Web Exclusive – March 29, 2011
Behind the Book: In telling the story of an American hero, finding his own
It took me some 50 years to appreciate Veterans Day, and that appreciation came when I began writing military biographies.
I grew up the firstborn son of a man who spent 33 years in the Army. After he retired, he was known in my hometown as “the Sarge,” and that was the way he wanted it. I missed childhood; instead I had a rather extended boot camp and I rebelled against everything the Sarge tried to teach me about the military.
The Sarge died when I was 16 and I did not mourn his passing. I flunked out of college and, for reasons I never understood, joined the Air Force. After facing three courts martial, I was kicked out of the Air Force and for the next 50 years I stayed as far as possible from everything to do with the military.
As a newspaper reporter I received two Pulitzer nominations. As a freelancer I wrote for most national magazines, including the New Yorker. I taught writing for 12 years at Emory. I wrote seven novels and three nonfiction books.
But my spirit was restless and my soul was unfulfilled.
Through a strange series of events I came to write Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. There was nothing in my professional background to indicate that I could write the sort of book that Boyd became. During the research about the life of this extraordinary man, I had intimations of what the Sarge had tried to teach me. But I pushed those feelings aside.
Success of the Boyd book was such that my publisher, Little, Brown and Company, gave me a two-book contract and stipulated that each book be a military biography. During the writing of the first book in the new contract, American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day, I finally understood; I got it, I knew with blinding clarity what it was the Sarge had tried to teach me so long ago. And I wept with the knowledge that I had rejected perhaps the most priceless gift a father can give to his son.
The understanding came when I was writing a scene involving a prolonged and particularly brutal torture session suffered by Colonel Day when he was a POW during the Vietnam War. He would have died—and almost did—before he violated the Code of Conduct that governed the behavior of POWs. He would return home with honor, or he would not return at all. Bud Day showed me, by his example, there are things worth dying for. Through him I understood commitment to duty, and honor, and what it means to be a man of character. Through him I understood the love of country that is part of the DNA of military people but simply beyond the understanding of most civilians. Colonel Day became in my mind the exemplar for everything that is good and noble about the military, everything the Sarge had tried to teach me.
Even today, I grow teary when I re-read the torture scenes in Colonel Day’s biography.
My next biography, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine, I wrote free of the shackles of the past and in full recognition that I am a troubadour for America’s greatest heroes, the men and women who wear the uniform of this country.
While I admire and respect these men and women, I do my job. I do not write hagiographies. To do so would be an abrogation of the sense of duty I feel about my work; the understanding of which I learned from Colonel Day.
I fly the American flag at my home in Atlanta and at my studio on the Georgia coast. To me, Veterans Day is one of the very special holidays we celebrate. Writing military biographies not only turned my career around, it brought rest to my spirit and fulfillment to my soul.
Today, when I visit my 92-year-old mother in deep southwest Georgia, I always take time to travel up to the little country cemetery where the Sarge is buried. I sit on the side of his grave and I tell him of my work. And I believe, that after all these years, he is now proud of me.
Author photo by Billy Howard.