WASHINGTON -- Someone asked an editor of the Washington Post the other night how long he thought the Bob Kerrey story would run. He answered: "As long as we're alive."
By "we" he meant our generation, actually more than a single generation, who experienced the war in Vietnam -- or experienced "the '60s."
Then a couple of nights later, in a different setting, David Laventhol, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, asked a couple of people why so many people considered Mr. Kerrey a hero but thought William Calley was a criminal. Someone said: "Class."
In other words, Lt. Kerrey, whose war record is being examined now, is a man admired -- "laughing, literate Bob Kerrey," he was called by columnist Mary McGrory -- a college president now, a senator, a governor, winner of the Medal of Honor, our highest award for bravery. Lt. Calley, leader of a platoon that murdered at least 109 South Vietnamese citizens in a place called My Lai, came across as trailer trash to editors of the Post and the Times.
I am sure that what I just wrote has very little meaning to the many who are not "we." We have a generational shorthand. All generations do. We know the lyrics of songs unknown to our children, as they were mysteries to our parents. We know the stories of crooks and athletes they cannot place -- Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
One of the interesting things about the ongoing Vietnam debate is that younger people, at least the ones I have talked with, seem to have a much harsher view of Mr. Kerrey than "we" do. Our children are shocked at the image of an American mowing down women and children. Columbine, they get, but not Vietnam.
They, our kids, seem to see Vietnam about the way I saw the Mexican War, which I have learned (by reading, and I don't mean in school) was a dirty piece of business, too. They think the '60s was about music and perk up when I say I was at Woodstock.
The generational nature of America can be seen as ignorance, a subliterate triumph of personal experience over history. Or it can be celebrated, usually at the end of a generation's cycle. That is happening now with the national admiration of "the Greatest Generation," the Americans who persevered through the Great Depression and World War II.
But, cry or celebrate, Americans cannot escape the tyranny of generation. One hundred million or so of us, perhaps more, are condemned to relive the '60s until we are gone.
It was a decade that ended badly. Civil rights activism shattered into integration and black separatism. Drugs that once seemed liberating to many enslaved or destroyed many. At Kent State University in 1970, American young people wearing uniforms shot down other young people basically because their clothes were different. Young men like Mr. Kerrey and Lt. Calley who left home as liberators were welcomed back as killers, a reception still bitter because those who did not go were quick and eager and stupid to judge.
Mr. Kerrey and hundreds of thousands of other veterans were pushed unceremoniously into trying to figure it all out for themselves. His attitudes may be in turmoil now, or probably they have been for 30 years, but this is how he saw things more than a year ago, in April 2000. Mentioning the millions who tried to escape communist rule in united Vietnam, he wrote:
"Was the war worth the effort and sacrifice, or was it a mistake? Everyone touched by it must answer that question for himself. When I came home in 1969 and for many years afterward, I didn't believe it was worth it. Today, with the passing of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain."
One day, when he and "we" are gone, Americans will forget. And that forgetting with the passing of time is probably for the best. The alternative, people who never forget, can be seen everywhere in the old world, from Jerusalem to Pristina to Kisangani.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.