogans, propaganda, and childhood fantasies have taught us to believe." --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and senator, is currently president of the New School University. He opens this moving autobiography by recalling his idyllic Nebraska childhood. At 10, he discovered that his father had a brother who'd disappeared during WWII. Years later, Kerrey promised his father he would uncover the truth about his uncle's death. "As I searched, I discovered many things I should have known before and many I wish I had known." He traces the family's history and details his own postwar childhood of church sermons, nights alone in his tree house, movies, music, paper routes, baseball and bicycling. As a University of Nebraska graduate pharmacist, he was employed at Iowa pharmacies. In 1967, at Officer Candidates School, he made the "difficult decision" to become a frogman; while training at Coronado Bay in California, "I thought the navy had sent me to paradise." At age 25, Kerrey arrived in Vietnam. Only weeks later, he was seriously wounded, losing part of a leg, and he spent a year recovering at Philadelphia's naval hospital. Kerrey explores his doubts about accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor "I knew that many men got nothing for bravery far greater than mine" and concludes with the results of his investigation into the mystery of his uncle's disappearance. Kerrey's deceptively simple writing style has great strength, and he presents his personal memories against the larger backdrop of antiwar protesters and other events of the period. Although the Vietnam missions fill only 30 pages, an army of readers will embrace this inspiring story, and many will eagerly await future chronicles of Kerrey's later life. B&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1st edition (June 6, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151004749
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151004744
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,755,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
My primary reaction to this book was that it was exceptionally honest and that the missing details that seem to bother so many folks is a part of the reality of having served in combat. I noticed many similarities to my own life and how I have had to deal with what happened through that "Nam" experience. I have written about some aspects of my own experience and I find that the author deals with every one of those issues. The ambivalence of receiving medals for one's performance in combat is a very complex situation. This isn't a question of humility but rather one of truth. What did I do when I encountered such an unatural ordeal such as combat. The author refers to Camus' novel "The Fall". How true it is as young man trying to determine who you are and how you got there especially in light of this combat experience. Much has been written by better writers about their experiences but I think this author raises more issues honestly than has been written. The pull between the pride of having served and put your life on the line in a thankless situation and the overall shame of having to actually do some of the things that you were called on to do is frightening and unexplicable. The fact that that is an underlying theme throughout the book tells me this author is not hiding anything. The reality of war for young idealistic men can be fatal in more ways than one. The survivors know this to be true. I do not know if Bob Kerrey will write again about this experience, but my hunch is that he will and ought to even if it does not get published. Many of us cannot escape that part of our lives no matter how many years have passed. The author seems to have done extremely well on the surface but down deep he is like many of our generation deeply troubled by his experience.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
It is almost heartbreaking the way people on both the left and the right have torn apart this book in customer reviews. Although I think it merits probably 4 1/2 stars, I think Bob Kerrey has told an excellent story. Furthermore, he is honest, forthright, and writes in a readable workmanlike prose style. As one of the other favorable reviewers mentioned, Kerrey cannot win. But, as far as I can tell, isn't this the way we've always treated Vietnam veterans? From the "fever swamps" on the far left, we have outrageous charges of war crimes. If some of these folks had their way, all Vietnam veterans would be put to trial. The circumstances for Kerrey were so murky, frightening, and potentially deadly in his first fire-fight, that the outcome is not altogether surprising. On the right-wing, we have the criticisms about his current opposition to the war, even though he was a willing conscript in the late 1960s. As far as I can tell, if you do not believe in the politics of the right-wing these days, even if you are patriotic, love your country, and would fight to the death for it, your are labeled, more or less, a traitor. The middle ground, where good, centrist men and women are most likely to fall, is a vast swath of America, to which this book undoubtable appeals. I just wish more of them would write customer reviews. I graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1995, and am proud to be a fellow alumni with Mr. Kerrey.
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By A Customer on June 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Another reviewer writes that Sen. Kerrey is quite vague about the events of February 1969 in which Vietnamese civilians are alleged to have been killed execution-style. Even more suprisingly, Kerrey does not really say what he did to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. After reading his book, I have no idea what he did to win his nation's greatest honor. Modesty is admirable, but it can be carried too far.
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Format: Hardcover
So what can one glean from this autobiography? At the very least, one can learn about a young man growing up in midwest America, studying to be pharmacist, becoming a SEAL and then a veteran of Vietnam who triumphed against adversity. The author is amazingly modest about the history of America from WWII up to the 80's. From a distance, the picture of the front cover looks quite like Elvis in disguise and back cover bears the photo of Tom Brokaw. Check out the book from local library and take a closer look at the cue.
In today's warping wind of political correctness, Bob Kerrey just can't win. Because "When I Was a Young Man", Bob Kerrey's autobiography, was so plain, so unpolished, and so unapologetic. In brief, it is a story of an ordinary American, who lives an extraordinary life in its own right. The undaunting title is penned by a living character, a patriot who serves his beloved country. And yet such a heroic character does not hesitate to be an outspoken conscience and sounding board on difficult issues. On one hand, the author's attitude toward Vietnam War was obviously pronounced, knowing only too well that "moral failure is a taboo" for the establishment. On the other hand, author has shown great pride in the military history, training and service---just count the number of pages devoted to the military matter.
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Format: Hardcover
This is the story of Bob Kerrey coming of age.

We get a portrait of what sounds like a pretty typical 1940's and 50's upbringing of a Midwestern boy in a large middle class family. That boy goes off to Vietnam as a Navy Seal and loses part of his leg -- as well as his innocence.

Bob Kerrey's book is about the best I've seen of those biographies done by presidential wannabe's (he arguably was still in play when this was written). By that I mean it is less self serving and more honest (mistakes made, mindsets typical of his time and place held, no claims to have embraced our current societal mores before his time, etc.). Kerrey talks of his mistakes, fears and misdeeds as well as his hopes and dreams. Nothing rocked his world and he was on track to be a faceless part of our country's backbone (town pharmacist in the middle of Nebraska) who you'd never heard of until Vietnam changed him.

His experiences left him critical of his country's leadership and wary of war after he witnessed combat first hand and suffered a debilitating wound during his service in the Mekong River Delta. He came back to the war a better informed citizen (in his portrayal) who had real personal objections to continued involvement in Vietnam (and to his credit didn't lead any wholesale condemnation of his soldier peers like the other Senator named Kerry (no relation and no "e").

The book ends with his discharge from the naval hospital in Philadelphia and also with a postscript on a minor thread of the story. His father had a brother lost in the Philippines during WWII who Kerrey never even knew existed until he accidentally came across a picture of the man.
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