Bravery of Youth, Wisdom of Age

Medal of Honor recipient Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University in New York.

In 1966, at the age of 22, I joined the Navy. I chose the Navy rather than wait for the Army to draft me because I had just finished reading “The Caine Mutiny.” I was drawn to the sea by the excitement of this well-told story.

I was young and I knew little about war or combat. But I knew about excitement. I volunteered for Underwater Demolition Team training and, at the completion of that training, I was selected to be a member of a SEAL team that had been created by President Kennedy. I understood this meant I would be sent to Vietnam.

I could never have predicted what I found.

Like our soldiers in Iraq today, I was called upon to conquer my fears, to charge into a place where death and injury were real possibilities. Less than 60 days after I arrived in Vietnam I was injured at Nha Trang Bay and lost a leg.


For those who haven’t marched into battle, it probably seems strange that young men willingly put themselves in such danger; in retrospect, I am just as amazed as anyone when I watch young men and women face the dangers of the violence of war. What makes them do it?

First and foremost, they must believe in the cause. They must trust they are being asked to risk their lives for something worthwhile.

There are other things that can help: They must believe their leaders will not betray them. Prayer and faith will help reduce the fear of dying. Training and technology can reduce the odds. Good luck helps. But none of it will matter if the belief in the cause disappears.

Once the battle has begun, it is true that often the larger geopolitical questions become less important than the cause of protecting the lives of those who have become your closest friends. Anyone who has been there will testify about how far we will go to save the life of a friend.

And it is also true that we fear the consequences of not following an order. Americans were horrified to learn of Iraqi soldiers being shot for resisting the almost certain death of facing American and British military superiority. We should be just as horrified to remember that executing those who refused an order was common practice for American and British soldiers in earlier wars.

When I came back from Vietnam, I wrote about my objections to the Selective Service System, arguing that the age of the draft should be increased from 18 to 30 because young men had too little political or social power for their objections to matter. But a friend of mine -- one of the finest soldiers I have ever known -- told me (correctly) that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Give me a group of men between the ages of 18 and 25 or 26,” he said, “and give me the power to control how much they can eat and sleep, and I can get them to do anything I want them to do. Once they get too old, they start asking questions. And once they start asking questions, they are no good anymore.” There is a lot of truth in this observation.

Young people volunteer because they are young. They may be drawn to the excitement of the cause. They may have learned the importance of service from their parents or others they admire. They may hope to acquire the admiration of peers. They may want to see the world, or it may be the least expensive way to earn a college degree. They may also be drawn by the story of a hero myth they have seen, read or heard.

Military service is a young person’s game. In the beginning they are young, naive and vulnerable to the losses that almost always accompany war: loss of innocence, life and health.

It is most important that we civilians understand this when we are debating whether to send young people to war or we are trying to understand what enables them to overcome their fears. Few if any of our youths volunteer because they love the idea of violently killing or being killed. They learn early that the body’s remarkable mechanisms for reducing the sensation of pain after a traumatic injury does not stop the anticipation of that possibility -- even the bravest person can lose control and become terrified.

When this war is over, we will celebrate the stories of many we consider brave. We will award them medals and applaud their physical courage. I promise you that most of these heroes will wonder as much as we do about how they did it and how they managed to survive. And somewhere in the audience will be a young boy who declares that someday he will do the same thing.

For those of us whose age makes us unsuitable or whose preference keeps us out of harm’s way, we are obliged to shoulder our obligation to choose or not choose war as if that young boy were our own.