Now that the new Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is running on PBS, that most difficult time in American history is once again before us. However, when I saw us so easily fall into fighting in Iraq, I couldn’t help but wonder had our politicians forgotten about our quagmire in Southeast Asia?
I’d been in high school in Minnesota as the war still raged on. When I turned eighteen, I had to register for the draft, and my stepfather let me know that if I were called to serve, I’d better do so. My mother, more quietly, suggested that if I received the notice and I slipped a few hundred miles north into Canada, she wouldn’t talk me out of it. That would have been a difficult decision to make for an eighteen-year-old. Luckily, I received a high number in the lottery.
A little more than two decades later, I read Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. A fellow Minnesotan older than me, O’Brien had received a draft notice, and even though he’d been a Vietnam War protester, he allowed himself to be drafted. He served in the war, and later wrote his first book, a memoir about the experience, If I Die in the Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Later, his third book, The Things They Carried, a collection of short fiction, became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. When I read it, it spoke to me. In one of his stories, his protagonist drives to a lake bordering Canada and considers rowing across. He doesn’t. O’Brien later writes that he was too afraid of his family and town’s opinions if he did not serve in the Army. He joined. He served, he said, because he was a coward.
That book became a touchstone for me as a writer. I even used it in a course I created at CalArts called “Vietnam Through Literature.” As O’Brien writes in a story, fiction lets him speak the truth more deeply than nonfiction. Fiction doesn’t waste time but gets to the heart of things.
As the withdrawal from Vietnam approached twenty years, the New York Times paid O’Brien to travel to Vietnam again and write about the changes. The Times published “The Vietnam in Me” in 1994, and in it, O’Brien writes that after he finished the piece—revisiting had been so wrenching—that he was going to kill himself. He didn’t, but if he could write so honestly and let it be published, who was I to be worried if a friend might not agree with something I wrote? Writing honestly takes guts.
I admired O’Brien, and I wanted to write as truthfully. I never expected to write a war book, however. Three years ago, when my former student, Sam Gonzalez, from the Art Center College of Design, met me for lunch one day to tell me about his life as a film director after graduating, he told me how the MGM film studio had recently canceled a feature film he was set to direct.
Improvisationally, Sam pitched them a story based on his experiences fighting on the front lines of Iraq during the surge. He had been kicked out of his punk rock band in Florida, joined the Army to get discipline, and found himself in surreal situations. I was gripped by his tale. He said his producer had optioned his life story, but the producer did not have the novel rights. “Would you like to write my story as a novel?” Sam innocently asked.
I’d just finished my last book, the crime novel, A Death in Vegas, and I was looking for another story. This one seemed interesting. I wondered why the producer didn’t get all rights including novel rights? I had my lawyer look into it, and, sure enough, Sam still retained the novel rights. This was my chance to explore perhaps the worst thing a human being could get caught up in: war.
Sam and I talked. I made it clear I would be writing a novel. I would be making things up, but I wanted to base it loosely on his experience. I wanted to get to the deeper truths and be as open and vulnerable as O’Brien had. I planned to ask him many questions during the process of writing. My main character, Max Rivera, would be much like him. I hoped Sam would see I was diving for the truth of his experience.
Sam not only got it but soon suggested scenes that would fit, often after a question triggered something. Soon we had a method: My questions and his suggestions would lead to my writing a chapter. Sam would read it, point out what worked well, maybe suggest other details that were missing, and offer thoughts for something down the line.
My first chapters were all in the third person, “He.” He, Max, did one thing or another. While the details of each scene were right, neither of us felt the voice hit the reader just right. I switched to the first person, “I.” We both liked it. I kept the prologue in the third person, as that felt right.
One thing I gave up going into the first person voice was the ability to have subplots. I hit on the idea of having two plot lines, switching back and forth: Max’s life before the Army, and his life after.
I’m a strong researcher, so I’d find background information, including photos and videos, on certain battles, specific bases, and the culture in Iraq. Many who joined as privates knew nothing about the Middle East beyond the terrorists that brought down the Twin Towers. In fact, that event brought many recruits. What was it like knowing nothing about the country you went to? Our goal was to show what it was like for a private—what it was like for Sam.
Sam, as a film director, deeply understood drama and the need to get to what he had felt. Dramatizing what had been real events brought emotions—sometimes strong ones for him because he had to relive things. He forced himself to do so, even if at times he broke down.
Sam had joined the military police, hoping he’d miss the worst of the action. Women, after all, could be in the military police. In Iraq, when there were not enough Marines, the military police were often used on the front lines to cordon off an area or to create and maintain checkpoints. Sometimes they even had to go house-to-house or fight from rooftops. Women were there with him, fighting on the front lines, even as gunners on Humvees. That fact became one of my early interests. Here were young men and women with raging hormones in harm’s way. Did that lead to relationships? Hell yes, even if technically they were forbidden.
There are tough scenes in the novel, one based on Sam’s best friend dying in a burning Humvee. I aimed, like O’Brien, at times to also find the beauty outside the horror. There’s also humor. O’Brien isn’t known for humor. I’ve always believed humor lets the reader get a break and process what went on before.
As we wrote, I kept asking myself, “What’s this all mean?” It wasn’t Vietnam. Thankfully, I didn’t end up in Vietnam, but teaching literature from and about that war taught me a lot. Iraq and Vietnam were different. For our book, Sam and I tried various titles, but The Chords of War felt right. It combined the human ties we have for war as well as a more positive element, music.
In the end, the story came to mean a lot to both Sam and me. You’ll have to read it to decide for yourself what it is, but I see the book on a few levels. It shows a real war with physical and emotional challenges, more than what young people should go through; it’s also a metaphor for us all as we maneuver through this crazy, sometimes fantastic life and one that’s sometimes randomly and monstrously difficult. No one truly has a Facebook life.
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